On Flying Rivers and Ghost Forests: A Visit to Mesa Verde

So I spent last weekend at Mesa Verde National Park—a bit west of Durango, Colorado, in the famous Four Corners region of the American Southwest—grokking with the spirits of our Native American ancestors, hiking through ancestral puebloan cliff dwellings, and spending too much at the gift shops (which can be forgiven, seeing it was my daughter’s ninth birthday). It’s a haunting (and haunted) landscape, a mystical place, and if you stay at the Far View Lodge (that looks like it was built in the Seventies, and judging by its wear and tear, the carpet is original), you have a fabulous view of Ute Mountain in Colorado, Shiprock in New Mexico, and distant canyons and peaks and Arizona and Utah. I’ve been there several times before, lastly in 2002, not long after the big fire that scorched the park in the summer of 2000.

On this visit I noticed a distressing trend: the vast areas where the junipers, pinyon pines, and spruce burned in 2000 are devoid of new, young trees. What you see in the burn areas are miles and miles of ghost forests. Nothing but grassland (dotted with yucca, Spanish dagger, and other cacti) seems to be regrowing. The NY Times has had some recent pieces about how forest fires can now burn so hot they effectively incinerate all the seeds, and interfere or prohibit regrowth after the fire. There’s a good piece today in that vein, Jim Robbin’s “Deforestation and Drought,” here. It’s worth it just for the poetry of his description of “flying rivers” over the Amazon. Unfortunately, at Mesa Verde we have “ghost forests.”

Now I’m fascinated by forest fires (and a wicked fire burns at the heart of my new novel), and often hear how fires are nothing new, part of the ecosystem, yadda yadda yadda. That’s all true. But it’s also true that the West is drying noticeably. These aren’t your father’s forest fires. And yes, it’s not all doom and gloom. For instance, go to Yellowstone: there it’s obvious where the forests are regrowing after the tremendous fires of 1988, with entire forests covered with trees over twenty years old. But Yellowstone is a wetter area of the Upper Rockies than the dry Southwest. From the looks of it, if another fire or two hits Mesa Verde, it will have to be renamed Mesa Marron (Brown Mesa). I hope not. We don’t need another one of those weeping Indian littering PSA spots to buzzcrush our day.

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Gunfire in the Aspens: the Realities of Cabin Life in the Rockies, With an Appreciative Nod to Walter Kirn in the New York Times

So I read today’s piece by Walter Kirn in the New York Times about cabin life and its status as an eddy of the American Dream (“Cabins, the New American Dream,” found here) with some amusement and recognition: I live (and write) in a cabin at @ 9,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of south-central Colorado. This is the serious boonies: Custer County has one of the lowest population densities in the U.S., and the closest town—Westcliffe, Colorado—is home to about 1,000 souls, and is notable for its lack of fast-food franchises, or even a pharmacy. Sometimes I think wistfully, You know, a Walgreens would come in handy.

But I love it. I suppose I have a taste for the boonies, for the lack of crowds. Plus the landscape is very much a part of my life. Taylor Creek flows through my back yard, and I can hike out my door and up the mountain (as I did yesterday) to Rito Alto or Hermit Peaks, both above 13,000 feet. And I love my home, too: It’s an adobe house, not “tiny,” but at less than two thousand square feet, on the small side. I heat it with a wood stove, and utilize “passive solar” (which basically means the house is designed to catch the sun’s rays), so it’s also relatively “green.” But it’s hardly pristine. On any given day my daughter’s toys and stuffed animals are scattered here and there, and I’m always working on one project or another to spruce up the place, while trying to maintain a simple elegance, if that’s possible.

“Elegance” actually goes against the trend of most cabins in my neck o’ the woods. “Cabin style” tends to be much hokier than the New York Times would countenance. There seems to be a law that all lamps, light switches, and rugs be emblazoned with the shapes of moose, wolves, or bears. Cowboys with lariats and cowgirls with miniskirts and cutie-pie smiles are also de rigueur on sheets, hand-towels, and aprons. City-slicker relatives love to buy us some variation on the ever-popular “bear in a canoe” kitschy item, knickknacks that always cause my eyebrow to raise askance. I mean, I like bears, and I like canoes, but I don’t see how they go together. The bear always looks a bit foolish in the canoe, as if he’s embarrassed, too. My favorite is a bear lamp that features a rather inebriated bear leaning against a lamppost, looking for all the world like he’s coming home from a bender, leaning against the post to stop the world from spinning, and probably telling it how the missus at the den is going to give him hell for being out so late. The photos in the Times are nothing like what most of my neighbors’s homes look like. They show pristine, empty cabins, captured in lucid light. You can tell no one actually lives there.

At one point Kirn rhapsodizes about downsizing, having no closets. My mountain home actually has few closets—a couple downstairs, none upstairs—so I know whereof I speak: Closets come in handy. Without them, where do you put your clothes? All those Patagonia and North Face jackets, for instance? We hang our shirts and dresses from coat hangers on the bed canopy. Pegs come in handy. Our go-to jackets (which are Patagonia, I admit with some chagrin) hang from the coat rack by the front door—practical, but also necessary.

I’m actually a fan of the “tiny house” movement: my writing studio (also my woodshed) is twelve by twelve feet, roughly the size of Henry David Thoreau’s famous Walden pond cabin. Only Thoreau’s cabin is always pictured with a simple desk, a quill pen, and candle. Mine is filled with a desk (made from an old door laid upon two sawhorses), two chainsaws, an ax, a logsplitter (big, heavy ax), a kayak, life vests, backpacks, and a hundred other “things”—like my daughter’s rock collection, and her diminutive desk next to mine. These “things” are useful: We regularly go backpacking, and went river-rafting in Utah this summer. Downsizing is all fine and dandy, but is it too much to ask that I have a garage? Yes, it is. My relatives seem shocked that I can even exist without one.

But one aspect that is ignored (intentionally, I would guess) in the “cabin porn” myth that Kirn describes nicely is: the other souls in the boonies. I live on a hillside below Hermit Mountain (aptly named), with a dozen or so homes scattered around me, and more in the valley below, and I’d say most of the other homeowners are gun aficianados. The sound of gunfire in the aspens is a common thing: I always assume they’re target-practicing, and not just quarreling. Shootouts are frowned upon, as far as I can tell. (Imagine Jane Fonda in They Shoot Neighbors, Don’t They?) Colorado has a bipolar personality, politically and culturally. Although it’s certainly somewhat liberal (note the Retail Cannabis shops in our local towns), my county is predominantly Tea Party Republican. I’ve seen drunken men carrying guns in our local supermarket, although the post office has a sign on the door that it is strictly illegal to carry one inside while you’re checking your mail. Does the frequent sound of gunfire—while my daughter plays in the yard—freak me out, just a little? Yes, it does. But I’ve also become used to it. Most of my neighbors are nice people, and I have to trust they can hit their targets with some degree of accuracy, and not stray their bullets into “my space.” Some of the target practice gunfire occurs at the Christian conference center at the top of the hill, and it always makes me think: What would Jesus shoot?

But still: Although I’m a fan of the horror film Cabin in the Woods (2012) and its ilk, I’ve never met a backwoodsman anything like the threatening Mordecai in that film—with his toothless backwoods charm, an obvious urban stereotype.

Is life in the boonies—despite the random gunfire and gun kooks in the super—worth it? Absolutely. The aspen are already turning, scattering like yellow coins all across my five-plus acres of forest. I’ve had two sightings of an elusive Goshawk in my yard the last week, and hear Great Horned Owls nightly. Mule deer wander through the yard most every day, and I’ve heard Elk bugling behind my treehouse. There are many more bird calls than gunshots, and I can live with that. So here’s another photo of my mountains, god bless ‘em:

Posted in Bears, Birding, Horror Films, Owls, Photography, Politics, The West, books, books/film | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of Patrick DeWitt’s novel “Undermajordomo Minor” in the Dallas Morning News

So I know I should feel badly for neglecting my stepchild blog, for never coming to visit, for not giving enough love—”No sticky handfuls of chocolate for you, Kid!” But I plead a busy life, and slaving away (is it inappropriate to even use the verb “slave” in that way?) on my novel-in-progress (which is actually going nicely, thank you very much for asking). But I am keeping up with reading various and sundry books, including an excellent book on by David Roberts, A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and the Claiming of the American West (2000); a moody and mystical novel by Per Pettersen, I Refuse (2015), and most recently, a book of great derring-do (you don’t hear that word enough anymore, do you?), John Maxtone-Graham Safe Return Doubtful: The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration (1988). Meanwhile I reviewed Patrick DeWitt’s fun new novel, Undermajordomo Minor, for the Dallas Morning News recently, which can be found here.

I promise I’ll be better about posting new material soon. I’m going to get my life turned around, honest. I’ll quit spending all my time in Santa Fe, at Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch, and in the mountains of Colorado, which takes me away from my online existence. I’ll be better. Trust me. Meanwhile, here’s a sign I liked recently:

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Review of Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night” in the Dallas Morning News

So I’m a delayed/recalcitrant blogger at best, but I did review Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night, for the Dallas Morning News recently, and it can be found here. In my defense I can say I’m busy working on a new book while also reading Per Petterson’s new novel, I Refuse, and enjoying that.

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On Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night”: The Last Waltz in Holt, Colorado

So I felt a mixture of sadness and readerly pleasure upon opening Kent Haruf’s final, posthumous novel, Our Souls at Night, to be published by Knopf this month. I first encountered Haruf’s fiction in 1999, when I was assigned his novel Plainsong to review for the Houston Chronicle. Ever since then I’ve read all of Haruf’s fiction, with perhaps Eventide (2004) being my favorite. I also had the good fortune to come to know Haruf, as I live in Colorado about an hour south of where he had a house near Salida. He was a soft-spoken, kind man, who worked as a teacher for many years, and, when I met him, was retired. He confessed to me that he was glad to be done with it. One of the main characters of Plainsong is a teacher, as is Louis Waters, the (retired) hero of Our Souls at Night.

Simply put, it’s a terrific book—understated, lyrical and deft—focusing on the lives of people who are often overlooked in the world, the denizens of a small town on the eastern plains of Colorado. I reviewed it for the Dallas Morning News, and will post my review here when it appears, in a couple weeks I would guess. Meanwhile fans of Haruf’s fiction should know that they won’t be disappointed wit this new novel. To me it’s better than Benediction (2013), his most recent novel before this.

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“Dr. WarmLove or: How I Stopped Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Heat”

So I had the odd Flashback Experience of being visited last week by a college roommate I had not seen in twenty years (and we were roomies much longer ago than that, at the University of Texas, in Austin, circa 1984), a Polish friend who lives in Warsaw, and at one point I asked him about the perception of Climate Change in Poland, whether it was a major issue or not—while I also made the point that it seems to me a much bigger issue in the Western U.S. than in the East (I live in both places, and will spend five months this year in Pennsylvania, seven months in Colorado and beyond). He said no, that it wasn’t a major issue, and repeated some Climate Change skeptic claptrap, as if half the scientists of the world were in doubt of the issue, the same kind of blather that spews from the mouths of Fox News et al. That “ordinary people” believe this nonsense is no shocker, but it’s still disappointing. In a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s great film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) I wish I could turn it all into a comedy, as I am writing about it (in my novel The Bird Saviors, most recently), though it’s hard to pull that off. In today’s Bloomberg.com page, here, there’s a graphic about the rising temperatures, and how March has just been announced as the hottest March on record, with 2015 already on pace to outdo 2014 as the hottest year on record (we can hope this is a fluke, and it cools later this summer or fall, I guess). High Country News recently reported a debate about whether the West is in a mega-drought or not. California snowpack is at five percent of average. We keep this up, and here’s a vision of what the average home in the West will look like in another decade or two:

But I think the analogy to Dr. Strangelove is curiously apt: At some point you have to get over your frustration, anger, and irritation at the stupidity of the vested interests working so hard to deny Climate Change, and try to say something intelligent and visionary about it. I’m working on a new novel that’s set in the West, and the heat and wind and wildfires that we expect every summer are just part of the landscape now. It’s hard to laugh at it, but it doesn’t do anyone much good to be perpetually angry, either. Perhaps it’s time for a maniacal laugh, like Slim Pickens does as he whoops and hollers, riding the bomb down into Russia.

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Chris Nolan’s “Interstellar” as Half-Baked Cli-Fi, or What Does Matthew McConaughey Eat in Outer Space? Pretzel Ions?

So I must first confess I’ve never been seduced by the eye-candy of Christopher Nolan’s films: Yes, they’re imaginative, clever, outlandish and topical. I’m all for that. But at some point they tend to turn so “Hollywood” that you have to throw your brain into the wastebasket and just go with it. My students (Millenials, go figure!) loved Inception (2010), but I found my patience growing thin about, say, a half hour into the film. Which is all to say I wasn’t overly eager to see Interstellar (2104), even though I’m a sucker for a good scifi film, and even more so if there are aliens in it—a category Interstellar does and doesn’t fit. Yes, there are “unseen” aliens afoot, but unseen is close to out-of-sight, out-of-mind. They might be the same aliens in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), for all we know—except in Prometheus, they are seen, kind of.

My curiosity finally got the best of me (a condition that has happened many times before, often with decidedly mixed results) and I watched Interstellar. The first part had its charms: the dust storms plaguing the nameless Midwest (Iowa?) or Great Plains (Kansas? which Easterners think is Midwest, but not really) locale are like the dust storms in my novel The Bird Saviors (2012), charmingly identified/pigeon-holed as “CliFi” (Climate Fiction) by some critics. So, yes, I was feeling a bit simpatico at that moment. Suffice to say all Nolan’s credibility wore off right about the time Matt Damon improbably pushed Matthew McConaughey down a glacial slope of some unnamed planet in another galaxy. At that point the film took a Hollywood turn about as logical as the dream-theft in Inception. And it kept going and going. One minute McConaughey is looking at a black hole that is probably quite a distance away and then he shoots off and moments later he ejects to float around in said black hole, without even so much as a scratch. Meanwhile I’m thinking, What is he eating up there in space? Those little Kraft cheese-and-crackers things for astronauts? Gallons of Tang? Pretzel ions? Anne Hathaway’s black bangs?

Speaking of which: Is Anne Hathaway the least-convincing astronaut ever? I liked her as the White Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland (2010). As an astronaut, not so much. Maybe Jennifer Jason Leigh would be better—sarcastic and insecure, like all astronauts, right? (Well, not really.) Who might be better, you ask? I don’t know. Someone not so pretty-in-plastic? Personally I think Matthew McConaughey’s role (“Coop,” who growled and breathed heavily through most of his lines) should have gone to John C. Reilly, and maybe Kristen Wiig could have played Brand, Hathaway’s pretty-but-unconvincing astronaut. At least we’d get some laughs from it, right?

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On the Bear-Attack Film “Backcountry”: Generation D Goes for a Hike

So I’m a sucker for a good bear-attack movie, having backpacked many times in the gorgeous/treacherous wilds of grizzly country (Alaska, Montana, Wyoming), where it’s often said that humans are not the top of the food chain, which can certainly give one pause. A backpacking trip in Denali National Park probably ranks as my most bear-filled, as at one point my wife and I could see five different grizzlies from our perch on a hillside. I’ve never had a bad bear encounter, but I stay on my guard. I’ve read every bear attack book I could get my hands on, most of them being decidedly of the I Shouldn’t Be Alive genre—based on the gruesome fun of the I Shouldn’t Be Alive series. Case in point, Season 3, episode 23: “Nightmare on the Mountain”: “In 1995 Bram Schaffer, an 18 year-old elk hunter, was mauled by a grizzly bear in Montana. His severely injured parts of his thigh were ripped off the bone and he must get off the mountain during a large storm. Other hunters assist Bram during the ordeal, providing medical care and carrying him to a camp, eventually resulting in his survival”—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Shouldn’t_Be_Alive.

Now comes the new indie film hit Backcountry (2014), from writer/director Adam MacDonald, set in the Canadian wilds, but so steeped in horror-movie tropes that it might as well have been set at Camp Crystal Lake, in the scenic nether reaches of New Jersey—locale of the classic slasher Friday the 13th (1980). Backcountry is benefitting from some good buzz and a rather glowing New York Times review, here. Or what about this ad: ”A Must See. Does for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean.” Sounds great, right? If you like that kind of thing?

What makes it kind of fun is its implicit cultural critique of Millennials—although, in this case it’s not so much the Millennials as Generation D, as in Dumb. From the get-go, the couple in the film are not-so-subtly identified as deserving of a gruesome fate: the boyfriend, Alex, is a perfect example of the contemporary Feckless Male, a loser who is lucky to be able to tie his hiking boots without calling Mom to explain to him, once again, how to tie a bow. He eschews a map, compass, and poo-poos the contents of his girlfriend’s backpack, which includes a cellphone and some bear spray. For her part, Jenn, the girlfriend, enters the film staring at her cellphone a lot, and seeming somewhat oblivious to where they are and what they’re actually doing in the real world, which is hiking off into the woods without a map, with only her feckless BF as her guide.

Typical to the horror-film genre, from the outset dire rumblings are heard. The backcountry ranger at the Provincial Park office is jokey and sinister, only one step removed from the threatening hillbilly Mordecai in the (much better film) Cabin in the Woods (2012). A threatening fellow hiker appears—Brad (Eric Balfour)—offering fish and sexual conquest threat, peeing in the camp, and all but daring Alex to a fistfight to see who gets to bed Jenn. At that point I’m thinking, “Jeez, this is the woods. Not a subway ride.” But “Brad” wanders off, only to return at the film’s finale, suddenly helpful.

Everything Alex does is wrong: He gets the two of them lost, has a silly emotional breakdown once lost, and then slowly plods along, seemingly for a couple days, as the bear threat (which he denied from the hike’s first moments) edges closer and closer. When the bear finally arrives in camp he huddles in the tent, even though any experienced hiker (which he’s supposed to be, actually) knows a little nylon shell offers no protection whatsoever. They’re carrying two weapons—bear spray and an ax—but, until the last possible moment, seem to forget that they would come in handy. And when Jenn finally gets the bear spray functional, Yogi has already crunched Alex’s shin into a bloody mess. Plus it doesn’t seem to work (although bear spray has been known to be generally quite effective), as the bear leaves, but returns to drag Alex away and eat him. Jenn then limps and falls and crawls her way back to the trailhead, although when she returns to find their canoe, essentially the first leg of their trip, I was surprised, because it had seemed she’d only managed to travel a half-mile or so since her BF was bear breakfast. Thank god she survived. And will probably never set foot outside her apartment again, and you will take the cellphone from her hands when you can pry her cold, dead fingers from it. As for Alex, I’m not saying he deserved it, but being a member of Generation D, an example of the (currently ubiquitous) Feckless Male, we can just feel sorry for him. If the bloody hiking boot fits . . . .

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Review of Reif Larsen’s “I Am Radar” in the Dallas Morning News

So I’ve neglected this lonely little blog so often I should seriously feel guilty, but . . . I have my reasons. Note that I say I should feel guilty. But I don’t. (Well, maybe just a tad scrap of guilt is swirling around the door to the garage of my soul, like that plastic blag in American Beauty (1999). Why? I’ve completed the first draft of a new novel I’ve been working on for about two years, for one thing, which always ranked higher on my to-do list than blogging. A novel is (or attempts to be) an epic panorama of life, while blog posts tend to be snapshots, the digital kind. And in addition to finishing the novel’s first draft (I expect at least another, but hope to finish it all this year), roller-skating with my daughter (first time on skates in, um, forty years?), snow-slogging through this never-ending winter, and much more, I recently managed to read Reif Larsen’s epic, 644-page novel, I Am Radar, which I reviewed today in the Dallas Morning News, here. Although I stand by what I wrote for that review, interested people can know that the review’s first draft was over a thousand words, and I could easily write five thousand words on this book. It’s the kind of novel you almost want other people to read so you can argue with them about it. Yes, it’s overwritten, but many good books have their “overwritten” moments. There’s so much in the novel it’s hard to know where to begin: There’s a great deal about radio and puppets, which doesn’t seem to add up to much, but which is nonetheless fascinating. And isn’t being fascinating part of the fun of novels? I compare it to Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963), a book that demands great patience to complete (I read it while riding around Europe one summer on their many trains), but which totally deserves the attention. And no, I don’t think I Am Radar is in the same category as V., but I greatly admire its ambition.

There’s something lyrically memorable about reading long, literary novels—a feeling of accomplishment, of being immersed in someone else’s brain, someone else’s vision of the world, for that long (it’s that TFW experience). I read much of I Am Radar over the Christmas break, at my home in Colorado, in the snows and blue light of winter.

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“Necrophilia, Anyone?” On the Horror-Show That Is James Franco’s Film Adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God”

So I’d heard that James Franco had made a film version of Cormac McCarthy’s powerful-and-disturbing novel Child of God (1974), and I casually wondered why I hadn’t heard anything about it. A year ago Franco also did a film version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), which I showed to an American Gothic literature class I was teaching, and that went well enough, even if it did seem rather amateurish at times. So innovator and film-buff that I am, I decided to show Child of God to a graduate seminar, in which we had just read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful new novel, Lila, which concerns a loner/misfit of sorts, Lila Dahl, who often lives in isolation, and whose life is marked, at least to some extent, by violence. The stories have some similarities, but are also greatly different. It would illustrate a range of fictional/mythical approaches. Sounds reasonable, right?

Child of God is basically the life story of Lester Ballard, the misfit of all misfits, a deranged hillbilly that makes The Misfit of Flannery O’Connor’s great short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953) look like a lightweight schoolteacher. He’s also a little like Faulkner’s Bundrens or Snopeses—or their evil twin, at least—an Appalachian ne’er-do-well to the nth degree. So I’d be comparing the representations of two isolated loners, both released recently, with Robinson’s novel published this year and Franco’s film made just last year. What could go wrong?

Still, I wondered why I hadn’t heard anything about this film. Now I know why. To say it’s horrible is an understatement. It mangles (and sexually abuses) the novel into a poorly done horror film. Not to mention it’s downright disgusting. The necrophilia was just too much. It makes The Hills Have Eyes (1977, 2006) look like The Sound of Music (1965). So be warned. I have to reread COG again to see how closely Franco’s aberration of a film follows the novel, but the main difference, I believe, is Franco shows the necrophilia that was mainly implied in the novel. At some point you realize you’re watching a crazed hillbilly screw dead women. Oy. It’s the reversal of that old adage: Show, don’t tell. In this case showing is not the right move. Or perhaps I (and all my shocked and dismayed graduate students, thank you very much) am just too squeamish. It was so awful it was kind of funny. Kind of.

My wife suggested, “Perhaps you could have watched the film first, before showing it to your class?” Good idea! Although not an idea whose time has come, but rather one that’s a bit late, like the horse that has escaped the proverbial barn, because she couldn’t stomach what that crazed hillbilly was doing in there . . . .

I’ll say it’s this bad: I feel the need to defend the novel. McCarthy’s Child of God is creepy and disturbing, true, but it’s also eloquent, austere—even poignant. There’s a touch of the sublime, and a compassion for the misfits of the world. Here’s a good mini-review of it by no less than Mary Gaitskill:

“The travails of a homeless, retarded necrophiliac killer roaming the hills of Kentucky. It sounds like a joke but somehow, it’s not. (Though, if I were John Waters, I’d option it immediately.) Not only do you take this ghoul seriously, once you’re halfway through the book, you realize you’re on his side. Without psychologizing, or even getting into the protagonist’s completely non-reflective head, McCarthy makes us understand him; what he’s doing makes total sense to him, given what he knows. He comes to seem merely an extreme version of all people – blind, cosmically and comically ignorant, doing what makes sense to us given what we know.”—Mary Gaitskill From The Salon**com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors, pg 156.

So, in the sonorous tones of a mockumentary “public service announcement,” be warned. This ain’t the Coen Brothers doing No Country for Old Men—and winning Best Picture for it. More like the original I Spit On Your Grave (1978), only worse.

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