Denver Bar Association
July 2007
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Beyond Reality TV and MySpace: Writers and musicians of substance

by Greg Rawlings

As we reach the end of the great American experiment, certain works and certain artists seem to have real grip on the many crises at hand. Cormac McCarthy, Bob Dylan and Thomas Pynchon: all are senior citizens and all are producing works that make the younger generations appear to be swarms of hornets without stingers. There are notable exceptions, of course. Wilco and Bonnie Prince Billy both produced wonderful albums in the near past, and Denver’s own Nick Arvin appears to be on the verge of literary stardom; but on the whole, most bands care more about their MySpace page than making killer music, and most writers are scared to say anything at all. A few years back, young American writers like Michael Chabon, Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace verged on stardom. Now, Chabon sells mucho books but has lapsed into a pointless fixation on genre fiction, Moody has disappeared from any real meaningful status, and Foster Wallace has become unreadable.

So, we turn to our elders, as cultures have throughout time. We turn to sages, creatures of wisdom and experience. From the Old Testament prophets to Voltaire, from Sun Tzu to Freud and Jung, when the world goes black we seek light; when we feel lost, we seek direction.

Over the past year or so, Cormac McCarthy went Oprah with The Road, Bob Dylan issued the darkly brilliant Modern Times, and Thomas Pynchon returned with the astounding and inscrutable Against the Day. All say more about our present predicament than any dozen documentaries or "Frontline" exposes; yet, none are ostensibly set in the present. These are works of remarkable beauty, intense observations, and reed-thin (but entirely real) rays of hope.

In The Road, McCarthy tells the heartbreaking tale of a man and his son as they traverse a post-Apocalyptic American southeast. The man is dying and the son isn’t much better off. They carry two bullets to kill themselves, rather than be taken by the roving gangs of cannibals and rapists. It is a horrifying tale, compared even to McCarthy’s previous hyper-literary bloodlettings. Think The Old Man and the Sea as told by Edgar Allen Poe, with an Oxford English Dictionary within ready reach. Still, it must be read to be believed. The environmental hell McCarthy tenders to his readers is probably closer than we dare imagine — but like McCarthy, we need to consider it so as to make its appearance impossible. It is a world without laws or morals; it is what must be avoided at all costs.

Bob Dylan’s last three records have all been a blast — from the dark blues of Time Out of Mind, and the great southern gothic of Love & Theft, to the delta rambling of Modern Times. All speak volumes about how we, as a culture, have lost our ability to focus on the things that make life worth living: love, family, mortality, or having a damn good time, for that matter. In these records, Dylan posits an America where the focus is not on technology or riches, not on being an 800-pound global gorilla, but on making relationships work, being friends and lovers and men and women who stand up to the powers that be and say, "Now hold on a minute, you expect me to believe what?"

As for Thomas Pynchon, The Docket’s own Paul Kennebeck already has written a wonderful essay on his latest masterwork, Against the Day, but I still want to throw my two cents into the pot: not since Mark Twain has a writer so completely understood the darkness in the light and the light in the darkness of American culture. Against the Day limns the world that made our world — the rise of the plutocracy, the hatred of anyone different, the awesome self-serving at the highest reaches of our society, the shear unadulterated pig-headedness of far too many of us; but also, the love among friends and family, the care for others among those who can barely care for themselves. Pynchon sees these as our saving graces, our chance to better ourselves as people and as a country.

So, breathe deep and take in the fresh air these aging artists are blowing your way. It’s time America’s youth culture took a back seat to real art and real artists, without a reality show in sight.

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