Book Review: The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy

Literature

The Road Cover

The Road (2006), in many ways, bucks many expectations one might have about post-apocalyptic literature. I think that can be considered true of the rest of author Cormac McCarthy’s works. He is a writer who firmly grounds most of his works in genre fiction. Blood Meridian (1985) is a western novel. Child of God (1973) is a serial killer novel. Suttree (1979) is a southern gothic novel. But all of his works established in firm genre boundaries continue to explode notions readers may have of those genres. Blood Meridian is a western novel, but in many ways is the antithesis of the classic western as seen in novels like Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902). It is unrelentingly violent and barbaric, and there is no notion of a battle of good and evil.

The Road also explodes the notion of post-apocalyptic literature. Whereas novels such as The Stand (1978) by Stephen King and The Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham focus on what comes after the fall of society, and how one could possibly reconstitute a society, McCarthy’s work has no interest in that at all. At its core, The Road is simply about the relationships between fathers and sons, and the ways sons idolize their fathers into being heroes they may not be, and how those notions of heroism conflict with reality. In fact, this central theme doesn’t really need the post-apocalyptic genre for it to be a great novel, but the added sense of desolation, horror and the will to survive accelerate these notions and put them in stark contrast with the unrelenting darkness that the two main characters are surrounded by. It is without a doubt this element of the novel that I most enjoyed, and that I got the most emotional response to. I had a deep, human, guttural response to this work that I simply never had with Blood Meridian.

Cormac McCarthy

Author Cormac McCarthy’s novel explodes many of the notions readers may have about post-apocalyptic fiction.

As for the post-apocalyptic setting, McCarthy conjures up a world entirely his own. It is a world in which nothing grows because nothing can take root in the soil. It is a world in which what is left of humankind struggles to survive on what has been left behind. It is a world in which humankind has turned on itself, and use each other for food. It is unrelentingly dark and a world full of horror and despair. There are moments in the novel which are genuinely sickening and terrifying. The most memorable and shocking of moments for me had to be when the man and the boy come across a seemingly empty house. They find several mattresses and a pile of clothes within. Then they find a basement filled with a dozen starving naked men, women and children. And one man with a leg missing. As the owners of the house arrive, the readers cannot help but connect the dots. The basement is a pantry, and these people are the livestock on which the homeowners are living on. McCarthy never points this out deliberately. He leaves the image there to gather in the mind of the reader, and when the pieces finally click the horror is all the more terrifying.

The Road is without a doubt one of the most engrossing, absorbing, and emotional post-apocalyptic novels you’ll read. Whilst I hesitate to consider The Road as a literary classic like McCarthy’s own Blood Meridian, I will consent that an argument can be made. Ultimately, only time will tell whether The Road has the staying power that Blood Meridian does. It is very much a novel of the times. In a world in which 9/11 and the Paris Attacks can happen, it is very easy to slip into the worn and wearied shoes of the man and the boy and live in a state of constant fear. However, whilst the novel is depressing and bleak, these characters “carry the fire.” And whilst society probably won’t be able to reconstitute itself within the realms of the novel, it is some small comfort to know that human kindness and compassion can survive the most apocalyptic of environments.

9/10

What a Character! Blogathon: The Ballad of Dwight Frye

Film

Welcome to my third blogathon post in as many weeks! Today’s blogathon is the What a Character! Blogathon, hosted by the blogs Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. This blogathon focuses on actors who never really landed leading parts, but exhibited much versatility in their acting, and frequently were considered great character actors.

Dwight Frye

For me, no actor more strongly comes to mind than the brilliantly talented Dwight Frye, who was perhaps most famous for being a staple of the early Universal Horror films with roles in films such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The reason that he is often overlooked is that in all of these films he is often side-lined by the more sinister and gruesome titular villains. But that is no knock on Dwight Frye; in fact, it’s a testament to his acting ability, that he was able to remain so memorable and create such an in impression even 70 years later when sharing the screen with vampires, invisible men, and walking cadavers.

Dwight Frye was born in 1899 in Salina, Kansas, and subsequently moved to Denver, Colorado with his family. After dropping out of college, Frye quickly became enamoured with the stage. He soon caught the eye of New York producer Brock Pemberton, who cast him first in The Plot Thickens (1922). His acting received very favourable reviews, and with Pemberton Frye continued a very successful career on stage with critically acclaimed roles in comedic and musical productions such as 6 Characters in Search of an Author (1922), Rita Coventry (1923) and The Love Habit (1923).

Brock Pemberton, the theatrical producer who first took notice of Dwight Frye.

Brock Pemberton, the theatrical producer who first took notice of Dwight Frye.

Frye married Laurette Bullivant in August of 1928, opening a tearoom in New York for some extra income. Following the crash of 1929, they lost the tearoom and moved out to California, where Frye continued successfully on the stage.

After starring in a few mob / crime films for Warner Bros, Frye signed on to the role that would garner him international fame – that of the maddened Renfield in a new film version of Dracula, which was bringing over Edward van Sloan and Bela Lugosi in the title role from the celebrated stage version. During the production of the film, his wife gave birth to his son, Dwight David Frye. So successful and definitive was his performance as Renfield that he was practically typecast for the rest of his career in film, often appearing as insane, deformed characters. He was immediately put to work as the hunchback Fritz in Universal’s next horror, Frankenstein, which proved to out gross Dracula. He would also appear (albeit unbilled) in The Invisible Man as a reporter and in Bride of Frankenstein as another lunatic, Karl. Outside of his work for Universal Pictures, Dwight found steady work in B-films from many poverty row studios, again typecast in supporting roles.

The film that would cement Dwight Frye's place in cinematic history.

The film that would cement Dwight Frye’s place in cinematic history.

Frye’s frustration at Hollywood is well known. He also continued a prolific career on the stage, playing many different types of roles, including romantic, comedic and appearances in musicals. He was angered by Hollywood’s refusal to cast him in roles that would have garnered more respectability among critics, and which he was capable of playing as shown by the rave-reviews he often garnered from his stage performances:

“If God is good, I will be able to play comedy, in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer of motion pictures will give me a chance! And please God, may it be before I go screwy playing idiots, half-wits and lunatics on the talking screen!”.

During 1943, Dwight doubled his workload by working at night as a draughtsman for the Lockheed Aircraft Company to aid the war effort, partly driven by his guilt at not being able to fight both in World War I and now World War II due to his age.

Wilson (1944), the film that should have granted Dwight Frye's wish for cinematic variety, had it not been for his untimely death.

Wilson (1944), the film that should have granted Dwight Frye’s wish for cinematic variety, had it not been for his untimely death.

Frye soon became very ill, developing coronary problems that he hid from his family and refused treatment for. This was due to his being a devout Christian Scientist. Tragically, just before his untimely death, he finally was granted his one wish by Hollywood – he was cast as Secretary of War Newton D. Baker in biopic Wilson (1944). He died of a heart attack just a few days before shooting commenced.

A forgettable horror film that is made enjoyable by Dwight Frye's presence.

A forgettable horror film that is made enjoyable by Dwight Frye’s presence.

Although a varied actor on the stage, there is unfortunately very little variation in his roles on the screen. For his devoted fans though, including myself, this is not necessarily a problem. Particularly in his role of Renfield, Frye is one of the most memorable of actors of the early sound era, crafting spooky, mysterious, and frightening performances. Indeed, because of these performances his roles are often much better than the films in which he appears – this can especially be considered true of the enjoyable The Vampire Bat (1933), also starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. It’s unfortunate that he is killed off before the end of the film, because his character is without a doubt the most intriguing and well acted of the film.

No role he ever took would outshine his performance as Renfield though, which remains his greatest artistic contribution to the cinema. It’s his most oft-seen performance, due to the fame of the film, and very few will forget his performance. In many ways, he is truly the equal of Bela Lugosi in this film, and anytime that they share the screen is simply cinematic magic. It’s a fitting testament to his acting ability, even if it was the source of much personal strife.

Thank you for reading! Please go and check out all of the other wonderful entries in the What a Character! Blogathon – you will be sure to see lots of your favourite actors from both film and television being covered.

What a Character! Blogathon

The Criterion Blogathon: Mystery Train (1989)

Film

Welcome to another blogathon post! This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the renowned US video label. Their releases have formed in many ways an ever growing canon of great cinema, ranging from mainstream American releases to indie classics to world cinema. This post covers my personal favourite film, Jim Jarmusch’s indie classic Mystery Train (1989). Enjoy!


Mystery Train Poster

Many film critics have noted that the films of Jim Jarmusch often tend to skip on detailed plots and rather focus on detailed and interesting interaction between a multitude of characters. This analysis cannot be more apt when considering his 1989 film Mystery Train.

There is little in the way of conventional plot in Mystery Train. Rather, viewers are treated to three chapters all set in the same night in the rock’n’roll capital of the United States, Memphis. The first chapter deals with a young Japanese couple who are going on a music tour of the USA, and cannot stop arguing over who was better – Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins. The second chapter follows an Italian widow who is carting her husband’s body back to the home country and stays in Memphis overnight. The third chapter follows a jobless Englishman and his two American friends as they go on a night of drinking and looting.

Mystery Train 2

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins makes a special appearance as the owner of the hotel that all three segments end in. His reparte with Cinqué Lee is one of the comedic highlights of the film.

In many ways Mystery Train is the film that most captures the aesthetic of Jarmusch’s work. It’s anthology structure prevents the film from having much connected narrative tissue, and the 40 minutes or so we get with each character gives us just enough time to understand and come to know them intimately. It’s this film, I think, that feels the most real in Jarmusch’s filmography. If you were to show this film to someone who had no understanding of cinematic form, they would think these people were real. This is partly thanks to the naturalistic acting on display, but most of all it is thanks to the superb screenplay.

If someone was to ask me what Mystery Train is ultimately about, it would be a hard question to answer. You could say it’s about the way people relate to others, or fail to do so. You could say it’s about nostalgia and the past glories of the 1950s. You could say it’s about the breakdown of any positive form of the American dream. Jarmusch’s film is put together in such a specific way, that you could easily say it’s about none of these, and rather just about spending time with some flawed but interesting people.

Mystery Train 1

“This is America.”

The main focal characters of each segment are all foreigners in the United States – Japanese, Italian, and English – and the space they are occupying, Memphis, is a town stuck in the past. It’s desolate and falling apart, but it sticks together because nostalgia haunts it. It’s held together by the love all of these people have for the music that originated there, and for Elvis Presley, even if Joe Strummer (who acts as the main character, Johnny, of the third segment) points out how completely oversaturated his presence in Memphis is. The fact that these characters are foreigners allows them to make astute observations not only about Memphis but about American society as a whole. No moment in the film sticks in my head as much as when Jun, looking out of the flophouse window that he and his girlfriend are staying in for the night into a desolate street, announces: “this is America.”

It’s my personal belief that Mystery Train is one of the most underrated and underseen films in American cinema. It’s a masterpiece, and is as relevant today as it was in 1989, if not more so after the 2008 crash. It’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholy, full of wit, humour, and passion. It’s Jim Jarmusch’s best film, and without a doubt one of the most important films of the American independent scene. The fact that the Criterion Collection label have honoured it with a place in their canon of great cinema is only a testament to the film’s power and importance.

10/10


I hope you have enjoyed this third blogathon post. Please go over to the Speakeasy blog for a complete listing of blogs that have participated.

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Comic Review: X-O Manowar Deluxe Edition HC Vol. 1 (2013)

Comics

This graphic novel collects X-O Manowar issues 1-14.

X-O Manowar Cover

In many ways, X-O Manowar cannot be considered an original comic, either in concept or execution. The main character, Aric of Dacia, a 5th Century Visigoth, is a strange mix of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. His enemies, the Vine, are an alien species intent on killing him and all of Earth if it comes to that. None of it rings particularly original, does it?

But you don’t come to X-O Manowar for originality (or a great name for a comic, it appears). Rather, you come for great characters and great action. It’s been a while since I’ve read such a comic that manages to fuse both great action scenes and genuine character development. Across the 14 issues collected in this beautiful hardcover, you will be genuinely thrilled.

X-O Manowar 1

The action is always intense and dynamic in X-O Manowar.

The first storyline, By the Sword, is an entertaining origin story of the lead character. Aric of Dacia is taken from his 5th Century world into the present day by the alien species the Vine. He is a slave on one of their many command ships. After a rebellion, he manages to break free, steal sacred armour, and return to Earth. It’s the definition of decompressed storytelling, and probably only has enough story to fill one, maybe two issues. But the action-sequences are so well executed by Cary Nord that it’s hard to complain.

Whilst the collection works as a standalone story, the appearance of Ninjak in the second storyline hints at a larger shared universe of characters.

Whilst the collection works as a standalone story, the appearance of Ninjak in the second storyline hints at a larger shared universe of characters.

The second storyline, Enter: Ninjak continues this origin story as Aric gets used to the modern world. The leaders of the Vine employ the assassin Ninjak and a Vine seedling called Alexander Dorian to eliminate Aric and steal back the armour. Things don’t go according to plan, and as the three warriors meet head-on sparks will fly. This is a genuinely good volume, filled with lots of characterization in between the major action set pieces. It also serves as the rebooted introduction to Valiant’s fan-favourite Ninjak. I’m not too familiar with the character, but I enjoyed his appearances in this volume and would like to see more of him.

Trevor Hairsine provides some incredible artwork in the prelude to Planet Death.

Trevor Hairsine provides some incredible artwork in the prelude to Planet Death.

The final storyline, Planet Death, is the volume’s piece de-résistance. The Vine prepares their invasion / extermination of Earth, and all that stands between them and annihilation is Aric. However, the volume takes a surprising twist by Aric defeating the invasion easily (though at a personal cost), and then taking the fight to the Vine home world of Loam. It’s a genuinely brilliant storyline and the best one in the volume. Not to be missed.

A large part of the series’ success is the stellar artwork on display. Cary Nord illustrates the larger half of the collection, with Lee Garbett (aided by inker Stefano Gaudiano) and Trevor Hairsine lending their talents as well. While their styles vary, and it can be a bit jarring switching between the illustrators, all are top talents and you can’t really complain when the artwork is just that strong. Cary Nord does some particularly strong artwork in the third arc, Planet Death, which is full of dark blacks and firm lines. In many ways, it’s a callback to an earlier style of illustrating comics, and it is refreshingly simple. The lack of detail is it’s strongest point, because the characters somehow feel heavier in appearance and thus more real.

X-O Manowar provides Conan artist Cary Nord with some rich material. His artwork is frequently beautiful and astonishing.

The action wouldn’t be as well executed as it is if it wasn’t for some great writing by Robert Venditti, who balances action with some good character development. None of the violence feels unnecessary and every time Aric charges into battle, it feels like he has purpose and isn’t just there to take names. Likewise, the supporting cast is also really interesting, particularly Alexander Dorian, Ninjak, and the High Priest of the Vine. This last character in particular is interesting, as the High Priest brings a lot of nuance to the villains of the book, fleshing out the history, culture, and motivations of the Vine.

My only complaint with the comic would probably be a notable lack of female representation. Whilst an argument could be made that Aric hasn’t stopped fighting since the events of the first issue, and thus he hasn’t had time to meet any female characters, any women present within the pages are in beds or insinuated to be there primarily to have sex with the male characters. This isn’t often, and it only happens in two instances. I hope to see this rectified within the future events of the series, as it does feel a bit off-kilter because the book is just populated with few women. I don’t think the book is outright sexist in its depiction of women, but some work could be done in this respect. For all I know, it already has been and I haven’t just read it yet, so really it is a minor concern. Valiant Comics (the publisher) is known for its diversity so I imagine it will occur sometime later in the series.

X-O Manowar 5

All in all, X-O Manowar is an incredibly entertaining, action-packed science-fiction series that will please all readers. It’s also a great starting place for anyone interested in the recent Valiant Comics reboot. It does everything that you could want a mainstream superhero comic to do, but with the refreshing qualities of independent publishing. I cannot wait for the second volume.

8/10.