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The 2007 Tournament of Books is over. To view this year's Tournament, go here.


March 13, 2007

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo


The Road


I’m happy if I finish three books in a year, so this tourney is basically my Bookmobile. Just thought I’d mention that. I don’t do sports metaphors.

I wondered if Cormac McCarthy ever considered calling his tale of an unnamed American father and son’s post-nuclear trek A Boy and His Dad instead of The Road. But McCarthy might have invented post-apocalyptic beach reading here. I mean no insult: The prose is whittled-down, terse yet poetic. The economy of words makes it a quick read, yet it keeps you on your toes. There’s no mention of the word “nuclear,” but there’s “pampooties.” Some people hate that shit. I like it, but this is my first McCarthy novel. Shut up.

The chapterless Road follows a rambling, linear path, alternating the minutiae of survival (the whereabouts of a shopping cart factor large in this story) with occasional stops for dreams and flashbacks that in no way reprieve. The fearsome road warriors armed with their souped-up bats and chained sex-slaves sure ring a bell, true, as do the horror-show glimpses of human heads under diner-counter cake cases. What lingers is the cold, the blackness, the sleeplessness, the stench, the meagerness, the odd human survivor who is nonetheless someone you should probably and swiftly hide from.

I sound like a dust jacket here, but the love between the dad, who’s definitely in the running for Awesomeist Post-Apocalyptic Dad Ever, and the son, born shortly after the “concussions,” who’s only known sunless gray and suffocation (his mother offed herself with a “flake of obsidian”), is the unexpected element in a story in which freeze-dried corpses are something to be envied. I’m sorry I sound like a dust jacket. It’s a gorgeous thing, yet it in no way overshadows or negates the misery. The book would suck if it did. Something beautiful can also entirely beg the question. Should this child sustained by his father’s love even be alive? I’m still not sure. The Biblical overtones are obvious, but the book’s not a nap in the pews. McCarthy’s not challenging your faith in God so much as your faith in humanity, and while the meter needle’s pretty much bottoming out on that anyhow, there’s sanctuary to be found in this otherwise utterly riven tale.

When I closed The Road, I muttered, “Directed by Steven Spielberg.” It was a feeble attempt at rationalization after having my eyeballs sandpapered down to hard calcium deposits. The remark was triggered by the redemption implying resolution, without giving too much away, I hope. After more than 200 pages of virtuoso bleakness and cruelty, it was natural to wonder if the book had earned its ending. But The Road could have totally succumbed to the black and the ash and it still would have been just as apt a conclusion, I believe.

• •

From The Road’s ash-blasted post-apocalypse to The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo’s sandblasted, post-war Namibia. I dunno, I always hate it when the perennially praised warhorse wins the Oscar over the whip-smart fresh young thing. I liked the rigorousness of Peter Orner’s writing and the unfamiliar setting, and the default solidarity and lack of coziness among the characters as they bake and freeze on the veldt. (The dust jacket was placed in a dresser drawer, by the way.) While McCarthy’s supporting characters are primarily child-eaters viewed from afar, Orner’s have names, philosophies, and specific hats. In fact, all the characters in the novel appear supporting, even first-person Larry Kaplanski (or “Kaplansk” as he is called), Orner’s self-effacing Cincinnatian who’s come to teach English at a desert-locked boy’s school in the early ‘90s. Larry’s far from the most interesting character anyway; that honor goes to the aging history teacher Obadiah. The only one that remains an enigma is Mavala Shikongo, the teacher and former SWAPO revolutionary who’s returned after a brief absence with a one-year-old child. She’s basically Greta Garbo, and successfully pulls off the wearing of heels in the veldt, so naturally the male teachers drool over her. When she and Larry finally hook up, they do so atop the nearby Boer graves, since rules against inter-teacher coupling prevent them from using their own beds. Nice touch. A description of raisins on page 150 was the only thing that ever made me want to stop reading.

Perhaps my eyes hadn’t grown back after reading The Road, and I couldn’t deal with Big Themes again just yet, but I preferred hearing about Obadiah’s sand-marooned Datsun and Pohamba’s story of his revolutionary-leader-brother-turned-informer in the book’s slow, episodic pace. Because Mavala’s so laconic—plus she’s, after all, a sex object to the men—her character rarely emerges; she comes alive when she’s either pointing out or yelling about someone’s foolish delusions.

So yeah, The Road.

• Today’s WINNER •

The Road

• About the Judge •

Maria Schneider writes for and associate-edits The Onion. In her spare time, she watches TV, has writer’s block, and does updates for her cartoon web site,, but doesn’t post them. She honestly doesn’t know any of the judges. She had to look up Sam Lipsyte on the Wikipedia.

• From the Booth •

I would be disappointed if Cormac McCarthy didn’t hold me in utter contempt, especially after perusing my Netflix queue. Kevin John Judging from McCarthy’s oeuvre and author photo—where even his crags have crags—you don’t get the sense he’s not a laugh-a-minute guy in everyday life.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. Absurdistan
judged by Brady Udall

The Echo Maker v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Marcus Sakey

Firmin v. Brookland
judged by Sarah Hepola

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo v. The Road
judged by Maria Schneider

Arthur and George v. One Good Turn
judged by Kate Schlegel

The Lay of the Land v. English, August
judged by Colin Meloy

Alentejo Blue v. Apex Hides the Hurt
judged by Dan Chaon

Against the Day v. Pride of Baghdad
judged by Anthony Doerr

• Round Two •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Jessa Crispin

Firmin v. The Road
judged by Mark Sarvas

One Good Turn v. The Lay of the Land
judged by Maud Newton

Alentejo Blue v. Against the Day
judged by Sam Lipsyte


Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Road
judged by Elizabeth Gaffney

One Good Turn v. Against the Day
judged by Sasha Frere-Jones


The Road v. Against the Day
judged by Andrew Womack

One Good Turn v. Absurdistan
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin


The Road v. Absurdistan
All Judges + Jessica Francis Kane