Many others have said things better than I could hope to:

“Making Light”:http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/006666.html is an excellent source for info, links, and commentary.

See also “Fred Clark”:http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2005/09/the_poor_are_le.html on the predicament of the poor, and “Jim Henley”:http://highclearing.com/index.php/archives/2005/09/01/4579 uttering an inescapable truth: “Every level of authority has failed those trapped in New Orleans.”


Spilled bear on my laptop the other night — on the righthand side of the keyboard. Everything continued to function, but now a dozen or so keys are very sticky, maybe 3 or 4 of them to the point where it breaks my stride when typing.

Beer strikes me as a Very Bad Thing to spill on a laptop. But I really don’t know how bad. Does anyone know: are things going to get worse if they haven’t gotten worse already? Is there anything I can do at this point other than hold my breath and hope it all gets better magically? Can anyone suggest creative ways I could spin this to Dell support so that it falls under the warranty?

RPG Idea Generator

Thanks to this, you will never need an idea for your next roleplaying game again.

Hat tip to Bryant Durrell.

My favorites so far:

The PCs are supermodel teenagers in our very town who, with computers, fight the Evil Empire for reasons of their own in the distant past.

The PCs are occult elves in a dream who, with breakdancing, fight Nazis for gold in World War II.

No Country For Old Men

For some introductory thoughts on Cormac McCarthy, see the previous entry.

All the way through Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, No Country For Old Men — at least until the three-quarter mark — I kept saying to myself “Well, the wily old dog’s finally gone and done it. He’s written a bona fide thriller, ready-made for the screen. Guess he wants a bit of a nest egg.”

That’s not as unusual as you might think. Sure, McCarthy has a rep for Faulknerian extravagance and existential cowboy philosophizing, but he’s written for the screen before (the little-seen The Gardener’s Son), and his original treatment of Cities of the Plain was actually as a screenplay, not as the third novel in his Border Trilogy. And his latest novel is still just that — a novel — even if it screams to be made into a film.

And mind you, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. McCarthy’s skills at taut dialogue, sharp pacing, and riveting bursts of action haven’t faded, and he employs them all masterfully here. The basic plot: Texas, 1980 or thereabouts. Llewelyn Moss, thirtysomething Vietnam vet, is hunting antelope when he stumbles upon a drug deal gone sour. Bodies everywhere, and, a few miles away, the suitcase full of cash. Against his better judgment he decides to take it, and is hounded from then on by drugdealers and by Anton Chirurgh, a psychopathic killer working for one faction or another in the botched deal. But the protagonist, at the end of the day, is Sheriff Bell, one of those “old men” from the title, on whose turf everything goes down, and who spends the novel following the trail of blood and wreckage left by Llewelyn’s pursuers.

Were it not for the relentless force of Chirurgh, Moss would be in the clear — he is cunning, and pages are spent detailing things like his careful approach to a motel, and the precise way he hides the suitcase full of money in the air duct. There’s a lot of descriptions of people standing still for ten minutes, thirty minutes, or two hours to make sure no one’s watching before they venture to cross a parking lot or stick their head out from behind a rock. And through all this McCarthy keeps the tension ratcheted up, way up, yet also balanced by a dry humor, evident through his characters, that we saw a little of in Cities of the Plain but hasn’t been seen in full force since Suttree.

Now come the spoilers.

And then, three-quarters of the way through, the plot-driven novel crumbles. Specifically, Chirurgh catches up to Moss, kills him, and gets the money back. Not only that, but the drama of that scene is deliberately skirted — it’s not even described at all, but only discovered by Sheriff Bell after the fact. A Hollywood ending would have demanded that either Moss get away in the end, or that he get this close, only to die at the very very end. Neither is possible at this point, but one could still imagine a satisfying resolution to the plot that involves Bell picking up the pieces and having a final confrontation of some sort of Chirurgh. But that doesn’t happen, either — Bell, his spirit broken, resigns. The remainder of the novel alternates between Bell’s inner musings, which have been cropping up as italicized introductions to each chapter since the beginning but now take center stage, and the final scenes of Chirurgh’s rampage.

The final chapters are chock-full of philosophical passages that McCarthy fans will find quite familiar. But here, they often fall flat. A big reason is the structural damage done to the novel — the way Moss’ fate is handled drains the story of much of its emotional impact. Elsewhere — especially in The Crossing, where it was laid on thickest — there’d be these huge diversions into free will and the nature of evil and whatnot, but there always seemed to be something at stake for the character in it, or some question about what the upshot would be that tied into the plot. Here they exist after the plot, not as part of it. Missing, too, are the themes of story and witness, solitude and hospitality, and the “world’s dream” — fruitful stuff from earlier books that get left behind in favor of weight-of-the-world, nature-of-evil philosophizing.

Anton Chirurgh is clearly a latter-day version of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian. Like the Judge, he is evil and probably psychotic, though he abides by a twisted sort of ethic — a straightforward code of conduct that is brutal in its simplicity. (Part of it for Chirurgh is to avoid making enemies by killing anyone who might become one.) But as transcendental baddies go, Chirurgh just doesn’t measure up. He’s better material for a film thriller, but doesn’t have the Judge’s eloquence, depth, or force of personality.

A cursory reading of No Country For Old Men can yield a pretty straightforward, conservative message, especially if you assume Bell is speaking for McCarthy. The sheriff clearly sees himself as coming from an older, simpler, gentler time, with all the brutality of the world lying in the future — and, given the way the drug trade has played havoc with his corner of Texas, you can hardly blame him. For him, the 60’s have poisoned the country, and stuff was better in his grandfather’s time. But for all that happens in this novel and in the Border Trilogy, nothing in them, when it comes to terror, fear, violence, or the problem of evil, can hold a candle to Blood Meridian. The history of the region, despite the ups and downs, can be seen as one of progress, at least insofar as things seem to suck a lot less in the 20th century than in the 19th. Besides, if McCarthy was really interested in writing a tirade about the Way the World is Going, why set it back in 1980?

It seems to me, rather, that McCarthy is interested in the Judge Holdens and Chirurghs as they exist at all points of history. The devils will always be with us, in different forms. This time around he’s examining the psychology of an old man confronting all of this instead of a young one, but the conservatism inherent in his response is just Bell’s — though to McCarthy’s credit, he conveys it so well that it’s easy to sympathize with Bell’s point of view.

Ultimately, then, we have here a failed novel by a virtuoso. What might have been a sublime potboiler falls apart at the end, and the thought novel that replaces it doesn’t have enough to offer. There’s a new perspective — that of an old man — but nothing that holds up in comparison to McCarthy’s earlier work. Of course, had this been McCarthy’s first novel, it’d have to be seen in a different light, and would deserve a heck of a lot more praise. Like all aging, great authors, he works under the burden of his own legacy. And, in this case, the burden of time — I realized that part of the reason I was expecting another Great Novel from him was that it had been seven years since the last one. But for all we know, he spent those years spending time with friends, playing pool, living life — and who could blame him?

A final thought: we could still see a movie out of this book. All you’d have to do is shift the focus away from Bell and rewrite the ending a little. It’d make a great movie for some gritty, artsy director, and — holy cow, I just realized — Clint Eastwood could play Bell and Colin Farrell could play Moss and it’d get nominated for an Oscar. Meanwhile, McCarthy fans would get to complain about how the movie was nothing like the book, and McCarthy would get his nest egg and could set to work on the next project. Or just play pool. Everybody’s happy. Maybe that was the wily old dog’s plan all along.

Cormac McCarthy, In Brief

So I’m about to start Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, No Country For Old Men. For me, doing so is a task saddled with a little extra baggage: McCarthy is the author whose works I spent a couple years totally immersed in, working on a dissertation that never coalesced. There’s a whole lot that sucked about that time of my life, but for all the stress and misery, never once did I actually tire of reading Cormac McCarthy. Nor did I ever feel like I ever got to the bottom of one of his books, or even close.

Still, not that many people have read him. College lit students will be reading him in fifty years, I predict, but what about you, now? Don’t know where to start? Here’s a handy-dandy guide.

*If you only read one Cormac McCarthy novel, read . . .*

Blood Meridian. A grandiose, brutal book set in the mid-19th century, telling the story of a lawless band of Indian hunters on the Texas-Mexico border. It is the most violent book I have ever read. In terms of style, it is the greatest accomplishment in English prose in the second half of the 20th century. The protagonist, the unnamed “kid,” must contend with Judge Holden, a terrifying figure who manages somehow to be both Captain Ahab and the White Whale wrapped into one. Whatever your hopes, whatever your beliefs, Judge Holden will bring them to their knees.

*If you only read two McCarthy novels, also read . . .*

_Suttree. With a caveat. Suttree is to Knoxville, Tennessee as Ulysses is to Dublin. And like Ulysses, it is long and convoluted and a downright hard read — and for a McCarthy fan to say this is saying something. So it is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re the sort of person with an appetite for that sort of book, Suttree will reward your effort in spades. It tells the story of a disaffected man who leaves a life of comfort to live among the vagabonds and wastrels of 1950’s Knoxville. But it is exactly the kind of book where telling you what it’s about tells you very little about what makes it great. I wish I could say more insightful things about it off the cuff, but a few years ago, only having read it twice back to back and thought about it a great deal, did I feel I finally had gotten my mind around it. It was a tenuous hold that has since slipped, but left behind memories of “Wow.” So yeah. One of those kinds of books.

*If you only read five of his novels, also read . . .*

The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. You can divide McCarthy scholars into a couple of camps: those who think these books have a lot to offer, and those who think that they’re watered-down and popularized, and that the man has lost his edge. (“Camps” is probably too strong a word, though, because McCarthy scholarship is a pretty small field just now, and whenever they meet at Southern lit conferences or what have you, I’m sure all these people are clustered together at the hotel bar, chatting amicably.)

The trilogy takes place on the Mexico border, and features two young men as protagonists — they each have their own story, and then they meet in Book Three. Each of them is a successor to the unnamed kid of Blood Meridian, but, for all the harsh conditions they must endure and the brutality they must confront, it’s a cakewalk compared to what that poor guy went through. What annoys the people in the second camp about these books is that in them McCarthy seems to be bringing together some concrete thoughts about Big Issues — language, human nature, God — and wrestling with them, whereas those second campers see in McCarthy’s works a relentlessly nihilistic vision, devoid of answers or even, for that matter, of questions.

Strong points of the trilogy: masterful prose, though more in a macho Hemingway-esque style, less in the Faulknerian vein of his earlier works. Some solid idea nuggets to chew on — The Crossing is a straight-up philosophical novel when you get right down to it, with its concluding chapter basically saved for the last part of Cities of the Plain. Weak points: see “macho,” above. Men and boys. Fights and grit. Conspicuous absence of strong female characters.

*If you only read six of his novels, also read . . .*

Child of God. Because, y’know, how many books about necrophiliac outcasts have you read, anyway?

As for where No Country For Old Men fits in here — I’ll let you know when I finish it.

UPDATE: Here’s the promised review.

Quick Music Reviews

Coldplay, X&Y

On first listen, I found this album both overblown and cheesy. Consider the structure of the song “Fix You”:

  • A verse, all about someone at the end of their rope and how the singer’s going to reach out and help them, sung in Chris Martin’s trademark falsetto with aery organ accompaniment.
  • Second verse sung to same, with acoustic guitar strumming with increasing energy, leading to:
  • Drums! Electric guitar! A big wall o’ sound playing the same riff over and over and over again.
  • Both verses, this time sung by approximately twenty Chris Martins in unison with wall o’ sound accompaniment.
  • The first verse, again, this time in Chris Martin’s trademark quiet voice, with subdued regular piano.

    That’s it. That’s the song. Basically one melody and a guitar riff, played on slightly different instruments, quiet then LOUD then quiet. Fini.

    And yet, dang it, it grew on me. The whole album grew on me. It almost never happens, in books or in film, that an initial judgment of something as “cheesy” ever gets replaced in one’s mind. You can come to like something that you found too slow at first, or too cerebral, or even too predictable. But too cheesy? Rarely. And yet, in music, this has happened to me time and again. The stuff gets under your skin. It seduces you.

    X&Y is no Rush of Blood to the Head, but it’s a solid album, and proof that Coldplay still has a subtle magic that will carry them far. In one of those “is Coldplay the best band in the universe?” interviews I read somewhere, when asked if he thought if his band was better than Radiohead, Chris Martin said: “No. But we will be.” I’m skeptical, but nevertheless: good luck, guys.

    The Killers, Hot Fuss

    It’s from last year, but I’m forever playing catch-up with music these days. This is the album that has finally unseated American Idiot in the highly-competetive “Stuff Nate Plays Really Loud When Driving Alone” slot. Average number of times that I listen to “All These Things That I Have Done” in a row: 2. Record number of times: 5. Great song. The band seems a little bit like a transplant from the 80’s—probably because of those synthesizers—but had they actually been around back then we wouldn’t need to be as embarrassed by that decade’s music.

    The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan

    If someone had told me beforehand that in the Stripes’ next album, Jack White would set aside his guitar in favor of a piano and a marimba, for Pete’s sake, I would have said “Ah. This is it. Convinced he can do no wrong, Jack White has decided to go all gonzo on us. He’s done gone and jumped the shark.”

    So now it’s official, I guess: Jack White can do no wrong. Get Behind Me Satan is awesome in a thousand unpredictable ways. The White Stripes rock the whole world.

That Game

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has been occupying a hefty chunk of my free time for the past several weeks; it’s been great fun—the best game I’ve played on the Xbox since Halo 2. Now, as video games go, it’s rated M for Mature—the equivalent of a movie ‘R’ rating. The protagonist of the game, the guy who’s actions you’re controlling, is a criminal. Still, there’s something a little off in our society, when I can say “I like Goodfellas” or “I read Elmore Leonard novels” and few would bat an eye, but “I like Grand Theft Auto” garners the all-too-frequent response: “You play that game?”

Chalk it up to the age of video games as a medium—in the greater scheme of things, they’re still pretty young. Once any medium has been around for a while, individual works tend to be judged on individual merits: “That was a great film!” “That book sucked.” You’ll be hard pressed to find someone nowadays who would make a sweeping statement like “novels are bad for you,” but of course that’s exactly what lots of people said when novels first became popular. Video games are currently plagued with plenty of similar generalizations and misconceptions.

One particularly troublesome one is that “video games are for kids!” Well, no, video games are for whoever the individual games are made for. Saying so is just as silly as saying “fiction is for kids!” or “comic books are for kids!”—that latter one we’ve just about grown out of, though you still come across lapses from time to time. It isn’t even the case (and hasn’t been for many years) that “most video games are made for kids” or even that “kids play video games more than adults.”

Such misconceptions underlie a big part of the controversy over the “Hot Coffee” mod for GTA: San Andreas—a downloadable hack to the original game that unlocks sexually explicit content. Rockstar, the game’s publisher, didn’t create the mod, nor did they ever suggest that anything in the game was remotely appropriate for children. And yet we get statements like this one from Congressman Fred Upton:

It appears that the publisher has blatantly circumvented the rules in order to peddle sexually explicit material to our youth, and they should be held accountable. A company cannot be allowed to profit from deceit.

Rockstar, the publisher, is guilty of stupidity and immaturity. They created the explicit content in the first place, and when they decided not to include it in the game (probably fearing it would get an Adults Only rating instead of an M), they simply cut off the content from the rest of the game, but left the code on the disc. There’s no way they can feign surprise that someone found the content and figured out a way to unlock it—the modding community for the Grand Theft Auto series of games is huge, and Rockstar has even gone out of the way in the past to place hidden surprises in their games for those who hack them. So they had to know that the cordoned-off content would be found, and probably assumed it would create some buzz, but underestimated the response. Stupid.

Still, even if you grant that they should be held responsible for content not present in the actual version of the game (and also considering that any hacked version, while not uncommon, is technically in violation of the Terms of Service)—a shaky case at best—there simply oughtn’t be a controversy about adult content in a game for adults. The kicker is that the content in question is nowhere near as racy or explicit as plenty of scenes that you could find in rated R movies—and, given its pixellated nature, the titillation factor is nonexistent. Nevertheless, the ESRB has re-rated San Andreas with an Adults Only rating, which means that it’s been yanked off the shelves of Walmart, Best Buy, and plenty of other chains. Sales will take a big hit, needless to say.

Let’s pause here for a moment and consider what it says about our society, when a game that’s chock full of bloody and completely superfluous violence barely raises an eyebrow, but the inclusion of scenes depicting consensual sex creates a kerfluffle to the highest levels of government. That is very screwed up.

The ESRB’s move is questionable, but Rockstar dug their own grave on this one, so maybe they got their just desserts. But any further action, especially in the way of a political response, would be a big mistake.

Further reading: Greg Costikyan laid into Rockstar a while back, and recently laid into the “twits in Washington.” Both worth reading. Also see this incisive rant, via Boing Boing.

(Incidentally, unlike, say, Goodfellas, the violence in San Andreas is thoroughly superfluous and does nothing to enhance the artistic merits of the work. Those merits have to do with the incredible range of activities available in the game, the immersive, huge, continuous setting, and the designers’ meticulous attention to detail. When playing the game, there is a certain guilty thrill the first time you steal a car and start driving around like a maniac. But ultimately, it’s a great game in spite of the things that garnered it an M rating, not because of them.)

Batman Begins

Best Batman movie made yet. That’s easy. How does it stack up against the best superhero movies ever? That’s harder to say, because in some ways it’s comparing apples and oranges. X-Men 2 and Spider-Man 2 are both excellent, but, though Spider-Man does quite a bit with the ol’ power ‘n’ responsibility theme, they’re both primarily action films. Batman Begins has plenty of action, but it is primarily a character study.

Christopher Nolan takes a tremendous risk in playing the story straight and serious. But with smart writing and impeccable performances behind him, he pulls it off. The Batman story is all tied up with revenge—doing it or not doing it—and fear—how to conquer it, how to use it. One of the classic Batman tensions is the thin line between Bruce Wayne and the loonies he squares off against, and this comes out clearly in the film.

Loved seeing Gary Oldman’s Detective Gordon, clearly modelled on the Gordon from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Loved seeing the old-school Batman characters like Fox make an appearance, though admittedly I never read those original Batman comics in the first place.

Only quibble: the fight sequences are almost all frenetic blurs that are too hard to follow. At a couple of points this is the right move: in those first scenes after Wayne puts on the Batman costume, we see things from the thugs’ perspective, and the visual language is that of a horror film, where you’re not supposed to clearly see just what the thing that’s attacking is. But even in the more straightforward fights earlier and later, the shots are cut so quicly that it’s hard to pick up any clear narrative of the struggle.

Fear is everywhere in Batman Begins. In one of our first scenes we learn how young Bruce Wayne gained his fear of bats. It is fear of the corrupt and powerful that keeps good men like Gordon from acting against the system. The Scarecrow’s poison gas induces paranoid delusions that cause people to react out of fear—and Batman uses theatrics to induce a similar sort of fear in his foes. There’s that thin line between the hero and the villain—though the Scarecrow’s gas can make people fearful who mightn’t be otherwise, while Batman plays upon the inherent weakness in his enemies. There’s a message implicit here, one that comes through loud and clear by the end: fear is something you conquer, and acting out of it is a sure road to failure. It put me in mind of Tony Blair after the London bombings, and how telling Britons not to be afraid was one of the first things out of his mouth, and how similar language has been conspicuously absent from Bush’s pronouncements, post-9/11 and since.

Anyway—I don’t mean to say that this is a conscious or even prominent reference in the film—it was just something I happened to respond to when I saw it. Still, living as we are in a time when how we respond to fear is important, people could do a lot worse than go see this movie.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Warning: Unless you totally don’t care about spoilers, read Book Six before you read what follows.

Harry Potter fans will all remember the moment in Book Four when Harry touches the Goblet of Fire and is teleported into the graveyard where Voldemort, finally ready to take physical form again, has laid a trap for him. It’s when the bottom falls out of Harry’s, and our, world—what had once been a fairly genteel story about kids at a wizarding school becomes something far darker. Harry’s friend Cedric dies. The broader conflict of this seven-book series comes to the fore, with the familiar outlines of high-fantasy plotline: flawed good stands off against ultimate evil, with even the safe havens held most dear at risk.

All of this raised the bar tremendously for J.K. Rowling. And now, a couple more books in, it’s clear that despite the great things now afoot in her world, she insists on maintaining the formula of all the earlier books. Book Six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, like its predecessors, still spends most of its time concerned with the ins and outs of the academic year at Hogwarts, and on the relationships and growing pains of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The plot, like that of its predecessors, is an intricately crafted magical mystery. The tone does not fundamentally change—at no point, despite the high stakes, does it ever approach anything that would merit the term “epic.”

Thank goodness for all of that! Rowling shows restraint in keeping her story tied to the everyday experiences of Harry and is friends (at least until the final chapters, when, as with Books Four and Five, the rollercoaster kicks in). And either she got a grip on her overwriting or her editor started cracking a whip—Book Six is considerably shorter than Four or Five, though still closer to Four than Three. (It may appear longer because it went back to the larger font size of the earlier volumes. But Book Five is now the clear outlier in terms of length, as well as the only book so far that is markedly longer than it should have been.)

Halfway through I realized that: 1) it was still unclear who the antagonist was, 2) the conflict that held the most interest was whether Ron and Hermione were going to get together, and 3) that that was just fine with me. By that point, too, not only has Harry not engaged in any particularly heroic action, but he’s busy cheating in Potions using the marginalia in his used textbook, once the property of the mysterious Half-Blood Prince. Hermione has also cheated in order to get Ron on the Quidditch team. And Ron spends most of the book acting like a grade-A asshole. They are all self-absorbed, and tend to make selfish decisions. In other words, they’re behaving just like the teenagers they are. And, befitting a story about teenagers, questions of Who’s Going Out With Who dominate the middle section of the plot. Why wasn’t this incredibly annoying? Simple: we know these characters, we have watched them grows up, and time and again Rowling nails gets the psychology of their situation exactly right.

Though I’m overall very happy that Book Six keeps its attention on the characters—that there are no big battles ‘till the very end, and that Voldemort doesn’t even show his face—one downside is that the buildup to the climax, in the form of Harry being suspicious of Malfoy and Snape, gets old after a while. There are a handful many scenes in the form of:

HARRY: But listen, guys! Draco is up to something!

RON a/o HERMIONE: But Harry, we think you’re making too much of it.

And the other letdown is that, at the end of the day, all of Harry’s suspicions turn out to be entirely justified, just like they always are. He was right about Draco being up to something. He was right that Dumbledore shouldn’t have trusted Snape. What’s different is that this time we as readers are held (successfully, I think) at a point of uncertainty about whether Harry is right or not; that counts for something, though I found myself wishing he was wrong and thus a little disappointed when he wasn’t.

I’m still not entirely sure what to think about all the Pensieve Chapters, in which Dumbledore takes Harry through a stroll through the memories of people who encountered Voldemort early in his life. Ultimately they add up to a whole lot of exposition—an info dump about Voldemort’s background that Rowling tries to make less cumbersome by spreading it throughout the book, though it’s still basically an info dump. Viewed purely in the context of this book, those chapters are unforgivable—all they’re doing is providing background on a character who doesn’t even show up. But viewed in the context of the whole series, and especially Book Seven, I have a feeling they’ll be essential. The Pensieve Chapters also give us lots of Dumbledore—more dialogue with him, I suspect, than the rest of the books combined. And it’s good stuff, too, not just Dumbledore being the enigmatic Headmaster, but one who’s starting to confide in Harry as an equal, preparing him to go it alone because, as he surely must suspect and possibly even expect, his own days are numbered.

The War on Terror analogies come on strong in Book Six. (A while back I noted a “memo to John Ashcroft” section of Book Four.) The struggle against Voldemort and his Death Eaters is a war only in the same imprecise sense that the WoT is. Their actions are, so far, exactly those of terrorists—not blatant attempts to conquer, but attempts to undermine and sow fear by striking at anyone, anywhere. And, as it is in the real world, the government (in this case the Ministry) is making plenty of mistakes in dealing with the situation. Stan Shunpike, imprisoned in Azkaban just so that the Ministry can be seen to be Doing Something, is a transparent reference to Guantanamo. But here, too, Rowling’s focus on the mundane redeems what might have been a hamhanded bit of political finger-waving—her real concern is how the kids and parents alike must contend with the fear of a constant and ambiguous threat, and that part, from Mrs. Weasley’s constant worries to the tense conversations at Hogwarts about whose parents are pulling their kids out, Rowling gets just right.

The rollercoaster starts the minute Harry nearly kills Draco with the Sectumsempra spell he learned from the Half-Blood Prince. He’s unwilling to face the dark implications of the act, and before he has time to truly face them, he learns of Snape’s role in exposing his parents (a little too conveniently, I thought), and before he can contend with that Dumbledore is whisking him off to the cave. Suddenly, a plot which has been leisurely ambling along kicks into high gear, and before we can blink, Dumbledore is dead.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I strongly approve of the de-mystification of Voldemort’s background. Again, this is not epic fantasy—it is fitting, even necessary, that we see Voldemort’s history and his relationship to Hogwarts. He is no longer E-vil, but someone for whom an inexhausible desire for knowledge, coupled with a basic inability to love, yields a personality prone to the dismantling of his own soul. The Horcruxes will make for some convenient plot milestones in Book Seven, but they’re also an outgrowth of Voldemort’s magpie-tendencies and an ironic symbol of the self-destruction he’s engaged in while in pursuit of immortality. Going into the final book, he’s still the Big Bad, but now he’s one that’s three-dimensional.

And the Cave, oh, the Cave. Great chapter. Dumbledore’s last hurrah—and what fun it is to see him in action, too. We see the subtlety of a powerful magician, and always his understated humor, even as he moves toward his death. Does he know it? That’s not entirely clear, though I hope we’ll hear a little more from him (maybe through his painting?) in the next book.

We have a bit of Tolkienesque recovery going on in the form of the Inferi. They are, basically, zombies, as common a fantasy bugaboo as you can find. But because they haven’t been seen before in Harry’s world, and because of the fear and awe the kids express when contemplating them, and of course because of the way they’re perfectly described in the scene itself, they become terrifying and new, as if Rowling was the first one to invent the concept.

And, of course, there’s Snape. He has always been one of my favorite characters in the books, and always one I felt got a bum rap. I always hoped that beneath his gruff demeanor and his obvious dislike of Harry was a guy who would do the right thing when the time came. And room was left for this, right up until the bitter end. In the excellent scene in chapter two, Snape wins the trust of the Death Eaters by making them think he knows from Voldemort what Draco’s mission is—but, if you look closely, at no point is he forced to demonstrate this knowledge. At the time I assumed he was still Dumbledore’s mole. And, I say with more self-congratulation than is probably warranted, I had him pegged as the Half-Blood Prince fairly early on, and loved the fact that Harry’s ace-in-the-hole was knowledge gleaned from the one professor he despised.

The upshot is that when Dumbledore was slumped there at the edge of the Astronomy Tower, and it was clear that Draco was not going to be able to summon the will to kill him, and when Snape arrived on the scene, I really really thought he was going to turn against the Death Eaters and save the day. And when he didn’t, I felt, not the “I knew it!” rage that Harry must have felt, but the deep-down sense of betrayal and disappointment that must have been going through Dumbledore’s head before he died. And the power with which that moment punched me in the gut is more than enough reason to forgive Rowling for taking things a different direction than I might have liked.

But I can’t resist a little bit of speculation on the future redemption of Snape. As I noted, it’s still entirely possible that he was lying to Bellatrix in chapter two about Voldemort confiding in him about Draco’s mission. But it quickly became evident that the only way for him to gain their trust in him was to take the Unbreakable Vow to assist Draco in his mission. And that vow is, y’know, unbreakable—so perhaps, in that moment when he nailed Dumbledore with an Avada Kedavra, he was still doing what the vow compelled him to do. And, again—and it would be so cool if this is how it plays out in Book Seven—maybe Dumbledore knew all of this was coming, and realized that the only way to get Snape in position to strike a crucial blow against Voldemort and redeem himself was if he himself was allowed to die in this manner.

Yeah, that would rock. Ms. Rowling, feel free to steal this idea. I won’t tell. (and see the update, below)

Anyway, even though it shocked me while I was in the moment, in retrospect, Dumbledore had to die in this book. This way we get the post-Dumbledore Harry—grown-up, innocence lost—for a whole book. It became clear in the past couple of books that Dumbledore really was incredibly powerful, to the point where a showdown with Voldemort didn’t have quite the necessary sense of tension while he was still around. But while that he would die was inevitable, the way Rowling manages to wring the last drop of tragedy out of the moment isn’t by making it more violent or by throwing in a few extra deaths, but by making it for nothing—Harry and Dumbledore didn’t even get the Horacrux they set out to find. There’s no upside, no “well, if they hadn’t gone, X or Y wouldn’t have been possible.” The upshot of the whole book is that the good guys got creamed, pure and simple.

All this sets us up for Book Seven, which looks like it will be very different from the others. Harry & Co. may not even return to school—if Hogwarts opens at all. The familiar formula of Books 1-6 will likely be abandoned for something else, and, while I praise Book Six for sticking to that formula, I think the time is now right to break the mold. Let’s see our heroes get out into the world. Harry’s stance at the very end—carefully cultivated all through the book by Dumbledore—is one of determination, not despair. His readiness to get out there, find the Horacruxes, and bring Voldemort down is inspiring. Get out there and kick ass, Harry. Two years is going to be awfully long to wait.

UPDATE: As is so often the case, getting a chance to talk about the book with others has helped clarify things, and now I wish I hadn’t softpedaled the whole notion that there’s something more than meets the eye with Snape going on. Thinking about it more, it seems self-evident that Dumbledore knew what Snape would do. My friend Julia also pointed out that in making sure things went this way, Dumbledore was protecting Draco. This is true both of his soul—making sure that Draco had a chance to kill him but realized he couldn’t—and his body—ensuring that Draco’s mission wasn’t a failure so that Voldemort wouldn’t just kill him outright.

So yeah, my estimation of Dumbledore, and the book as a whole, has been kicked up a notch or two since first writing about it. (see also James’ point in the comments.)

UPDATE2: Don’t miss the comment by Anonymous, who theorizes that Dumbledore ain’t really dead, and has some very interesting textual tidbits to back it up.