“If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind, would he not have done so by now?”
Pascal’s enigmatic remark in the Pensées “Life is a dream a little less inconstant” would be a fitting epigraph for the novels of Cormac McCarthy, which unfold with the exhausting intensity of fever dreams. From the dense Faulknerian landscapes of his early, East Tennessee fiction to the monumental Grand Guignol Blood Meridian, from the prose ballads of the Border Trilogy to this new, tightly plotted crime novel, McCarthy’s fiction has been characterized by compulsive and doomed quests, sadistic rites of masculinity, a frenzy of perpetual motion—on foot, on horseback, in cars and pickups. No one would mistake Cormac McCarthy’s worlds as “real” except in the way that fever dreams are “real,” a heightened and distilled gloss upon the human condition.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1933, Cormac McCarthy was brought to live in East Tennessee at the age of four and from there moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1974. By his own account, he attended the University of Tennessee in 1952 and was asked not to return because his grades were so poor. Subsequently he drifted about the country, worked at odd jobs, enlisted in the US Air Force for four years, of which two were spent in Alaska; after his discharge, he returned to the University of Tennessee for four years but left without receiving a degree. McCarthy’s first four novels, which won for him a small, admiring audience of literary-minded readers, are distinctly Southern Gothic in tone, setting, characters, language; his fifth, the mock-epic Blood Meridian (1985), set mostly in Mexico and California in the years 1849–1878, marks the author’s dramatic reinvention of himself as a writer of the West: a visionary of vast, inhuman distances for whom the intensely personal psychology of the traditional realistic novel holds little interest.
Rare among writers, especially contemporary American writers, Cormac McCarthy seems to have written no autobiographical or memoirist fiction or essays. Suttree (1979), set along the banks of the Tennessee River at Knoxville, has the sprawl, heft, and gritty intimacy of autobiographical fiction in the mode of Jack Kerouac, but it is not. McCarthy’s most intelligent and sensitive protagonist so far has been John Grady Cole of All the Pretty Horses (1992) and Cities of the Plain (1998), a stoic loner at the age of sixteen who plays chess with surprising skill, is an instinctive horseman, and, in other circumstances, would have studied to be a veterinarian, but John Grady is not representative of McCarthy’s characters and shares no biographical background with the author. More generally, McCarthy’s subjects are likely to be men driven by raw impulse and need, fanaticism rather than idealism, for whom formal education would have ended in grade school and who, if they carry a Bible with them like the nameless kid of Blood Meridian, “no word of [it] could he read.”