Cormac McCarthy, riding into a bloodred sunset
By A.O. Scott
A page of Cormac McCarthy might sometimes be taken for poetry or scripture: the lean lines; the sparse punctuation; the jagged right-hand margin. The diction, especially in the books that followed “Blood Meridian” (1985), is both austere and lyrical, stripped of the busy noise of modern life and tuned to elemental, metaphysical frequencies. Even at its most idiomatically precise — gerunds with dropped g’s, “could of” for “could have,” “it was” instead of “there was” — his language can feel timeless:
The boy stood up. He looked off up the meadow. There were two ravens sitting in a barren tree. They must have flown as they were riding up. Other than that there was nothing.
Where do you reckon the rest of the cattle have got to?
I dont know.
If they’s a dead cow in the pasture will the rest of the cattle stay there?
McCarthy, like every writer, belonged to his time, even as, perhaps more intently than most writers, he labored to create work that would outlast it. In an astute, skeptical review of “No Country for Old Men” (2005) in The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates noted that “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.”
She goes on to cite a memorably bloody passage — “He lay half headless on the bed with his arms outflung, most of his right hand missing” — in a notably brutal book, but it’s her juxtaposition of those unlikely names that gets your attention. To place McCarthy, the taciturn moralist of the Southwestern border, in the company of Updike, the silver-tongued sensualist of American suburbia, might seem almost perverse, unless you take the near-coincidence of their birthdays to be something more than mere coincidence.
Which I have to say I do. Oates’ casual comparison contains a real literary-historical insight. Those two writers are part of a generational cohort that rewrote the genome of American prose, expanding its thematic range and recalibrating, at the level of style and syntax, what it could do. I hesitate to claim that the essayists and fiction writers born in the first half of the 1930s constitute a literary greatest generation, but consider these half-dozen names, listed in chronological birth order: Toni Morrison (1931); Updike (1932); Susan Sontag, Philip Roth and McCarthy (all 1933); and Joan Didion (1934).
You could keep advancing through the decade, adding (for starters) Don DeLillo (1936), Thomas Pynchon (1937) and Oates herself (1938) to the roster, but those six constitute a formidable canon unto themselves. Not that they remotely resemble one another: Each represents a singular sensibility and an original voice, a personality on the page that is unmistakable and inimitable.
What they shared was an ability to synthesize heterogeneous influences — the great European novelists of the 19th century, the transnational avant-garde of the 20th, “Moby-Dick” and Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and “Huckleberry Finn” — with a confidence that can seem, in our anxious present moment, almost like hubris. Diverging from the canons of American realism and the dogmas of international modernism while incorporating aspects of both traditions, they hewed to no school or movement. Without coordination, and with tenacious idiosyncrasy, they redrew the boundaries of the literary mainstream.
Compared with the others, McCarthy was something of a late bloomer — the last among them to achieve critical recognition, celebrity (which he mostly disdained) and major-writer status. His ascent coincided with a shift in his writing of region, genre, manner and primary precursor. He went from Southern to Western, from borderline gothic to borderland epic, from lurid to oracular, from Faulkner to Hemingway.
The Border Trilogy — “All the Pretty Horses,” “The Crossing” and “Cities of the Plain” — widened his readership, partly because, without winking or pandering, it tapped into a potent, mythic strain in popular culture. These are cowboy novels, full of manly stoicism, unsparing violence and elegiac, quasi-sentimental evocations of nature, geography and Indian history:
In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Comanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bending south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River.
Reading these sentences from “All the Pretty Horses,” you can see the movie unspooling in your head. The 2000 screen version — directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz — isn’t great, but McCarthy has been better served by Hollywood than most of his contemporaries. Morrison may be the sole Nobel laureate in the group, but so far McCarthy is the only one whose work has spawned a best picture Oscar winner. The Coen brothers, who adapted “No Country for Old Men,” have described the writing process as “Joel holds the book open by the spine” while Ethan retypes it, and there seems to be a natural affinity between McCarthy’s later work and the inclinations of contemporary cinema.
“No Country,” “The Road” and “The Counselor” — a post-apocalyptic tale bookended by two hard-boiled crime stories (the last one written directly for the screen) — make up a second trilogy, one preoccupied by the persistence of evil and the collapse of moral order. This is defined, fairly explicitly, as a crisis of patriarchy, an erosion of the authority of fathers and their counterparts, a loss of the possibility of heroism.
The conservatism of this vision is self-evident, and suggests another generational connection, between McCarthy and Clint Eastwood, who was born in 1930 and whose blend of metaphysical pessimism, flinty humor and stripped-down style make some of his later movies feel downright McCarthyesque. Both can seem — and have styled themselves as — the last of a breed. But they each invented something new. Eastwood breathed fresh life into weary forms. McCarthy wrote books that seemed like they had always been there.