Cormac McCarthy died last week at 89, leaving behind as provocative a body of work as any American novelist. His writing has always had fervent admirers, even his early Tennessee novels, written in thrall to William Faulkner, that initially sold few copies. But he was largely unknown to the reading public before the publication, in 1992, of All The Pretty Horses—after which he became one of the granite monuments of American letters.
Even then he had detractors, who found his cowboy philosophy risible and his prose mannered. James Wood, who largely admired McCarthy, once called him “one of the great hams of American literature.” McCarthy’s fans were themselves divided between those who loved the early work and those who favored his mid-career Westerns, with a dissident third faction arguing for the austere late style of The Road and No Country For Old Men. A novelist who generates such passions must be onto something. His death seems finally to have settled the foundational question: he is now treated as the genius he implicitly claimed to be.
McCarthy made an enormous demand on readers. He was a stylist of relentless ambition, sometimes seeming deliberately to overreach. He could do Hemingway, he could do Faulkner, he could do Melville. At his best, he made the familiar new again. Here is Bobby Western, a salvage diver, reaching a submerged aircraft in the opening pages of The Passenger:
Dropping slowly through the dark toward the intermittent flare of the torch below. He reached the stabilizer and dropped down onto the fuselage and turned and swam slowly along, tracing the smooth aluminum under his gloved hand. The bead of the rivets. The torch flared again. The shape of the fuselage tunneling off into the dark.
One would be tempted to call this cinematic—McCarthy did occasional screenwriting—but the movies are rarely so gripping.
McCarthy could be slyly funny, if you were paying attention. He was, however, rarely cheering. Total violence was the natural state of affairs, civilization the aberration. From Blood Meridian, a Comanche attack on a company of mercenaries:
Everywhere there were horses down and men scrambling and he saw a man who sat charging his rifle while blood ran from his ears and he saw men with their revolvers disassembled trying to fit the spare loaded cylinders they carried and he saw men kneeling who tilted and clasped their shadows on the ground and he saw men lanced and caught up by the hair and scalped standing. . . . Among the wounded some seemed dumb and without understanding and some were pale through the masks of dust and some had fouled themselves or tottered brokenly onto the spears of the savages.
McCarthy seems to have been ordinarily sociable. He believed, however—against the tendency of the era—that his books should speak for themselves. He gave few interviews and declined to teach or lecture on his work. This must have taken considerable faith, or perhaps indifference, through the decades in which his novels were met with silence or incomprehension. (No doubt McCarthy’s recalcitrance was frustrating to people who wanted some favor or blessing from him. It is in the nature of integrity that it is sometimes disagreeable.) He kept his distance from publicity even after fame found him late in life. He did not suffer the burdens and distortions, as Hemingway and Faulkner did, of being a “great writer.” In our age of sound and fury, his recalcitrance seems like the path of wisdom.
With McCarthy gone, scholars will be free to recruit his work to their own ideological preferences. McCarthy made no definite statement on his political views. This leaves the novels themselves, but they do not map easily onto contemporary politics. Blood Meridian demythologizes the Western frontier, but its Native Americans are as savage as their white counterparts. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell of No Country For Old Men thinks the world used to be less violent, or at least more comprehensible, before the arrival of the Mexican drug cartels, but McCarthy’s implied narrator knows better. McCarthy’s skeptical view of man’s nature reads conservative, but his hostility to religious faith does not. One hopes, against the weight of experience, that those critics who regard literature as politics by other means will throw their hands up and leave McCarthy alone.
Like Dostoevsky, McCarthy engaged the novel as a form of metaphysics, with the deepest questions never far from the surface. He was frequently called a nihilist. The Schopenhauerian pessimism of Blood Meridian seemed to give way, ever so slightly, to Camusian existentialism in The Road, in which an unnamed father and son carry the teleology of the vanquished world through a post-apocalyptic landscape. In the twinned novels McCarthy published less than a year before his death, however, The Passenger and Stella Maris, he seemed to return to his former stance. Here is Bobby Western, exiled to the Balearic Islands, waiting for the end:
The ages of men stretching grave to grave. An accounting on a slate. Blood, darkness. The washing of dead children on a board. The stone lamentations of the world with their fossil prints unreckonable in form and number . . .
Parsing these distinctions will be the work of future McCarthy scholars. Some may be tempted, in light of his Biblical cadences, to read him as a moralist or Christian apologist. It is natural to seek redemption in the work of a writer of such beauty.
McCarthy was a great noticer of physical reality, the “bollarding” (undulating at the end of a tether) of ships at anchor, and the heads of pheasants “bowed like wrongdoers.” He was also, in his last years, an accomplished amateur in mathematics and linguistics. The look and feel of each thing, its physical nature, and the reverberations of the whole were his subjects. Society, institutional life, and the family were mere contingencies. He regarded the work of the great social novelists, Proust and Henry James, as “not literature.” As James himself observed, a writer must be true to his subjects; a novel delimits a world. McCarthy didn’t do party scenes.
His death comes with the American novel struggling for relevance. It is tempting to call him the last of the great ones, or to say that the readers that called his work into existence are being replaced by people who read Facebook posts or do not read at all. I feel certain, though, that McCarthy would have rejected this sentimental declinisme. From what exalted status would we be declining? The men who settled the West did not carry Aeschylus in their saddlebags.
McCarthy didn’t think much either of God, whose existence he considered unlikely, or of human beings, whose superiority to animals he did not regard as self-evident. What novelist, though, ever manned the teleological barricades longer or more passionately on our behalf? We might say, as Melville said of himself, that McCarthy “wrote the Gospels in our time”—a formulation strange as applied to a man so pointedly irreligious but also an apt tribute to his seriousness. He believed that it was the novelist’s duty to “deal with issues of life and death.” We cannot know how McCarthy faced his own death, what memories or consolations he carried into the darkness. It is heartening, though, to imagine a man well satisfied with what he had made of his life.
Photo by Jim Spellman / Getty Images