“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.”
The dreamlike opacity of Faulkner’s prose pervades The Orchard Keeper (1965) and Outer Dark (1968). These are slow-moving novels in which back-country natives drift like somnambulists in tragic/farcical dramas beyond their comprehension, let alone control. The setting is the East Tennessee hill country in the vicinity of Maryville, near the author’s childhood home. Very like their predecessors in Faulkner’s fiction set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, McCarthy’s uneducated, inarticulate, and impoverished characters struggle for survival with a modicum of dignity; though they may endure tragic fates, they lack the capacity for insight.
In The Orchard Keeper, the elderly Ather Ownby, “keeper” of a long-decayed peach orchard, is an independent and sympathetic man who winds up confined to a mental hospital after firing his shotgun at county police officers. His rebellious spirit has been quelled, he has little but banalities to offer to a neighbor who has come to visit him: “Most ever man loves peace,…and none better than an old man.” In Outer Dark, the hapless young mother Rinthy searches the Appalachian countryside for her lost baby, taken from her by her brother, the baby’s father, and given to an itinerant tinker: a mix of Faulkner’s Dewey Dell, of As I Lay Dying, who vainly seeks an abortion, and Lena Grove of Light in August, who vainly seeks the man who has impregnated her, Rinthy makes her way on foot through an increasingly spooky landscape, but never finds her baby.
Beyond even Faulknerian obliqueness, McCarthy has eliminated all quotation marks from his prose so that his characters’ speech isn’t distinct from the narrative voice, in this way suggesting the curious texture of our dreams, in which spoken language isn’t heard so much as felt and dialogue is swallowed up in its surroundings. This manner of narration will persist through his career:
The man had stretched out before the fire and was propped up on one elbow. He said: I wonder where a feller might find him a pair of bullhide boots like them you got.
Holme’s mouth was dust dry and the piece of meat [he was eating] seemed to have grown bigger in it. I don’t know, he said.
Of McCarthy’s four Tennessee-set novels, Child of God (1973) is the most memorable, a tour de force of masterfully sustained prose set pieces chronicling the life and abrupt death of a mountain man named Lester Ballard with a proclivity for collecting and enshrining dead bodies, predominantly those of attractive young females, in a cave to be discovered by Sevier County, Tennessee, officials only after his death.
The legend of Lester Ballard is presented with dramatic brevity and an oblique sort of sympathy in a chorus of local voices:
I don’t know. They say he never was right after his daddy killed hisself. They was just the one boy. The mother had run off…. Me and Cecil Edwards was the ones cut him down. He come in the store and told it like you’d tell it was rainin out. We went up there and walked in the barn and I seen his feet hangin. We just cut him down, let him fall in the floor. Just like cuttin down meat. He stood there and watched, never said nothin. He was about nine or ten year old at the time.
Tragic farce, or farcical tragedy, Child of God is very likely McCarthy’s most perfectly realized work for its dramatic compression and sustained stylistic bravura, without the excesses of his later, more ambitious novels.
Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West, McCarthy’s fifth novel and the first set in the southwest borderlands to which he would lay a passionate literary claim, is the author’s most challenging work of fiction. A nightmare chronicle of American marauders in Mexico in the 1850s, it is rendered in voices grandiloquent and colloquial, ecstatic and debased, biblical and bombastic. Like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Blood Meridian is a highly idiosyncratic novel much admired by other writers, predominantly male writers, but difficult of access to many other readers, if not repellent. Admirers of Blood Meridian invariably dislike and disparage McCarthy’s “accessible” best-selling Border Trilogy as if these novels were a betrayal of the solemn rites of macho sadism and impacted fury of Blood Meridian,1 for which the ideal cover art would be a Hieronymus Bosch rendering of some scenes of Zane Grey.
Yet Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy are counterpoised: the one a furious debunking of the legendary West, the other a subdued, humane, and subtle exploration of the tangled roots of such legends of the West as they abide in the human heart. Whereas Blood Meridian scorns any idealism except the jeremiad—“War is god”—the interlinked novels of the Border Trilogy testify to the quixotic idealism that celebrates brotherhood, loyalty, the integrity of the cowboy-worker as one whose life is bound up with animals in a harsh and dangerous environment.
McCarthy’s western novels memorialize the southwestern landscape and its skies and weather, obsessively. Often, whether in nineteenth-century Mexico or twentieth-century Texas, men may camp “in the ruins of an older culture deep in the stone mountains,” as oblivious of their history as they are of what such ruins might suggest of their own mortality. In the most romantic of the novels, All the Pretty Horses, sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole rides on his grandfather’s ranch beneath a sun “blood red and elliptic,” along an old Comanche trail:
At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life…all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only.
Where Child of God is a horror story writ small, depicted with masterly restraint, Blood Meridian is an epic accumulation of horrors, powerful in the way of Homer’s Iliad; its strategy isn’t indirection but an artillery barrage through hundreds of pages of wayward, unpredictable, brainless violence. The “degeneracy of mankind” is McCarthy’s great subject, timely in our era as it would have been in the decade following the end of the Vietnam War, when Blood Meridian was published. Early on in the novel, a US Army captain broods over the “loss” of Mexican territory in the recent (1846– 1848) war:
What we are dealing with, he said, is a race of degenerates. A mongrel race, little better than niggers. And maybe no better. There is no government in Mexico. Hell, there’s no God in Mexico…. We are dealing with a people manifestly incapable of governing themselves. And do you know what happens with people who cannot govern themselves? That’s right. Others come in to govern for them….
We are to be the instruments of liberation in a dark and troubled land.
Soon, a nameless kid from Tennessee has signed up with a renegade band of Americans to embark upon, in a Mennonite prophet’s words, “war of a madman’s making into a for-eign land.” Though “the kid” is the closest to a sympathetic character in Blood Meridian, McCarthy makes no effort to characterize him in any but a rudimentary way. We are not meant to identify with him, only to perceive him, the youngest among a crew of psychopath-killers, as an unreflective participant in a series of violent, often demonic and deranged, episodes. Blood Meridian is coolly detached from any of its subjects, ironic in the way of a Brechtian play; terrible things occur but only as in fairy tales, bluntly summarized and soon forgotten:
When Glanton and his chiefs swung back through the [Gileno Indian] village people were running out under the horses’ hooves and the horses were plunging and some of the men were moving on foot among the huts with torches and dragging the victims out, slathered and dripping with blood, hacking at the dying and decapitating those who knelt for mercy….
Typical of the sharply divided opinion on McCarthy's work is A.O. Scott's entry on McCarthy in The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors, edited by Laura Miller with Adam Begley (Penguin, 2000), in which Scott says of Blood Meridian that it is "by any criterion a masterpiece and one of the great American novels of the last quarter century" while the Border Trilogy is "sentimental, crowd-pleasing cowboy fiction" in which "some parts read like bad Hemingway, others like bad Hemingway retranslated from the Spanish." ↩
Typical of the sharply divided opinion on McCarthy’s work is A.O. Scott’s entry on McCarthy in The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors, edited by Laura Miller with Adam Begley (Penguin, 2000), in which Scott says of Blood Meridian that it is “by any criterion a masterpiece and one of the great American novels of the last quarter century” while the Border Trilogy is “sentimental, crowd-pleasing cowboy fiction” in which “some parts read like bad Hemingway, others like bad Hemingway retranslated from the Spanish.” ↩