What about mature teens who are asking for books that delve deeply into the difficult subjects they are grappling with? Do we sanitize reading too much for your age group? You are, after all, sprinting on the heels of adulthood.
The problem for those of us adults responsible for teaching you is that you have such a wide range of maturity. A freshman is usually very different from a senior. Some books that take on difficult subjects are welcome—a relief, really—to students who’ve had a tough go and need to have their experience validated. Those same books may upset certain parents who feel that reading about the seedier side of life encourages the reader to participate in it when s/he wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m not that sort of parent myself—my kids have always read widely, on every sort of subject—but I respect that most parents are trying to do the best they can for their kids in a world that’s hard to figure out.
Ultimately, I believe both you and your parents can make the right reading choices for you if you have a pretty good idea what books are about. So, I want to write periodically on books that cover difficult topics including violence and teenage sexuality. I want to show you books that deal explicitly with the subjects, but that have value—that help you do that mature grappling with the difficult world. And if you feel that the content of the book is too explicit, then the review will have helped you make your choice to find something more appropriate.
My first go at this is to reflect on books with violence. And I do intend to look at teen books that address violence, but while thinking about the subject, I couldn’t forget that—while rather a wimp myself—some of the absolutely best contemporary books I’ve read were breathtakingly violent.
All of those great, yet violent, books were by Cormac McCarthy, a man widely regarded as one of the country’s best living authors. I asked some English teachers whether they thought their students could read McCarthy and get something valuable from him or whether those students would just see the novels as endless rounds of murder and mayhem. Based on their answers—they believe teens can benefit from the books as the violence in them is not of the gratuitous sort found in current movies—I am going to start my series with them.
In discussing the use of violence in literature and teen reading, we need a common definition of “gratuitous.” If it the definition means that the violence is ‘unnecessary to tell the story’ rather than meaning ‘a very heavy dose,’ then McCarthy’s violence is not gratuitous. Nevertheless, it’s unrelenting. And his narrative often has a camera-eye quality in the sense that we learn what happens and are left to sort it out for ourselves. Sometimes the camera extends into people’s musing on life and fate (as it does with Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men), but even then, no moral judgment is made for you. You must figure it out on your own.
The question then, at your age, is: Can you read this kind of violence and be able to form your own judgments? If you haven’t had some good practice in critical thinking, then I really don’t think McCarthy’s books are for you. If you have had that practice, a second question to ask yourself is whether you enjoy the qualities of excellent storytelling, the mythic sweep of a great narrative, and some of the best imagery/pictures of landscapes that you will ever read? If so, give McCarty a try.
Blood Meridian: This book is an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of the some of the worst examples of lawlessness in the wild west of the nineteenth century. I grew up in a time when all westerns were of the John Wayne variety with strong, silent men forging a new America. For anyone who knows nothing other than that image, Blood Meridian is an excellent antidote.
The nineteenth century in America was a time of deep culture clash (but then, when isn’t that true?). Blood Meridian is historical fiction in that its subject is the Glanton Gang, scalp hunters who were paid by the Governor of Chihuahua, Mexico in 1849-50 to kill Comanche and Apache Indians. Those two tribes had raided Mexican towns, and Glanton received $200 per scalp, scalps being evidence that the Indians had been murdered. But, as the cliché goes, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to imagine the possibilities. Considering that lots of folks in Mexico had black hair, when the Glanton Gang ran low on Apaches and Comanche to kill, they just started killing anyone they could get their hands on.
Gruesome? Absolutely. The Glanton Boys kill indiscriminately—men, women, children, old people. They pillage. They rape. One of the main characters, Judge Holden, is well educated, always curious, something of a botanist and purveyor of human nature. He is also pure evil, and the banality of his wickedness—the way is it just an ordinary part of his life—will highlight for the thoughtful reader the fact that the west was ‘won’ by groups of men who included demonic characters.
Critics compare Blood Meridian to many works of classic literature, some of which you’ve read in high school or will read in college—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. There’s Huck Finn lighting out for the territory, but not in a way that Mark Twain’s satire makes you smile at our cultural foibles. It’s so straightforward and void of emotion that you may feel physically sick over man’s inhumanity to man. You might think of your sophomore literature, Lord of the Flies, because the gang is outside of the reach of the law for so long. Their instincts for hurting others take over just as the marooned boys’ did after the plane crash.
If you are seeking a book to read for a literary analysis paper, there’s much to go with here—conflicts include man v. man and man v. nature (the deserts of Mexico and the borderland between the US and Mexico are arid, brutal in their lack of food and water). Ultimately, for the mature reader with an iron stomach, Blood Meridian has value in helping him to be able to recognize the ‘heart of darkness’ within us.
No Country for Old Men is another story that takes place along the border between Mexico and Texas, but this one has a contemporary setting—and the lawlessness is also contemporary.
A man named Llewelyn Moss is out hunting and accidentally stumbles upon the carnage that has resulted from a drug deal gone bad. When he realizes that most of the dealers are dead in the cars and all the drugs are still there, he also knows that the drug money couldn’t be far off. Finding the (now dead) man who tried to get away with the suitcase with the millions, Llewelyn takes the case. Once he does so, the novel primarily follows three characters: Llewelyn Moss; Anton Chigurh, a true psychopath without any conscience or remorse, a hit man in pursuit of Moss; and Sheriff Bell, the lawman attempting to sort out the details and catch Chigurh. Bell’s sections of the novel are more monologues about both life in the past and the present and about the crime. He thinks of Chigurh as a sort of ghost because he is impossible to catch—but he’s real, and he’s out there.
In No Country for Old Men the universe is not a benevolent one, and if you think it’s just the bad guys who are killing off one another, or at least bad guys killing off folks whose greed gets them mixed up in the seedy side of life (like Moss), McCarthy wants to show you otherwise. The evil can be purely arbitrary—especially for Moss’s wife (Carla Jean), whose only connection to the madness, for which she pays dearly, is to have fallen in love with and married Moss.
Again, if you are looking for a novel to read for a literary analysis paper, there’s a lot here. You have the same man v. man and man v. nature as in Blood Meridian. You’ve also got the chance to discuss nihilism and morality.
More recently, McCarthy published The Road, and while it’s about a post-apocalyptic United States, surprisingly, I found more hope in it than in the two books above. I reviewed it earlier and you can read the review here.
OK, if you are saying, “Ms. Waddle, I am a mature person, and I know I need a dose of reality in my reading, but this is just way more than I can take at once,” then I recommend you start with McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, the first book of which is All the Pretty Horses. The title, while appropriate, is unfortunate in that teen guys will turn away from it, thinking it’s a sweet little book meant for girls. Ah—no.
I reviewed All the Pretty Horses here. If you are working on literary analysis or asking yourself the bigger questions, the novel makes you think: What’s in a national identity? What does it mean to be Mexican-America? Can someone be multicultural if he stems from European (Anglo) stock but has a Mexican nanny who teachers him Spanish, and later crosses the border to live in Mexico for a period of time?
If you want to read critical analysis of McCarthy’s books, there are some good articles on the library’s database. You can click on these links, but you may need to type in your Ontario City Library card number to view the articles. (They are in the Literature Resource Center database.)
Eaton, Mark A. “Dis(re)membered Bodies: Cormac McCarthy’s Border Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 49.1 (Spring 2003): 155-180. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 260.Detroit: Gale, 2009.Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.
“Blood Meridian.” Contemporary Literary Criticism Select.Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.
Cooper, Lydia R. “‘He’s a psychopathic killer, but so what?’: Folklore and morality in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.” Papers on Language & Literature 45.1 (2009): 37+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.