A poet of violence and horror goes peacefully into the sunset
Another contender for the title of Great American Novelist has fallen: Cormac McCarthy is dead. Frequently named as one of the best American writers of the last century, along with Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Don Delillo, McCarthy died Tuesday of natural causes.
Which seems a bit anticlimactic for a man whose work was drenched in blood, who lived a life that ranged from bone-grinding poverty to Hollywood megadeals, and who created bleakly nihilistic stories of characters grappling with amorality and violence. McCarthy became one of the most celebrated novelists in the world by writing horror for people who wouldn’t dare go out in public with a Stephen King novel in their hands.
In No Country For Old Men, McCarthy’s hit man Anton Chigurh is a demonic, unstoppable force, so malevolent that he terrifies people with his mere presence. In The Road, the nameless father and his son are chased by cannibalistic bandits after the collapse of civilization. And in Blood Meridian, considered by many his best work, McCarthy created the Judge, a seven-foot-tall, hairless, pale-skinned killer who may also be the Devil.
That is pretty weird stuff for a guy repeatedly on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. One could forgive you for asking what makes his gore and violence different from writers of crime and horror who can’t escape the cages of their genres.
But McCarthy often got away with breaking the rules the world expects all other novelists to follow, including the ones about punctuation and grammar.
After stints in college and the Air Force, McCarthy began his career in poverty and obscurity. While living in an unheated shack, he asked his first wife, Lee, who was already doing the housework and raising their son Cullen, to get a job so he could focus on his novel writing. In response, she moved to Wyoming and filed for divorce. His second wife recalled bathing in a lake behind their cabin because they did not have running water.
His early work — including The Orchard Keeper and Suttree — won prizes and earned comparisons to Faulkner and Hemingway, but it didn’t reach many readers. McCarthy had fans in Saul Bellow and Harold Bloom. He’d won two primetime Emmys for a screenplay he’d written for PBS and a MacArthur Genius grant. Blood Meridian, released in 1985, was praised as one of the greatest American novels ever written. But he was still largely unknown.
That changed with the release of All The Pretty Horses, guided by the star-maker editor Gary Fisketjon at Knopf, in 1992. The first book in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, it won the National Book Award and sold more than 200,000 copies before becoming a movie starring Matt Damon. McCarthy became as famous as a reclusive novelist who ignores the literary world can get. His days of eating beans in a shack had ended.
McCarthy later won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Road, which was made into a film starring Viggo Mortenson. No Country for Old Men was also adapted for the screen by the Coen Brothers in 2007. His play, The Sunset Limited, became a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson, and he wrote an original screenplay, The Counselor, that Ridley Scott directed.
His last two novels, a twinned set about a brother and sister in an incestuous relationship, The Passenger and Stella Maris, were published last year. The New York Times and other outlets covered their release like the series finale of Succession. Critics called the books themselves brilliant and incandescent, but also baffling and ponderous.
As with any writer of McCarthy’s stature, it’s hard to separate him from his image now. But it’s not the reception of McCarthy’s work that’s important; it’s the work itself.
McCarthy’s success might blind us to the most impressive thing about him: he wrote whatever the hell he wanted, however he wanted. He didn’t hang out with other writers, spending most of his later years at the Santa Fe Institute, a think-tank for physicists and other scientists. He never chased fame. It landed on him with both feet. And it didn’t seem to change him much, aside from putting more money into his bank account and putting his books on more shelves.
His style was unique, his language stark, his imagery both lucid and surreal. He was uncompromising in his vision and his message, and even after his elevation into the literary stratosphere, he still wrote only what he wanted.
Any writer would be lucky to die with that on their tombstone.
Author photo courtesy of Cormac McCarthy Facebook page.