Cormac McCarthy and the worst hotel in Europe

Much of our recent trip to Madrid was paid by conference organizers, who had booked John to teach a workshop and give a talk the last three days we were there. How exciting! we thought. Four free nights in a fancy hotel!

It turned out to be the Worst Hotel in Europe. By “worst,” I don’t mean shabbiest or scariest. That’s what was so devilish about the Auditorium Madrid. When you pull up, it looks fine. But just a few steps past the respectable lobby and you start to notice the weird decorations and creepy paintings (dead dogs! how inviting!), the looming warehouse feel. After negotiating block after block of stacked halls, you finally turn down the one you’ve been assigned, shards of cheap berber carpet burrowing into your nostrils. Your room holds a pair of mattresses with bulging springs, everything drenched in stale choking smoke and the kind of lighting that makes you want to drink yourself to death.

This place. Man, what can I say? From a distance, it looks like a Soviet prison. From the inside, it looks like The Shining.

But all I had to do was sleep there, right? If only! The hotel is charmingly located off a freeway near the airport in nearby Barajas. You literally cannot walk out of there safely. The hotel has no store (!), no vending machines (!!)—and the city of Madrid is a 15-minute drive away, a $30 cab ride each way. There’s a restaurant in the hotel, but it’s equally expensive and bordering on inedible. Trapped, depressed, and starving, I took to hoarding crumbs in our room, trying to make meals out of tiny oranges and stale bread.

Yet this soul-sucking place turned out to be the perfect location to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Always on the brink of death, McCarthy’s postapocalyptic protagonist shepherds his young son through a poisoned world. Ash falls constantly from the sky; plants and animals have ceased to exist. And other human survivors are no consolation: most have become murderous thugs, teeth “claggy with human flesh” (64). The man and the boy (their only appellations in the book) must be smart and wily, searching constantly for preserved foods that somehow eluded earlier seekers—and evading the depraved survivors who would kill and eat them.

By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond. (152-53)

Never have I envisioned such an ugly world, yet rarely have I encountered such beautiful writing. McCarthy’s style shifts from spare to breathless and back again, its diction always delightful. His frequent use of fragments upset me at first, but I soon fell into the rhythm of the narrative—a combination of brief dialogue and the man’s stream of consciousness—and forgave the author all his grammatical indiscretions. (This is not an invitation to my writing students, however, to follow suit.)

The writing makes this book. The vision is disturbing; the premise is compelling; but it’s the writing that makes the story a Pulitzer Prize winner. Even at its simplest, it conveys not only the horror, barrenness, and loneliness of McCarthy’s ravaged planet, but the unflinching devotion between parent and child, the struggle to maintain both morality and dignity in a world that rewards only the most inhuman and ruthless.

The boy looked down the road.
I want you to tell me. It’s okay.
He shook his head.
Look at me, the man said.
He turned and looked. He looked like he’d been crying.
Just tell me.
We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
You said we weren’t.
I said we weren’t dying. I didn’t say we weren’t starving.
But we wouldn’t.
No. We wouldn’t.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
Yes.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes. (108-09)

The Road had a powerful effect on me. On the one hand, trapped in the Worst Hotel in Europe with no food and some seriously grim lighting, I related wholeheartedly to the man’s struggle. On the other hand, I actually enjoyed escaping into McCarthy’s fictional landscape, which was so much worse than my real-life one and yet so beautifully rendered that I couldn’t stay away. Still, it was all so dark. Shifting my attention back and forth between hotel and book, I grew increasingly depressed and really started to sympathize with the protagonist’s long-gone wife, who took herself out when she realized that being raped and eaten was not really how she wanted things to end.

Luckily, in the brink of time, a plane came and whisked me out of that hellhole and returned my suicidal depression levels to normal. But The Road is definitely still with me, perhaps even more so now that my stomach is full and my lighting is cheerful. The Road is haunting. It’s wonderful. Look at it this way: it was so good, even staying at the Auditorium Madrid Hotel was worth it.

*

John’s song about the hotel, sung to the tune of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”:

Trapped here in the Hotel Auditorium
Only five years old and strangely drab
Lord I hope the hotel shuttle bus will come
Because it’s 20 euros just to catch a cab.

There’s no doubt gonna shout let me out – BRA!
La la la la let me out
There’s no doubt gonna shout let me out – BRA!
La la la la let me out

Bridge:
In a couple of hours you are feeling negative
In a couple of days you are so depressed
You’ve lost your will to live

(At that point he lost his will to live and couldn’t finish the song.)

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