It is Cormac McCarthy’s command of the English language that primarily draws me to his work. McCarthy has a bigger vocabulary than any other author I can think of, and he uses it to perfectly express a dark lyric vision of America and the West. If nothing else, he has written possibly my favorite sentence ever.
“There is a moonshaped rictus in the streetlamp’s globe where a stone has gone and from this aperture there drifts down through the constant helix of aspiring insects a faint and steady mix of the same forms burnt and lifeless.” – from Suttree
I’ve read all his books. I can’t even say that about Kerouac. McCarthy has published only eight novels. One of them, All the Pretty Horses, was adapted for film.
His oeuvre begins in a surreal, timeless Appalachia with The Orchard Keeper, about the encroachment of the modern on the traditional, amongst other things. Then comes Outer Dark, which features a hillbilly girl wandering the land looking for a child she had by her brother and which he subsequently left for dead in the woods, a band of horsemen reminiscent of the wraiths in Lord of the Rings, and an awful lot of dirt, mud, starvation and night.
After that comes the darkly comedic Child of God about, well, about the trials and tribulations of a necropheliac serial-killer. Suttree was a unique take on the old issue of fathers and sons, set along the muddy, garbage strewn banks of the river in Knoxville.
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West was the one book that I could not complete. It was not only the first of his Westerns, but is possibly the pinnacle of McCarthy’s skill. But, the story, about the horrors committed along the U.S.-Mexico border in the mid-18th century, could not sustain me.
The Border Trilogy, of which All the Pretty Horses was the first, truly redefined the image of the West and I found the three novels to be fascinating portraits of the fall of the frontier around the time of World War II.
That’s it. There’s also a teleplay and a screenplay and a few short stories published way back when, but his work has been in ways as self-sustaining and independent as many of his characters.
Then there’s the matter of his public life. He has none. McCarthy is one of the most reclusive authors alive today. He has given one interview and one interview only up to this point, and by all accounts it was a favor to his longtime editor upon his editor’s retirement. It was given to the New York Times in 1992 and, not surprisingly, he dodges any questions about his novels, his work, or anything aside from the curiousity of life in the West.
I’ve heard stories about when he and his first wife were living in a converted hay loft in the south, nearly starving to death even though he had published a couple of books. The phone would ring and it would be some university offering to pay him a couple thousand dollars to come give an hour long speech. His response was always: “Everything I have to say is on the page.” Click.
Which brings me to my point. (Yes, I have a point.) Not only is his first book in seven years coming out next week, his second interview ever has been published in Vanity Fair. It’s with the same reporter that he did the Times interview with, Richard B. Woodward. Luckily, a certain someone in my household is a subscriber to that magazine. Before I get a chance to read it, all I can supply here is one quote from the interview that I found online.
“Most people don’t ever see anyone die. It used to be if you grew up in a family you saw everybody die. They died in their bed at home with everyone gathered around. Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is. To not be able to talk about it is very odd.”
It’s a good quote because if it is McCarthy’s absolute command of language that draws me in, it is his grisly violence that has confused me at best, driven me away at worst. I have admired him for his talent with the craft, but I go to Kerouac and other writers for ideas that I can better relate to and learn from.
I have enough respect for McCarthy as a writer, both as a crafter of words and of stories, that I’ve always kind of known that his tendency toward violence must be more than simple nihilism or something (a la Chuck Palahniuk), but I’ve never quite know what he was doing. Having read his work, what he says in the above quote seems spot-on, and not just writer mumbo-jumbo trying to justify what he likes to write.
No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy‘s latest book, comes out Tuesday.
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