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AICN BOOKS! Frank Reviews Mark Haddon's A SPOT OF BOTHER and Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

Frank doesn’t get enough credit for his continuous great work on the AICN BOOKS column, and once again, he contributes a really solid look at two new books hitting shelves, both by pretty great authors who will have a lot of attention focused on these new books. I loved Mark Haddon’s CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, and I’m intensely curious to see what he’s up to this time. Check this out:

Fall books arrive daily. I’m trying to stay out in front of the plethora of titles that positively need to be reviewed in this column. I’ve gotten the Franzen and the Boyd, and I should be able to get to the Ford but I won’t review the Pessl, a book that needs no help. I can’t go another step forward until I tell you about this month’s offering. Without a doubt, these two books will be critical reading if you love fiction. Even if you don’t, I suggest you read both of them, pre-order them, whatever, just make sure you read these two books - even if you read nothing else except the funny papers this fall.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy


I was unsure about this book the moment I heard the rumor last winter: “McCarthy has a new book…it’s a post-apocalyptic story about a father and son on the road…” So went the pitch as it was whispered to me. “No Country for Old Men’, was praised almost unanimously, I was in shock to hear he’d written something so quickly (clearly he hadn’t, this isn’t something that’s fobbed off like a bit of commercial tripe; he had this laying around... wonder what else is in his desk drawer?), and the reps who were telling me about it gave me the impression that the title was all they were allowed to reveal. Manuscript pages were not available, and then when the galley arrived in “someone else’s mailbox”, I had to beg the kind people at Knopf to send me one. I loved ‘No Country for Old Men’, (can’t wait for the Coen brothers’ adaptation) and with it I have finally cracked the trick to reading McCarthy. It’s better if you wait until you’re older/wiser (wiser I’m not), not essential, but it helps. I loathed the Border Trilogy when I tried it years ago, and these last two books, if I’d read them back then, like ten years ago, I’d probably have hated them too.

Thankfully this book delivers on the praise and accolades his previous novels have brought him. McCarthy draws from a very deep and morally bankrupt well for this story, a tale of a father and son roaming the United States post nuclear war. It’s not clear it’s a nuclear war, but when the father sees the series of flashes on the horizon and hears the series of sonic booms he immediately starts to fill the bathtub with water. His pregnant wife asks him why he’s taking a bath; he’s not. Later she has the child, it’s implied, but I can’t imagine it was an easy labor. The son is born into this hellish wasteland and never knows anything else. He’s watching his father carefully, and through his dad’s sharp wit and quick mind they’ve managed to stay alive even though the world around them is terrifyingly dead. The creative juices begin to flow right away in this story and you can almost see McCarthy weaving this tale in his head as he drags our heroes from one vacant town to the next, leaving them one step ahead of a pack of cannibals, or as the son refers to them, “the bad guys”. There is a skin-crawlingly eerie, “what’s behind the next corner” feel to this story that will keep you turning pages. What slows you down? The prose. Damn, this guy writes like a 500 mph hurricane, like rain falling up, and as my wife noted, sentences without verbs (generally speaking, yes, he uses verbs, occasionally). Page 108 - read that page, the second paragraph, which contains: “the nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of the morning had a terrible silence to it”. This chapter will level you, I promise. The devastation predicted by a nuclear war has nothing on this story. McCarthy will scare you, believe it. You’ll be up nights because of this book, not reading it, but worrying about what you’ve read: images of cities, the tall buildings wilting from the heat of the blast - not falling down, but tilting slightly, and the vacant commuter train with its empty seats and rifled luggage at the end of the line somewhere in the unnamed forest, outside the unnamed city, or town, or anywhere that is the locale these characters traipse through. You see the world through little boy’s eyes, and it’s an awful place. I almost didn’t finish this book because it scarred me for life when they found something unspeakable in the woods. Our heroes travel down the road to an unnamed seaside destination and pass rusted cars with melted tires and dried corpses residing inside. Eventually they spot a wisp of smoke in the woods. What they find there will make you close the book and find the happiest thing in your life and hold it tightly, for me it was my son and wife. Thankfully I finished this masterpiece (and it’s better than anything I’ve read in a long time), got to the end and saw two amazing set pieces that close out the story: a large boat and a small seaside town, both have now been tattooed in my imagination. The father knows he has nothing when he wanders through the woods looking for something to eat, the grass is dead, trees too, the sky is a dark grey, it’s snowing grey ash, and the only thing he finds are several rotten apples that he and his son consider a feast. It’s that bad. Really it is.

There’s barely a front, middle, and end to this story. It’s a lot of vignettes and grim realizations. Most of them will keep you up at night, which isn’t to say that this is a weak narrative; it’s just so brutally truthful. Imagine a world where everything is gone, nothing works, no electricity, no food, potable water is sketchy at best, and your chance of survival depends on how fast you can outrun someone who’s dead-set on eating you for dinner. That’s ‘The Road’. Oh and of course, what would this book be without a stunning book jacket by one Chip Kidd.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon


Here is another must read for this fall, a very important sophomore effort (I know he had a book of poetry, Vintage Books released it between this book and ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’) from an author who I blatantly ignored the first time around. Call me crazy, or to paraphrase Mr. Mamet, ‘when everyone bets one way, I go the other.’

‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’ is a smash, a home run, which would leave you believing that this book, a new novel from such a promising new voice in literature wouldn’t ever get off the ground (the cynic in me would say that). You know what they say… if it stays up for longer than four hours, call a doctor.

I was bowled over at the speed and efficiency in which Haddon delivers this multi-narrated family drama. Dare I say it’s almost ‘Corrections’-like in its scope? (I’ll bet you’re tired of me comparing everything to that book…right? Tough.) What’s even more amazing is how he keeps you interested in a typical British middle class existence without overwhelming you with the vernacular, which is interesting and impressive, to say the least.

Katie and her adulterous mother, Jean, sort of hate each other. Mom has been running a little bookstore while her retired husband George quietly goes crazy, insane, bark-bark mad. How do I know he’s gone off the reservation? He gets diagnosed with eczema, and promptly decides that it’s cancer, and performs his own left-handed surgery. Meanwhile, we’re also introduced to Haddon’s very special creation, George and Jean’s homosexual son, Jamie, who happens to sell real estate. All of these caricatures, stereotypically drawn on the surface, are propelled at a very high rate of speed towards Katie’s wedding. This is marriage number two, and to a man whom the family doesn’t approve. Ray, husband to be, seems like a brute, snapping breadboards in half when angry, and sending metal trash bins airborne, but he’s a great stepfather to Katie’s son Jacob, who is a kind of moral compass of obviousness. Whenever something in the book isn’t painful enough, Jacob spells it out as only kids can.

Jamie is a sort of closet homosexual; his family won’t admit it, and when they do, he in turn mistakenly un-invites his lover, Tony, to Katie’s wedding. Tony is a character that I’d love to see more of; he seemed truly dangerous. This sets Jamie off on a self-hating path of destruction, which can only be talked about once you’ve read it. George meanwhile discovers his wife’s infidelity and realizes he’s got very little to live for, while Katie bumbles about as a woman rough around all of her edges. Haddon starts the novel by saying what a pain in the ass she is, but then starts to show it, which is a double whammy.

It’s an exciting family drama; it’s not melodramatic or syrupy in any way. All of these characters tell their stories at once, one chapter after another, in a strange first person present tense, which many a “publishing professional” say is a no-no. Mark Haddon is going to surprise a lot of people this fall. While everyone is looking towards Marisha Pessl, Richard Ford, and Cormac McCarthy, this book will have the legs to go the distance. A superb choice, Mr. Thomas.

That’s all. Write me if you have something to say.

Thanks, Frank. Hope the family’s well.

"Moriarty" out.

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