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Cormac McCarthy: A Survey and Appreciation

By John Mason Lock

Cormac McCarthy died June 13 at the age of 89. He was to my way of thinking the greatest living novelist in the United States. A few years ago, he might have needed to compete with Toni Morrison, but with her passing in 2019, he was (albeit briefly) free of all contenders. Both Morrison and McCarthy were influenced by William Faulkner. Not only did they imitate Faulkner’s style, but Morrison and McCarthy also shared other common themes and methods. With his passing, McCarthy enters the ever-increasing roll of dead authors whom I revere and lamentably reduces the number of living authors of this caliber to an embarrassingly small number. In this post, I’d like to give a brief survey of McCarthy’s works, with some suggestions on what to read of his work and how to read them and then conclude with a few appreciative remarks from a Christian vantage.

McCarthy was notoriously reclusive, giving very few interviews in his lifetime, so the novels to a great extent have to speak for themselves. There are themes that run through all the novels, such as violence and alienation and an invariable concern for those who live on the outer edges of society. Although there are moments of redemption and hope, the overall ethos is rather hellish and the redemption and hope are often purchased at a dear price.

Furthermore, as with his muse Faulkner, entering a McCarthy novel can be a disorienting experience. McCarthy does not lay out his plots in an orderly fashion, and he often refrains from using quotation marks and other indicators to identify the speaker. In a number of his novels he uses untranslated dialogue in Spanish. He forces us as readers to surrender the sense of order that we expect from a fictional storyline, thrusting us into what I might call a hyper-realism where the feelings of ambiguity and uncertainty that we experience in our lives are mimicked in our encounter with a book.

The twelve novels can be roughly divided into various periods of his career. The first three are all set in the South and relate stories of troubling depravity (If you’re wondering why a Christian would want to read about such things, skip down to the next dropcap).

In The Orchard Keeper (1965), a man kills a hitchhiker who attacks him. Much later he becomes friends with the attacker’s son, unbeknownst to both. Outer Dark (1968) tells of an incestuous relationship between siblings in an indeterminate setting (hence the title). When the relationship produces a baby, the sister makes a long journey to save the life of her baby from her enraged brother. Child of God tells of a troubled individual who becomes a serial killer and necrophiliac. To my way of thinking, these three novels represent a kind of embryonic stage in McCarthy’s oeuvre. Many of the themes of later works are anticipated, but mastery of the form has not yet been achieved and so the effect is but an echo of what he would later accomplish.

The next novel is a linchpin into his most popular and prolific period. Suttree (1979) is thought to be a roman-a-clef (i.e., thinly veiled autobiography) about McCarthy’s time living on the banks of the Chattanooga River in the city of the same name. The protagonist lives in a houseboat, encountering many of the seedy inhabitants of “invisible” society. This is probably McCarthy’s most straightforward novel, with more frequent doses of levity.

The next period of his novels is known as his western period. It begins with what is widely considered his masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985). A critic’s blurb on the back deftly calls it a combination of the Iliad, the Inferno, and Moby Dick. Set in the latter half of the 19th century in the border region between the United States and Mexico, it tells of a renegade calvary of Confederate veterans who go on the hunt for Indian scalps, prompted by a promised reward from the Mexican government.

Violence begets more violence, and the thinly veiled barbarity of the initial mission is revealed in its all depravity. This is not easy reading either for style or content, but McCarthy’s sordid tale is derived from historical events. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which was born from a report of an escaped enslaved woman who immolated her child when her captors came to take her back into slavery, Blood Meridian is derived from actual events. It reminds us that the West was anything but good guys versus bad guys. The true West witnessed unspeakable horrors.

Blood Meridian is followed by his so-called border trilogy, set in the American Southwest and Mexico. All the Pretty Horses (1992) starts off as a lighthearted adventure story of two young men escaping to Mexico, but it quickly turns tragic. I have rarely cried reading a novel, but the ending of this one is a rare example, for it illustrates pathetically the scars that wisdom and experience levy. It’s a bitter truth that reminds us that life sometimes maims.

The sequel, The Crossing (1994), shares a common setting and theme as its predecessor. It follows a young man through youth and adulthood, and the several crossings from the United States to Mexico that mark his maturation. To my way of thinking, this is McCarthy’s most finely crafted novel.

The final novel in the trilogy is Cities of the Plain (1998). The title of course is an allusion to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which are destroyed in Genesis 19. As in the other novels of the trilogy, the characters are snared by traps of their own devising. One of the protagonists falls in love with a prostitute, with foreseeable consequences. While not an unfitting conclusion to the trilogy, this one feels the most formulaic, and contains a plot device that stretches the credulity of the reader: the protagonists of the preceding two novels, who had no prior relationship, show up working on the same ranch.

No Country for Old Men (2005) may be the best-known of McCarthy’s novels, in part because it was made into a movie with A-list stars. The story centers on an aging sheriff who is tasked with chasing down a maniacal killer. As with its predecessor, the material feels a bit overworked and formulaic, in part because of the sheer exhilaration found in All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing.

The Road (2006) is a surprising turn for McCarthy. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the novel tells of a father and son on the road to an uncertain destination beset with many dangers, including wandering criminals and thieves. The love of the father for the son is one of the most touching relationships in any McCarthy novel. Dystopian fiction is not a genre that I typically gravitate to, but McCarthy’s portrait of the fringes of human existence somehow makes this novel work.

McCarthy’s last offerings, The Passenger and Stella Maris, were published within a few weeks of each at the end of last year. I’ve yet to read these and so I will reserve comment, but the reviews all have spoken about McCarthy’s late fascination with the relationship between science and reality.

In the spring of 2019, I read through the ten novels that had been published up to that point in the space of a few months. Like many people I’ve read over the past few days on social media, I previously had a few false starts with McCarthy. For the true novice, there probably isn’t a better place to start than All the Pretty Horses. It’s short and relatively accessible and contains the characteristic themes. A more ambitious reader who wants only to read one novel is strongly advised to read Blood Meridian. The Crossing holds a special place in my regard. For the faint of heart who shrink from violence, Suttree might be the best choice.

McCarthy novels are best read as quickly as possible, rather than spreading them out in smaller doses. Because it is so disorienting to enter the world of his novels, longer, sustained periods of reading will greatly increase comprehension and appreciation. It is not advisable to try to read one of his novels for ten minutes every night before bed. This is true not chiefly because of the grim subject matter, though there is that, but more so because once you are on the wave, you should keep riding it.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8).

Any Christian reading the novels of Cormac McCarthy will have to ask herself whether it accords with the exhortation of St. Paul. Clearly the novels are replete with violence and depravity. It’s difficult not to see a correlation between the excess of violence depicted in visual media like movies and games and the novels of McCarthy. One here thinks of the movies of Quentin Tarantino, which for me have become increasingly unwatchable.

The difference between this pornography of violence and what is on offer in McCarthy is twofold. One is, I think, the sheer power of visual imagery. Physicians and psychologists are now recommending that screens not be used for children younger than 18 months, in part because they are unable to distinguish reality from the images they see. Might I suggest that this is also true for those of riper years? Second, McCarthy’s depictions of violence indicate the terrible cost of sin, a cost that we sadly see in our own lives and beyond. If Luther, Calvin, and Barth are right that humans are asleep to our wretchedness, then McCarthy’s novels might awaken us to the depths of the mire of sin. Sin is no mere matter of polite bourgeois morality, but human life hanging in the balance.

The other reason I revere McCarthy and his remarkable oeuvre is because of his constant attention to the margins of society. Much in the way that Charles Dickens did in his day, McCarthy never allows the reader to turn look away from those who are suffering, in need, victims of themselves, and victims of the cruel and unjust. There is much fetishizing of the marginalized in the church at large today, but the reality of the margins is usually more complicated and morally ambiguous than many assume.

It is tempting to romanticize the drug addict, the prison inmate, the homeless veteran, but doing so puts us into the position of patron and them as mere patients. What McCarthy challenges us to consider is that while the margins of society might be invisible to us at the moment, we are often only a few small steps from the margins ourselves, and in fact the disorders of the margin are already latent in us. McCarthy takes us to the fringes of human existence, where we see the experience of Job lived out once again: God is inscrutable and providence seemingly blind. It’s an uncomfortable place for the orthodox, but one where faith must never refuse to go and staid orthodoxy should go.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I appreciate this thoughtful review, recognizing the mire of sin as depicted in McCarthy’s writing. I, too, thought of McCarthy as the greatest living American writer while he lived – one of just a handful of authors compared to Faulkner who actually lives up to that comparison. One quick correction: McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, not Chattanooga. The Tennessee River flows through both Knoxville and Chattanooga. (There is no Chattanooga River to my knowledge.)

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