America’s Prophet

Cormac McCarthy, The Last Great American Novelist: A Tribute

Cormac McCarthy died at his home in Santa Fe last Tuesday, June 13, at the age of 89. He was our greatest living novelist, an apocalyptic prophet and diviner of violence, and will forever stand with the likes of Melville and Faulkner as the chief American mythmaker of his time. 

Born in Rhode Island in 1933, McCarthy moved to Knoxville, Tennessee as a small child, where he attended Catholic school and explored the city’s saggy underbelly. He enrolled twice at the University of Tennessee — once to study physics and later as an English major — but he dropped out both times. He enlisted in the Air Force and, while stationed far from home, discovered a deep love for reading. Back in Tennessee he wound up living in a shack at the foot of the Smokies with a young wife and brand-new baby boy. And it was here that he started writing his first novel. Constant privation doomed that marriage, and poverty and divorce would stalk him ever after, but McCarthy’s creative powers only continued to grow. 

In 1965, at the age of 32, McCarthy published The Orchard Keeper, the first novel of an oeuvre that roams the haunted landscape of Southern Appalachia before striking out westward. This early writing is distinctly Southern; Faulkner whispers through the prose and the fixation with decay and the grotesque honors the great gothics of the Deep South. Like other Southern authors, McCarthy grapples with dispossession, cultural isolation, and the loss of innocence. But he departs sharply from what has become a well-worn tradition, revealing his own restlessness and hunger for cosmic resolution that will drive him into the desert. The past casts a long shadow over these Tennessee fables, but the protagonists are oddly oblivious to it. There is no Tara to mourn, no Lost Cause to avenge. Race hardly registers and no agony is wasted contending with one’s origins. Rather, McCarthy’s creatures are severed from any inheritance or cultural memory and stripped down to their bare essentials. Cast far outside civilizational boundaries, they indulge their darkest desires. This domain, just beyond city limits, belongs to the baby killers, rapists, and necrophiliacs. Here violence reigns supreme, and while it longs to destroy beautiful things, it gives the edges of civilization their form and ratifies the sacred. 

None of these early novels sold more than 5,000 copies, a trend that would dog McCarthy well into his fifties. He continued to muddle his way through odd jobs, a failed marriage, and grinding poverty before making his way to El Paso, Texas, where he finished Suttre, the last of his Faulknerian novels. He was bouncing between motel rooms in 1981, when he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship — a crucial lifeline, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Saul Bellow and Shelby Foote. The “genius grant” gave McCarthy a reprieve from shacks, barns, and motel rooms and provided him with a small stone house in El Paso. In this “barely habitable” dwelling, surrounded by dust and clutter, McCarthy commenced to write his magnum opus, Blood Meridian.  

After passing through a ghostly Southern underworld, where Faulkner was his Virgil, McCarthy settles into his own voice. Everything after his first four novels is clean and crisp, like a canyon wind that sears your throat. The language is elegant and the prose often Biblical. The dialogue is taut like a bowstring but sometimes unravels into sinuous monologues that probe life’s deepest questions. The descriptions of the landscape, its flora and fauna, and the heavenly bodies that spin far above are magnificent and invoke the divine. And the scenery provides comfort and relief from the nauseating violence that erupts on almost every page.

Blood Meridian rejects the nostalgia that torments Southern literature. Once again, the protagonist is unburdened by the past. He is “the Kid,” a nameless nobody, displaced but not really dispossessed — for he has no inheritance nor memory to speak of. In his exile from nothing he joins a band of scalpers, and together they sweep across a vast expanse like a thundering storm. The mysterious land and its exquisite features pretend to hold answers to great questions, and we are tempted to believe they might just reveal the Kid’s destiny. But the deeper the wretched band penetrates this almost infinite space, the more alien the world becomes, so boundless and incomprehensible. And even as the heavens appear ready to offer up a revelation or a drop of transcendence, we are always left wanting. The promise of violence is all that remains — that and death. In this state we are all rendered fools, our utopian aspirations collapse, and the religion of progress becomes nothing more than devilish joke. We cannot help but recall Nietzsche’s chilling admonition about what lies in store for those who probe the furthermost limits of reason.  

The scalp hunters loot and slay with reckless abandon. They plunder wagon trains and burn cities; they exhaust and slay gentle beasts and butcher Indians and Mexicans alike. The blood and violence is often exhilarating, and we dare not deny it. At times it conjures an excitement not unlike what we experience during Kilgore’s “Flight of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now. But the scalping party is not exempt from suffering and devastation. It visits them in a cloud of Comanche lancers or in the form of a mythical blonde bear that snatches one in their party and carries him away. The men suffer from heat and thirst and wounds that never heal, and they meet their deaths quietly and sometimes with screams or in protest. But the great dance continues, nonetheless. 

Blood Meridian is often compared to Moby Dick, McCarthy’s favorite book. We sometimes catch glimpses of Ishmael in the Kid, amid the creosote and ocotillo. And Captain Glanton, the scalp hunters’ leader de jure, reeks of Ahab. But the book’s villain, Judge Holden, is the White Whale — towering, pale, and hairless. The Judge never sleeps, and he comes and goes as he pleases. He excels in all things. He carries the trappings of culture, politics, and science. He kills and rapes children, pursues and tortures his quarry with a dispassionate intensity, and he fiddles and philosophizes and reproaches his companions for their baseness. He is the only figure who is unbounded, a demiurge or force of nature, and he alone can judge the rest of humanity for he is wholly apart. The Kid often catches the Judge staring — he always seems to be watching, inspecting the thoughts of our nameless protagonist. In his many interactions with the Judge, the Kid shows a modicum of courage, which gives him an air of impending tragedy. Even when most of the gang is slaughtered and the Kid and the Judge are blown apart and separated across time and space, we know they will meet again. When they do, decades later, the Kid is bravely defiant one last time before he is murdered in an unholy place. And the Judge, who never sleeps and, therefore, never dies, slowly melts from view. He dances and fiddles away furiously, just as he does when mocking God from Tartarus.  

Blood Meridian received mixed reviews from critics, and notwithstanding a passionate endorsement from luminaries like Harold Bloom, it languished in obscurity for at least another decade. McCarthy then turned his attention to his masterful Border Trilogy, beginning with All the Pretty Horses, which won him instant recognition and acclaim. In 2005, McCarthy published No Country for Old Men and, a year later, The Road; both of which would be made into popular films. In 2007, Oprah Winfrey selected The Road for her book club and that same year featured McCarthy in a highly anticipated television interview. McCarthy would go on to produce two more novels and a screenplay, each written on a portable Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter.  

More than a week after his death, Cormac McCarthy is still being lauded in hundreds of essays and tributes from every corner of the earth. And for the first time ever, Blood Meridian, his greatest work, is a best-seller. If the story of America is a tale of forbidden love between the South and the West, Cormac McCarthy is its great odist. His journey westward, like the restless filibusters of Blood Meridian, had to be foreordained. A land haunted by ghosts provides the implements required to plumb the past and divine the relentless present; it creates in him a longing for the sublime — the total. And he is driven forth into the desert as a nomad, to a place where gods and demons still roam; dispossession and then exile, violence at every turn. As the everlasting myths of the American civilization — Progress, greatest among them — continue to degrade into farce, Cormac McCarthy’s legacy stands before us as almost prophecy, and I cannot help but wonder whether rising generations will plumb the depths of his harrowing myths for signs of genesis.

Lafayette Lee is an American writer and a contributing editor of IM—1776.

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