On Cormac McCarthy


The Review’s Review

Cormac McCarthy. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph by Dan Moore.

Cormac McCarthy’s work means a lot to me, though when I try to explain exactly what, I find myself unusually stymied; my affinity for him doesn’t make all that much sense to me. What connection do I have with the landscapes he conjures? What knowledge do I have of the kind of violence that is the subject and the fabric of many of his books? What place do I find in a world that is, among other things, nearly entirely masculine, hostile, rife with true desperation? The answer is none—unlike with much of my reading, I do not seek a mirror in McCarthy’s worldview—and yet there is something in its aesthetic articulation that has always resonated with me. (I have a curious memory of reading The Road over my mom’s shoulder when I must have been about ten.) I have a passage from All The Pretty Horses saved on my desktop, which I have revisited often and send around now and again, and which I cannot quote in full here but which ends:

The water was black and warm and he turned in the lake and spread his arms in the water and the water was so dark and so silky and he watched across the still black surface to where she stood on the shore with the horse and he watched where she stepped from her pooled clothing so pale, so pale, like a chrysalis emerging, and walked into the water.

She paused midway to look back. Standing there trembling in the water and not from the cold for there was none. Do not speak to her. Do not call. When she reached him he held out his hand and she took it. She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in a darkened wood. That burned cold. Like the moon that burned cold. Her black hair floating on the water about her, falling and floating on the water. She put her other arm about his shoulder and looked toward the moon in the west do not speak to her do not call and then she turned her face up to him. Sweeter for the larceny of time and flesh, sweeter for the betrayal. Nesting cranes that stood singlefooted among the cane on the south shore had pulled their slender beaks from their wingpits to watch. Me quieres? she said. Yes, he said. He said her name. God yes, he said.

The surprise of all this tenderness—brutality and tenderness always strangely twins, never far from each other, never balanced. There is almost nothing more moving than that.

—Sophie Haigney, web editor

When I was around fourteen, backpacking in New Mexico’s Cruces Basin Wilderness, not far from where I grew up, I was made to believe that I was going to be attacked by a pack of wolves. The elaborate prank depended on recordings of howling played from a hidden speaker. It may have been cruel, but I was stupid and city-reared; though wolves once roamed that high, forested country, as they did the whole of what is now the United States, we hunted them to near extinction by the thirties, when Cormac McCarthy was born. If Mexican wolves—lobos, those borderland animals that McCarthy described in his novels as “themselves the color of the desert floor,” spectral beings that observe “old ceremonies,” “old protocols”—had somehow crept up from their more southern habitat in legion, I’m sure conservation groups would have citizen’s-arrested my party for getting too close. And, most importantly, what would a wolf want to do with me? Nothing. But I was still terrified. We rimmed a campfire among pines and aspen. The flames emitted light that stopped at the bank of a narrow nearby creek, and the darkness that lay on the other side formed a curtain through which I briefly believed something murderous would emerge. 

Inside of the prank and before its punchline was, in a way, a small story about McCarthy’s American West, where whole worlds are destroyed and the open maws left behind overcome us—where the phantom wolf call creates a black hole. McCarthy wrote figures, like Judge Holden, who were the genocidal tycoons of that brutal machine and greased its wheels. Others, like Billy Parham, became its more indirect, melancholic grist. The operatic violence McCarthy rendered on the page to give linear shape to this cosmic ruination distracts some readers, who think that gore is the end to his logic. But he always wondered what lay beyond the desolation. He wrote about love all the time, for one. It never really saved his characters, but it allowed their histories to braid into intertwined fates; still doomed, but larger than a lonely soul. In his final, stunning books, especially in The Passenger, he was exhausted with language while wielding it expertly, steering two cursed siblings toward mathematics, music, and the unconscious in search of ideas that might offer redemption in the atomic age. They come up empty-handed.

There are no wolves in Cruces Basin, of course, and now McCarthy is dead. The spaces left by these kinds of endings cannot simply be filled. They are instead gaping openings that in turn invert and spew outsize, defiant materials: fear, as well as stories.

—Elena Saavedra Buckley

The first time I opened a Cormac McCarthy novel, I was twenty-six, living alone by the beach, unemployed, passing evenings drinking beer with a couple who made camp in a Chevy Suburban at the dead end of the block before the stairs to the boardwalk. The stark reality of Suttree’s gang of Knoxville misfits revealed a perspective more outré than I was prepared for: beyond bohemian in its societal disdain, and finding fellowship with the indigent, the criminal, the addicted, the cruel, and the deranged. Over the following year, I read my way through his complete oeuvre. Lyrically poignant and ideologically fierce, McCarthy eschewed classification. He had no contemporaries. He wasn’t part of a movement. And the anecdotes of his life—building fireplaces from the stones of James Agee’s childhood home, plotting to furtively reintroduce wolves to the Arizona desert, changing his name from Charles so as not to be mistaken with the dummy of a famous ventriloquist of the era—imbue the author with a near-mythological status as cabalistic as the stories he penned.

Frequently, his work gives an impression of collaboration with land and history: endemic folklores drawn out of America’s bedrock, reflecting the many faces of humanity that have torn it asunder. In Child of God, scenes of poverty turn to murder and necrophilia, pressing beyond the pale without ever feeling cheap or contrived. The horrific, frank violence of Blood Meridian—based on fact, and partly allegory for the Vietnam War and colonial exploits of that millennium—probes man’s capacity for evil. Though he’s best known for the tangled and grisly, McCarthy was just as effective in sentimental romances (The Border Trilogy) and crime thrillers (No Country for Old Men). His gift for dialogue is apparent in the humorous and unsettling catechism of The Sunset Limited, a two-hander play, as well as his final novels. Toward the end of his life, he turned evermore to dreams, abstract math, physics, the unconscious, and the beyond.

McCarthy, in short, could do anything, and he seemed to view this as a responsibility. His rhetoric was bold and sociopolitically urgent, yet aligned solely with his own vision for the world—one which demanded constant growth and expansion and awe. From All the Pretty Horses:

He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.

—David Fishkind