Review: Books

Outside magazine, June 1998

Review: Books

Southwest Flyer
By Hal Espen


Cities of the Plain, by Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf, $24). In the 1960s, Flannery O'Connor gave us a justly famous line about the intimidating influence of Faulkner on Southern writers: "Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down." Now, with the completion of his indelible Border Trilogy of novels that began with All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy can claim title to a similar kind of predominance in the literature of the American Southwest. Like Faulkner, McCarthy writes prose that is willfully anachronistic, yet almost painfully beautiful. And whereas Faulkner became our great chronicler of racial guilt in a defeat-haunted South, McCarthy gives us the landscape of the West at the moment its essential wildness is being extinguished, and twists our hearts as he depicts how that loss torments and breaks his leftover cowboys, boys who ride out of the living past but are left without a future.

Cities of the Plain, set in 1952, unites John Grady Cole, the dauntless runaway of All the Pretty Horses, with Billy Parham, the would-be wolf liberator of The Crossing. A few years older now, the two vaqueros are working at a ranch south of Alamogordo, New Mexico, that's about to be appropriated by the military. As in the first two books, there are visionary images of landscapes and animals along with wonder-struck passages invoking the prowess and nobility of horses. (From a scene in which a stallion and mare mate spectacularly: "John Grady stood holding all of this before him on a twisted tether like a child holding by a string some struggling and gasping chimera invoked by sorcery out of the void into the astonished dayworld.") And as before, we are given a desolating rendition, akin to some antique ballad, of the fatal enchantments of the country south of the border. Here, those enchantments come in the form of John Grady's half-crazed love for a teenage prostitute in Jußrez — a love that meets its end in scenes of Shakespearean intensity, in sorrow and unflinching brutality. For readers, the anticipation is over: McCarthy's Border Trilogy is an accomplished American masterpiece.

Reeling in Russia: An Angler's Journey, by Fen Montaigne (St. Martin's Press, $26). To the author, who served as a Moscow correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the late eighties and early nineties, "Russia was an affliction, an incurable habit." Longing to return after four years away, Montaigne decided to fly-fish his way across the vast expanses of newly accessible country — from the Solovetski Islands (birthplace of the gulag prison system, they're the "archipelago" that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made famous), on Russia's western fringes, to the wild east of Kamchatka, a remote peninsula not unlike Alaska, where brown bears prowl rivers choked with coho salmon and steelhead. Rod in hand, the author encounters a panoply of characters and stories, including the odd tale of how the Soviets suppressed fly-fishing, viewing it as elitist and counterrevolutionary. As it turns out, however, angling is largely ancillary to Montaigne's wide-eyed but savvy account of the landscape, now rife with poachers and resource-depleting local fiefdoms, and of the hardships of rural Russians, liberated from Communism but not from the ramshackle poverty of old. Montaigne has given us a spirited travelogue, but Reeling in Russia is also a call to arms: It tells us of the world's obligation to help Russia protect its immense, imperiled wilderness.

Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight, by William Langewiesche (Pantheon, $24). Like the best athletes, the most daring pilots are not ordinarily blessed with a surplus ability to help us clearly understand how they perform their wondrous feats. In this case, however, the author, a longtime adventurous pilot and an inveterate wanderer (his last book was the acclaimed Sahara Unveiled), has just such a talent in ample supply, and he helps us to see flying afresh. Humankind may have become jaded about gaining its wings, he argues, but "of all inhabited places the sky remains the strangest," and it is still too early in our airborne existence to assume we know all that flight means. He is particularly lucid in describing the physical component of being a pilot and the point at which our physiological capabilities leave off and our dependence on mechanical instruments begins. In a somewhat hair-raising chapter on flying in bad weather — which Langewiesche often does on purpose, though in a decidedly non-daredevil spirit — the reader learns that "the secret of good storm flying is to stay low, in slow and vulnerable airplanes, and to resist the pursuit of performance." Given the author's frank approach to the subject of crashes, his might not be the book to read on your next bumpy cross-country flight, but it deserves a permanent place on the short list of books that illuminate "the inner world of sky."

The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth, by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker (Viking Press, $26). It's more challenging than the kind of book most of us ordinarily choose for beach reading, but this anecdotal history of le monde de la plage — by a professor of Russian and a doctor who write breezy pop-culture studies on the side — will make you feel pleasantly virtuous, as though you're watching a PBS documentary while simultaneously soaking up rays. For centuries, from the beach-blanket bingo of ancient Romans to spring break at Daytona Beach, seaside life has been an ever-changing fashion parade (involving a varying extent of bare skin) in search of an ideal summer. But some things remain the same: "In the presence of the timeless wash of waves, the sibilance of sand, and the warm kiss of the sun," the authors remind us, it is possible "to forget the nagging sense of fealty to cash, work, and responsibility." Amen.

Photograph by Clay Ellis

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