Despite the cry from some corners of the literary world that the novel has been in decline, this reviewer feels that it’s been about as strong as it’s been in the past, mainly due to a generation of writers that includes who Harold Bloom called the four greatest living (as of September 2017) American novelists: Philip Roth, Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, and, of course, Cormac McCarthy, as well as extensive contributions by internationals such as Salman Rushdie, Jose Saramago, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez which are not to be overlooked.
Many readers first came into the McCarthy readership due to two Hollywood adaptations of his books “No Country For Old Men” and “The Road,” which came out in 2007 and 2009 respectively, which also had the added bonus of giving him a boost out of obscurity, especially “No Country For Old Men,” which won four Oscars at the 80th Academy Awards. McCarthy’s fiction didn’t sell that well early in his career, and the obscurity he’s spent most of it in has only seemed to bolster his reputation as a literary titan, a talent unmatched since the legendary William Faulkner, who McCarthy openly cites as an influence.
“Suttree,” easily McCarthy’s most autobiographical book, follows a young man who rejects his family’s life of respectability and modest privilege and mirrors his own life as a recluse and as one who, if the sparse accounts of his life are to be believed, seems to have rejected his birthrights as the child of a well-to-do upper-middle class family and opted for a more independent, yet destitute life as a novelist of his own means. Through its course, the reader is introduced to various characters found along the Tennessee River circa early ’50s Knoxville. Though he has shown his casual, yet deadly penchant for humor, this book seems to stand out as his most humorous ode to southern life and oddities, including a young character named Harrogate who can be found humping melons, poisoning bats for bounty, and attempting to rob a bank. The slow-moving “Sut,” as he is called, basks in his poverty and burgeoning alcoholism. The whole novel moves slowly and carefully, as if every detail of southern life and bum life were to be intricately recorded and fleshed out. Every opportunity for stylistic flourish is taken, and never is the reader’s sense of decency really respected, giving a three-dimensional appeal to this book.
But beautiful and elegant passages all across the southern landscape are to be found all across the McCarthy landscape as well. And they are concentrated in few other places than McCarthy’s most praised work “Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness In the West,” which marks the Kid’s passage throughout the American West as he transforms from a boy with a taste for mindless violence to a man, hounded and pursued by the mysterious and terrifying Judge Holden. While it is certainly McCarthy’s most violent book, it’s also his most praised, garnering comparisons to “Moby Dick” and William Faulkner. The characters that exist in it are followed into deeper and deeper stages of depravity that mirror the stages of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. As the book drizzles into its climax, few of the novel’s original characters are still alive, leaving the Kid and Judge Holden to duke it out.
“All the Pretty Horses” is his best book despite the many critics who have granted “Blood Meridian” with this honor. Nowhere is McCarthy more like McCarthy than in this book, which follows the young John Grady Cole, born with the rancher’s life in his blood as he journeys with friend and fellow cowboy Lacey Rawlings through southern Texas and Mexico to a cattle ranch owned by a charismatic Mexican gentleman who early takes a liking to the young John Grady and promotes him. While there, he falls in love with the ranch owner’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra, and begins a secret relationship with her. It’s not too long before others find out, and after the intervention of Alejandra’s conservative great aunt, the two are no longer allowed to see each other. This kind of romanticism runs contrary to the bleak tone and destitute settings of his other books, but in addition to its standing for these reasons, it also stands out as his greatest work thus far.
“The Road,” McCarthy’s most recent novel, follows the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, the precise nature of which is never elaborated on. A man and his young son are left, after their wife and mother commits suicide because she’s unable to cope with the new reality, to try to migrate somewhere closer to the coast, where they believe there are good people and refuge to be taken. Dodging cannibals and scouring the scorched Earth left in the disaster’s wake, the two love and bond throughout the almost chapter-less book as the Father imparts whatever he can to his son: grace, determination, and most importantly hope.
Then there’s the shorter novel “No Country For Old Men,” the title of which was taken from a line of Yeats. It chronicles Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s difficulty in solving and apprehending those guilty of a series of drug-related slayings, all the while depicting the chase of lucky, or unlucky, welder and hunter Llewelyn Moss, who upon stumbling onto a briefcase carrying a few million in cash becomes pursued by relentless cartel hit man Anton Chigurh. The novel is set in the kind of Texas and South McCarthy has made his aesthetic home in, writing about its own comical and all-too-familiar characters. Though short and likely overshadowed by its Academy-Award winning film adaptation, it stands as a thrilling chase novel and doesn’t disappoint fans of the suspense genre.
Sut, John Grady Cole, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and the Man from the Road, are protagonists from different backgrounds, just like the fearsome and nightmarish Judge Holden, a kind of demonic Emerson, the dominating and forbidding great aunt of Alejandra, and the depraved, yet horrifically quasi-moralistic Chigurh, of “No Country For Old Men,” are different kinds of villians. But what all McCarthy’s creations have in common are range and depth of force. Acting McCarthy, for instance, would be an exercise in nihilism and despair few actors could ever recover from.
His next book is called “The Passenger,” and little as of yet is known about it, only that, according to McCarthy, it is going to cover the suicide of a girl in New Orleans in 1980. For fanatic Cormackians like this reviewer, that’s very good news indeed, and for new members of his readership, it will hopefully serve as a fitting introduction to a complicated, sometimes strange, and always thought-provoking man. His books are, and will continue to be for many generations, treasures of American literature.
By Matthew C. Brock