Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Road

Jack London's Road is a somewhat disjointed memoir of his hoboing days in 1894 when he hopped freights across the continent. America was crippled by one of its worst depressions ever, and he set out to join an army of the unemployed marching on Washington. Only 18 at the time, he went as more of a lark than anything else, and describes with youthful exuberance riding the rods and foiling brakemen by climbing to the roofs of, and jumping in and out of, moving boxcars.

When not on the train, he begged for food and clothes, which he looked upon as "a joyous prank, a game of wits, a nerve-exerciser." He spent 30 days for vagrancy in the Erie County Penitentiary outside Buffalo, and explains how he conned the other cons. He saw a woman being whipped, stole a brandnew hat off the head of a Chinaman, and ran with a gang of youths who rolled drunks.

Similarities between this and a more famous road book (an autobiographical novel by another Jack) invite comparisons, but my thoughts ran, or rather rambled, in another direction, and I found myself thinking about an entirely different sort of road novel.

Cormac McCarthy's Road runs through a post-apocalyptic America with a man and his young son carrying their meagre belongings in a shopping cart. The terrain is an "ashen scabland," the train they stumble across "slowly decomposing for all eternity." The few remaining people are broken-down wrecks living like animals –- a grinding filthy miserable existence fraught by growing fear and dread. "I don't think we're likely to meet any good guys on the road," the father tells his son.

Both books are short, London's clocking in at just over 50,000 words with McCarthy's in the same ballpark. London's prose remains surprisingly fresh a century after it was written, but in places its youthful vigour gives way to what sounds like adolescent boasting. Of his ability to fabricate a story at a moment's notice, he says, "I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer."

McCarthy's prose is far more grim and powerful. The stripped-down punctuation gives it an elemental quality suitable for such a tense and harrowing tale. London's own post-apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague, seems positively sunny by comparison. Similar to McCarthy's Road, it begins with an old man and his twelve-year-old grandson plodding along a railway embankment and clad in skins. It is 60 years after a worldwide plague in 2013 (eerily, the same year I am writing this) killed off nearly everyone. The handful that remain live in "primitive savagery," collecting human teeth on strings and unable to count beyond ten. One of the survivors is a brutish chauffeur who takes pleasure in beating the widow of one of the most influential men in pre-plague times.

Brutality, atavism, and survival of the strongest are recurring motifs in London's work, but nothing in his oeuvre can compare to McCarthy's Road for the chilling evocation of how nasty and repellent life would really be in a world without the veneer of civilization. On the very first page of the novel is the following dream:

And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain the pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

London's chauffeur represents a brutal working class bent on revenge, whereas McCarthy's creature stands for a world inimical to everyone, with the man and the boy struggling to remain not only alive, but human. In the end, however, it seems to me that both authors are writing about the same thing -- the savagery of American society.

Canadian Content

In 1894 London returned from his wanderings via the CPR. It took him six days to get from Montreal to Ottawa. The latter, he says, is "the hardest town in the United States and Canada to beg clothes in; the one exception is Washington, D.C."

At a Winnipeg police station he pieced together a tale convincing enough to keep him out of jail. Travelling west, he engaged in a long battle of wits with the CPR's brakemen, which he finally won enabling him to ride over 1000 miles in a boxcar half full of coal.

In a later chapter, "Hobos That Pass in the Night," he provides more detail about the journey, describing how he and another "bo" were aware of each other's presence by their noms-de-rail (London's was Sailor Jack) which they carved in wooden watertanks as they went across the prairies and through Kicking Horse Pass in the Rockies. In Vancouver they both signed on ships without once ever meeting each other.

Despite London's experiences in Ottawa and Winnipeg, James Haley writes in his biography that "London was cheered by the discovery that Canadians were more forthcoming in their sympathy for the homeless unemployed" and that "Canadian generosity left a deep impression."

On the Rods

Haley referred to London's Road as "a combination memoir of his months riding the rails and exposition of tramping as a an American subculture created by capitalist abuse of workers."

Most of the material had appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine before it came out in book form. The magazine version contained a number of illustrations not found in the book, but you can find them on the excellent Jack London site maintained by the Sonoma State University Library. The book itself was a flop, unlike McCarthy's Road, which was famously a selection by Oprah's Bookclub, won the Pulitzer in 2006, and made into a movie.

McCarthy's Suttree is probably the closest of his works to London's Road, for it describes the ragged existence of people on the margins of society in Knoxville, Tennessee. Said to be semi-autobiographical, it's a wonderful book with powerful prose, and a good one to start with if you haven't read McCarthy before, because its darkness is leavened with humour.


The Road with illustrations
Jack London's Dark Side An insightful essay about his "historical castration"

Cormac McCarthy official website
McCarthy's interview with Oprah