On Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," Per Petterson's "Out Stealing Horses," and Vladimir Nabokov's "Laughter in the Dark"

I wrote the following as a request for a former student, to be posted on the Southeast Review’s webpage:
Mystery in Storytelling
One of the tricks in story telling—and believe me, there’s a hundred tricks that the best writers use unconsciously, subconsciously, accidentally, purposefully, or not—lies in how to keep you interested, keep you turning the pages. As a young writer it was my good fortune to study with Donald Barthelme (whose Sixty Stories is only of the best book o’ stories ever) and Edward Albee (the Broadway boy wonder who was kind and generous as a professor, whom I saw direct a knockout performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, only one of the best American plays ever), and both of them said, “Surprise the reader.” Yet a basic problem arises with the element of surprise: how to keep it from being corny or forced. That’s where it’s useful to have some idea of the greater notion of Mystery.
First off, let me dispense with the notion of Mystery as some trump card that’s played at the end of a mystery novel—murder with an icicle, where the weapon melts away, as in Sherlock Holmes and later, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002), as the way the murderer/rapist is ultimately dispatched by a hand from heaven. That’s all fine and dandy, but not what I mean by Mystery. It’s part of it, no doubt, but not the whole enchilada. The best sense of Mystery is almost indefinable, ineffable—a sense that things aren’t what they seem (in Life as in Fiction, they rarely are), that something is wrong here but you can’t put your finger on it, that there is something interesting just behind that door, lurking in the shadows, in the odd expression that woman at the dentist’s office just gave you, in the foreboding you feel as you hear the telephone ring in the dark of night.
One of the best novels of our fresh-faced 21st century is Out Stealing Horses (2006) by the Norwegian writer Per Petterson.  From the get-go you know that something’s amiss: An aging man retires to the countryside to live in peace and harmony, after some implied calamity in his life, and meets an old acquaintance on the road of his remote neighborhood. Not to spoil too much—if you haven’t read this novel, you should—this brief meeting with an old acquaintance stirs to the surface a childhood tale of accidental death, unhappy marriage, and heroism during World War II. What I find remarkable about Horses is that all of the people are essentially good, decent, honorable human beings, although things go terribly awry by the end. There are no villains, but there are mistakes, misdeeds, cruelty and heartbreak. Even the Nazis seem like decent human beings, and you feel sympathy and compassion for them.
Here’s the trick, and I don’t feel any guilt here, as magicians do in giving up the illusion—Mystery lies in what is left unsaid. What is hidden. Held back. Until that perfect moment for it to be revealed, whatever it happens to be.  In Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (a gorgeous title, isn’t it?), which is arguably one of the best novels of its time, he holds back a stunner about the narrator’s dignified, beloved father until the very end. At that moment, all the mysteries and quizzical, emotionally charged moments come into sharp relief, and it delivers a kick to the gut that is the mark of a terrific novel. Which is what we all want to write, isn’t it?
The only recent novel that outshines Out Stealing Horses in its darkest-of-the-dark way is Cormac McCarthy’s end-of-the-world howl to the human condition, The Road (2006). We all have our little special moments in our little careers and grab bag of Hopes & Dreams, and two of mine have involved somehow brushing shoulders with the greatness of McCarthy: once he won a literary book award the same year I won an award for a story, and we were listed side-by-side (he got more money, natch), and the second occurred at the release of my last novel, Goodnight, Texas, which was reviewed in one magazine side-by-side with The Road. A friend of mine criticized The Road’s plot because, “I could guess what would happen from the beginning.” As in that the father would die, the son would live on. I agree. That’s not hard to figure out. But then again, that’s not the Mystery.
In one of Vladmir Nabokov’s wickedly good novels of the 1930s, Laughter in the Dark (1938), he sums up the plot at the outset: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster. This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man’s life, detail is always welcome.”
Mystery often lies in the details, what makes up the meat and bones of our lives. In The Road, the scene where the father and son open the trapdoor to discover the huddled slaves of the cannibal-clan is one of the creepiest, most horrific images I’ve ever read. The scene where the father/son stumble upon a cache of food just as they are about to starve to death creates a feeling of joy and exultation. That’s not a trick. It’s natural and true to the heart.
Part of the Mystery of The Road rests in what will become of the human race: Is the boy a savior? Will they/we all perish? It closes with one of the best endings in contemporary literature, and in that coda, McCarthy suggests a time when all that we know and care about will be gone and forgotten: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
I can’t top that. The Mystery of the world. That’s what makes us gasp and glow.

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