“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….
Among the mercenaries is an unlikely seer/prophet known as the judge. Initially a figure of uncanny eloquence and utterly without conscience, the judge would seem to be McCarthy’s demented spokesman, interpreting what would otherwise be brute violence. The judge is a gigantic man nearly seven feet tall, bald, beardless, the “enormous dome of his head when he bared it was blinding white and perfectly circumscribed about so that it looked to have been painted.” He carries a rifle inscribed “Et In Arcadia Ego.” He rescues an Apache child from a slaughter only to wantonly scalp him on the trail as, later, he rescues two orphaned puppies only to toss them into a river. Even on the war trail he pauses like a gentleman naturalist to “botanize” and take notes for twisted sermons:
The truth about the world…is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.
The judge’s constant theme is the “degeneracy of mankind,” of which he would seem to be a prime example, preaching an ethic out of Thomas Hobbes in which “war is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.” Improbably, the obese, often naked judge survives while most of his comrades are killed; the last we see of him, through the kid’s eyes, is in 1878, in a tavern somewhere in Texas “among every kind of man” as their seeming exemplar. Where Conrad presented in Heart of Darkness the “impenetrable darkness” of the debased Kurtz sparingly, McCarthy so frequently invokes the judge that over the sprawl of hundreds of pages he becomes increasingly a caricature:
Towering over [the dancers] is the judge and he is naked dancing…huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die.
Cormac McCarthy’s least-known and surely most undervalued work is his five-act play The Stonemason (1994), a remarkable feat of ventriloquism in its intimate depiction of four generations of a close-knit black family, descendants of slaves, in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970s. With its commercially impractical cast of thirteen named characters in addition to numerous others, and lengthy, eloquent but undramatic monologues, The Stonemason is more likely to be read than performed.
Unlike Blood Meridian with its unflinching and numbing nihilism, The Stonemason celebrates bonds of family love and responsibility. Like the Border Trilogy, it celebrates the integrity of work and the sometimes mystical bond between people (exclusively men) linked by a common craft or trade. The play’s narrator is a thirty-two-year-old black man, Ben Telfair, who’d originally planned to be a teacher but turned stonemason in emulation of his revered 101-year-old grandfather Papaw; it’s a memory play, with elaborate stage directions intended to “give distance to the events and to place them in a completed past.”
Its central event is the death of the patriarch, the stonemason Papaw, which seems to precipitate the sudden disintegration of the Telfair family: the suicide of Ben’s father, a stonemason not content to live within his financial means, and the heroin-overdose death of Den’s nineteen-year-old nephew Soldier. Intelligently tenderhearted and realistic, its predominant theme a young man’s idealization of this stonemason grandfather and of the secret vocation of stonemasonry, The Stonemason more resembles an August Wilson play than anything by Cormac McCarthy.
As The Stonemason is a rebuke of sorts to the “war god” of Blood Meridian, so the closely linked novels of the Border Trilogy are a warmly sympathetic depiction of the lives of young ranch hands in Texas and New Mexico in the 1950s, who exemplify such traditional values as friendship, loyalty, compassion, courage, physical endurance, and stoicism; though suffused with nostalgia for a way of life rapidly coming to an end in the Southwest in the decade following the end of World War II, for the most part the novels avoid sentimentality. The prevailing atmosphere of the Border Trilogy is something like the common sense of (male) adult maturity as it collides with (male) adolescent passion and idealism. What erupts as drama, often as tragic drama, in the ballad-like tales of John Grady Cole and his contemporary Billy Parham is adolescent yearning, beautifully rendered by McCarthy:
There was an old horseskull in the brush and [John Grady Cole] squatted and picked it up and turned it in his hands. Frail and brittle. Bleached paper white. He squatted in the long light holding it….
What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardent-hearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.
In Cities of the Plain, John Grady Cole on his way to town with “hair all slicked back like a muskrat” pauses for a conversation with an old ranch hand to whom he speaks with a touchingly filial courtesy. The old man tells John Grady a tale of barroom violence in Juárez, Mexico, in 1929:
…Tales of the old west, he said.
Lot of people shot and killed.
Why were they?
Mr Johnson passed the tips of his fingers across his jaw. Well, he said. I think these people mostly come from Tennessee and Kentucky. Edgefield district in South Carolina. Southern Missouri. They were mountain people. They come from mountain people in the old country. They always would shoot you. It wasnt just here. They kept comin west and about the time they got here was about the time Sam Colt invented the sixshooter and it was the first time these people could afford a gun you could carry around in your belt. That’s all there ever was to it. It had nothin to do with the country at all. The west.
Nothing to do, in other words, with the “degeneracy of mankind” but only with the predilection for violence in a specific historic and sociological context.
Through the more than one thousand pages of the Border Trilogy the essential conflict is between two distinct ways of life: the way of the wanderer-on-horseback and the way of settled, circumscribed life. The yearning to leave home and “light out for the Territory” is perhaps the most powerful of yearnings in McCarthy’s novels, far more convincing, for instance, than John Grady Cole’s romantic infatuations with Mexican girls. Though for most Americans vast, empty spaces of rural Texas and New Mexico would seem roomy enough, for McCarthy’s boy-heroes Mexico is the region of exotic adventure and mystery: “where the antique world clung to the stones and to the spores of living things and dwelt in the blood of men.” Even as John Grady becomes a lover he remains as chastely stoic as the hero of a traditional boy’s adventure story.
Initially, both John Grady and Billy are drawn to crossing the Mexican border on horseback as a means of escaping the increasingly somber facts of their lives (with the death of John Grady’s grandfather, the family ranch will be sold and he must leave; both Billy Parham’s parents are murdered) and of proving themselves as men. Though minutely grounded in the verisimilitude of ranch life and the gravitas of the physical world, each novel attempts to link its boy-heroes with ballad or fairy-tale elements that some readers may find implausible.
The best way of appreciating McCarthy’s achievement in the Border Trilogy is simply to suspend disbelief when the novels swerve into their mythic mode. The first part of The Crossing is a tenderly observed love story of a kind between the teenaged Billy Parham and a pregnant female wolf he has trapped, and leads across the Mexican border with the intention of releasing her in the mountains. He has to kill the mysterious and beautiful predator to end her suffering:
He squatted over the wolf and touched her fur. He touched the cold and perfect teeth. The eye turned to the fire gave back no light and he closed it with his thumb and sat by her and put his hand upon her bloodied forehead and closed his own eyes that he could see her running in the mountains, running in the starlight…. Deer and hare and dove and groundvole all richly empaneled on the air for her delight, all nations of the possible world ordained by God of which she was one among and not separate from…. He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh.
John Grady’s “ardent heart” for horses is equally convincing, but far less convincing is the boy’s predilection for falling disastrously in love with Mexican girls. A doomed boy–girl romance of All the Pretty Horses helped to make the novel McCarthy’s breakthrough best seller, but in the more skillfully composed and darker Cities of the Plain, John Grady’s second love affair, with a teenaged prostitute both abused and saintly in the way of a Dostoevskian girl of the streets, leads to his death in a brilliantly choreographed knife-fight sequence with a pimp. Before he is killed by the American boy he hasn’t taken altogether seriously, Eduardo pronounces this cultural judgment:
Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary. That it contain nothing save what stands before one. But the Mexican world is a world of adornment only and underneath it is very plain indeed. While your world—he passed the blade back and forth like a shuttle through a loom—your world totters upon an unspoken labyrinth of questions.
In McCarthy’s later fiction such seemingly allegorical figures begin to intrude. Dialogue gives way to ambling monologues and homilies in the second half of The Crossing, as Billy Parham encounters strangers on his pilgrimage to Mexico, each with a story to tell him. In an anticlimactic epilogue to Cities of the Plain, a garrulous stranger appears to tell the now seventy-eight-year-old Billy Parham what life is all about:
This story like all stories has its beginnings in a question. And those stories which speak to us with the greatest resonance have a way of turning upon the teller and erasing him and his motives from all memory. So the question of who is telling the story is very consiguiente.
So long as McCarthy trusts to John Grady Cole and Billy Parham to embody truths they cannot perhaps articulate, the Border novels are works of surpassing emotional power and beauty; elegies to a vanishing, or vanished, frontier world, in the decades following World War II. By the end of the trilogy Billy has become an elderly homeless man, long since horseless and friendless, taken in by a family out of pity and given “a shed room off the kitchen that was much like the room he’d slept in as a boy.” A sobering vision as of an aged Huckleberry Finn in his later years, now a homeless drifter broken in body and spirit, for whom the romantic adventure of “setting off for the Territory” is long past.
A partial inventory of the macho artillery employed in Cormac McCarthy’s new, ninth novel, No Country for Old Men, includes: a short-barreled Uzi with a twenty-five-round clip; an AK-47 automatic; a short-barreled shotgun with a pistol stock and a twenty-round drum magazine; a Tec-9 with two extra magazines; a heavybarreled .270 on a ’98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut and a Unertl telescop-ic sight; a stainless steel .357 revolver; a nine-millimeter Glock; a twelve-gauge Remington automatic with a plastic military stock and a parkerized finish fitted with a shop-made silencer “fully a foot long and big around as a beercan.”
Llewelyn Moss, a former Vietnam War sniper, a Texan on the run from a psychopath, employs some of the weaponry in this arsenal but is “a strong believer in the shotgun.” Men are judged by their prowess with firearms but also by the boots they choose to wear: “Nocona” for Moss; “expensive Lucchese crocodile” for a self-described hit man named Wells in the hire of a wealthy Houston businessman/ drug smuggler; ostrich-skin boots for the psychopath Anton Chigurh.
Not the Texas frontier of legend but contemporary rural Texas in the vicinity of Sanderson, near the Mexican border, is the setting for this fast-plotted novel about heroin smugglers and the considerable collateral damage among the innocent and not-so-innocent in their wake. The novel takes its title from William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”: “That is no country for old men. The young/ In one another’s arms, birds in the trees” evokes Yeats’s Ireland, seemingly suffused with erotic energy; McCarthy’s country is suffused with the malevolent Eros of male violence. Not horses or wolves but firearms and their effect upon human flesh is the object of desire in the novel No Country for Old Men, which reads like a prose film by Quentin Tarantino. With the exception of the sheriff of Comanche County, an older man named Bell, the moral conscience of the novel, characters are sketchily drawn as if on the run. At the center of the action is a psychopath who shoots his way through scenes as an invincible instrument of destruction, and is given to vatic utterances: “When I came into your life your life was over.”
Shorn of the brooding lyricism and poetic descriptive passages that have become McCarthy’s signature style, No Country for Old Men is a variant of one of the oldest of formula suspense tales: a man discovers a treasure and unwisely decides to take it and run, bringing upon himself and others a string of calamities ending with his death. In No Country for Old Men the treasure is drug money—“Two point four million. All used bills”—discovered by Moss in the aftermath of an apparent shoot-out by rival drug smugglers in the wilds north of the Mexican border, where Moss is hunting antelope. In addition to the money, Moss takes some Mexican brown heroin and several firearms which in the course of his doomed adventure will be put to frequent use.
Thirty-six, married to a much younger woman, a naive risk-taker who puts both himself and his wife in jeopardy, Moss doesn’t exist as much more than a function of the plot, a kind of puppet jerked about by the author. Since the predominant mode of narration in No Country for Old Men is detached, a documentation of physical actions as in a screenplay, we follow Moss and his nemesis Chigurh, cutting from one to the other as in an action film, without being privy to their motives. (After several readings, I still can’t understand why, having stolen the drug money and escaped safely, Moss decides to revisit the scene of the carnage to help the only surviving, badly wounded Mexican, rather than summon professional help for the man. Except to get himself sighted and pursued by drug dealers, and precipitate the plot, this isn’t a very sensible decision.)
In essence, No Country for Old Men is a showcase for the psychopath killer Anton Chigurh. As his almost exact contemporary John Updike has written with ecstatic tenderness of physical heterosexual love, so McCarthy writes of physical violence with an attentiveness found in no other serious writer I know of except Sade:
Chigurh shot [Wells] in the face. Everything that Wells had ever known or thought or loved drained slowly down the wall behind him. His mother’s face, his First Communion, women he had known. The faces of men as they died on their knees before him. The body of a child dead in a roadside ravine in another country. He lay half headless on the bed with his arms outflung, most of his right hand missing.
Chigurh is flatly portrayed and not very convincing: “I have no enemies. I don’t permit such a thing.” When he delivers most of the drug money to the unnamed Houston businessman/drug smuggler, instead of keeping it for himself, he explains that his rampage has been “simply to establish my bonafides.”
All that keeps No Country for Old Men from being a deftly executed but meretricious thriller is the presence, increasingly confused and ineffectual as the novel proceeds, of the sheriff of Comanche County, one of the “old men” alluded to in the title. Dismissed as a “redneck sheriff in a hick town. In a hick state,” Bell is courageous and well intentioned but ineffectual as a lawman, unable to stop Chigurh’s rampage and hardly capable of identifying him. Where he hadn’t had a single unsolved homicide in his jurisdiction in forty-one years, now he has nine unsolved homicides in a single week.
The new breed of drug dealer/assassin is beyond Bell’s power to control as the new Uzis and machine guns are beyond the old-style Colts and Winchesters. It’s possible that Cormac McCarthy, described in a recent interview as a “southern conservative,”2 intends Bell’s social-conservative predilections to speak for his own, explaining the high crime rate in Comanche County in this way: “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight…. It reaches into ever strata.”
Bell is evidently unfamiliar with the blood-drenched history of his state and its protracted border wars, so vigorously documented elsewhere in Cormac McCarthy. He’s a man left behind by his era confronted with a moral void beyond even Satan: “What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul? Why would you say anything?” It’s a question that McCarthy has yet to answer with conviction.
October 20, 2005
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.” ↩
See Richard B. Woodward, “Cormac Country,”Vanity Fair, August 2005. ↩