Many may disagree, but I believe Cormac McCarthy is not only a genius, but also our greatest living writer. Period. (Which, by the way, is about the only punctuation mark that McCarthy seems comfortable with.)
Cormac McCarthy’s prose reads like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s been called both Biblical and Shakespearean. His vocabulary is so extensive and obscure that you often need to read his novels with a dictionary nearby. His sentences can be two words long or go on for pages. And his descriptions of the world he’s writing about, whether it’s the Tex-Mex border in “The Border Trilogy” or the post-apocalyptic, ashen wasteland of “The Road,” are always spot-on acurate and deliciously detailed.
Here’s a description of an Indian attack, from what many consider to be his greatest work, “Blood Meridian; Or The Evening Redness In The West”:
“A legion of horribles, hundreds in numbers, half naked and clad in costumes attic and biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, froggged and braided calvary jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in the armor of a spanish conquistedor, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground…”
And on and on for another full page so that you are overwhelmed both viscerally and psychologically. He paints on a broad canvas with colors so intense that they are like a dream, or in this case, a nightmare. His style has been likened to Faulkner, along with Flannery O’Connor and even Leo Tolstoy. In America, and probably internationally as well, Cormac McCarthy is head and shoulders above other writers of every age.
He’s also unique in so many other ways, tending to hang around with scientists and engineers rather than other writers and disliking most of all the preasure to talk about his craft, his gift and his passion. Strangely, his following has been for most of his life that of a “cult writer,” although now that he’s won a couple of big prizes, including a Pulitzer for “The Road,” his audience has become considerably more mainstream. But when asked by the ubiquitous Oprah, in his only television interview of his life, if he cares whether or not people read his books, he shyly and uncomfortably admitted, “not really.”
Charles McCarthy was born almost exactly 77 years ago on July 22, 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island. When he was four his father got a job for the Tennessee Valley Authority and so the family moved to the South. Sometime in his early years, Charles changed his name to Cormac (the Gaelic equivalent of “son of Charles.”) He was raised Roman Catholic and attended the University of Tennessee before joining the Air Force in 1953. He was stationed in Alaska where he had his own radio show. Sometime soon after he seems to have lost the Blarney or gift of gab and began the life of what many would call a recluse.
McCarthy went back to school, but never fully matriculated, instead concentrating on writing. He wrote a couple of not very good short stories and married his first wife, while living in Tennessee and working as an auto mechanic. He started work on his first novel which would become the tepidly received, “The Orchard Keeper,” and followed that debut with a two of what are now called “southern Gothic” works, “Outer Dark” and “Child of God” and then the much longer, “Suttree,” which many believe to be semi-autobiographical. He and his wife lived a hard core, hand-to-mouth existence, with McCarthy turning down all manner and form of deals that would have brought in some badly needed cash.
Finally, just in time when he barely had enough money to eat, in 1981 the still obscure author received a MacArthur Grant (also known as a “genius grant”) and used this money to live on while he researched and wrote the magnificent “Blood Meridian,” a historical novel closely-based on true events. “Blood Meridian” is about a kid who through a series of unfortunate events finds himself in the company of the infamous Glanton Gang, a group of outlaws and scalpers who were contracted by various interests to clear Indians from the Texas-Mexico border in the late 1840’s. It’s a book that is as violent and grisly as they come, perhaps made even more horrifying by the fact that most of it is true. Many critics, including Harold Bloom, as well as surveys of other writers, place “Blood Meridian” at the top of the list of novels written during the 20th Century, some going so far to compare it to Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
After the publication of “Blood Meridian,” McCarthy moved both from Random House to Knopf and from the Southeastern part of the country to the West. Living and occasionally riding horseback on the old trails into Mexico for “research,” McCarthy began work on what would become “The Border Trilogy,” with the first installment, “All The Pretty Horses” published in in 1992. McCarthy finally began to garner positive reviews and the novel sold almost 200 thousand copies in it’s first six months. It eventually won McCarthy a National Book Award, along with quite a bit of hard to come by popular acclaim. Next would come the second and third installments, “The Crossing” and “Cities of the Plain” (which had actually been written first as a possible film screenplay.)
Since then, McCarthy has remarried, and churned out novels more often and just a good, if not better, first with “No Country For Old Men,” (which was made into a film by the Coen Brothers and won the Academy Award for Best Picture), and finally with his last book, “The Road” a post-apocalyptic love story between a father and son, a second straight novel to be made into a film.
Since the release of “The Road,” McCarthy has been fairly quiet. Rumors have it that he has three or four novels already completed and ready for publication and that his next novel will be titled, “The Passenger,” a longer work and somewhat fictional memoir of McCarthy’s time spent in New Orleans.
But what convinces me of Cormac McCarthy’s greatness is how satisfying it is to go back to his novels and re-read them. After being introduced to “All The Pretty Horses” by a friend in Boston, it’s become my absolute favorite work of fiction and I can probably recite whole paragraphs. In his golden years, McCarthy’s writing has become more sparse, almost Hemingwayesque:
“With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, soundless, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasn’t sure. He hadn’t kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.”
It’s been said by some devotee of Tolstoy’s, that he’d like to be reincarnated as that author’s pen. Along the same lines, I suppose it wouldn’t be bad to be reincarnated as Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter.
It sure has been put to good use.