Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New Mexican writing

I took time out from more earnest reading on Sunday and zipped through Michael McGarrity's The Big Gamble instead. I'm often up for a good thriller or police procedural, but this one fit another bill, being a New Mexican adventure.
I'm a sucker for New Mexican tales, from the playful pens of Rodolfo Anaya or Tony Hillerman, the native flavour of Frank Waters, the bravado of Zane Grey, the sexual mystic world of D. H. Lawrence (his 'The Woman who Rode Away' still holds out as a favourite).
I picked up my signed McGarrity from Garcia Street Books in Santa Fe. He's a local, and spent years as the county's Deputy Sheriff. That insider's perspective gives a satisfying boost to the book's sense of reality - as a reader, I'm learning something that smacks of authority rather than imagination. It's fun to be taken around landscapes I know, and the plot cracks along till the close. McGarrity takes the Donna Leon stance, spinning us back from the narrative thrust to peer into the domestic arrangements, the hopes and troubles, of his lead characters.
It's good stuff. But it makes me see more clearly how Cormac McCarthy writes great stuff. His No Country for Old Men doesn't stint on the domestic, but with more grit and less sentiment. He never wastes space on description (it's striking how many pages characters stride through without being described at all) yet in a few strokes he conjures up the landscape, because that's what his characters accord with. Characters take on vivid life through their dialogue alone. And he brings in, and plays to the hilt, a genre requirement that McGarrity oddly lacks, a great and sustained chase scene.
Beyond that, Cormac McCarthy brings a moral scope that rivals Milton's. His characters are plucky yet in a fallen world. Humans won't succeed, we've gone past the time for heroes, the best we can do is keep on striving. It's a tough message, but New mexico is the perfect landscape in which to place it.