A good writer [horse] will figure things out on his own. You can see what's in his heart. He won't do one thing while you're watchin' him and another when you ain't. He's all of a piece. When you've got a writer [horse] to that place you can't hardly get him to do somethin he knows is wrong. He'll fight you over it. And if you mistreat him it just about kills him. A good writer [horse] has justice in his heart. I've seen it.
Cormac McCarthy's heart is something else. For years, the man's mad muscle was pumping Faulkner, Faulkner, Faulkner. Between 1965 and 1979, McCarthy wrote four novels set in the South. These titles began at the demented places where Faulkner left off. We're talking necrophilia and incest and cannibalism -- all done southern style. Cormac McCarthy raked Faulkner's ashes from the American South to Dante's Inferno to a place that might as well have been the planet Mars.
Then, in the late '70s, McCarthy left Dixie in both body and fiction. The man moved to El Paso, Texas, where he wrote a holy Hieronymus Bosch/Sam Peckinpah of a novel about 19th-century scalp hunters in Mexico, titled Blood Meridian. This is truly one of the most amazing books of the 20th century. This is a book that academics are making their careers on.
Sad to say, it was only academics and critics and foundations that give grants to geniuses who were actually reading McCarthy back then. But in the '90s, he joined the stable of a certain big-shot agent with the silly name of Binky. Then Knopf bigshot Gary Fisketjon became his editor. Literary muscle triumphed and McCarthy's next book became a bestseller. His next one, too. And here comes his third -- the final volume of the Border Trilogy, three titles about cowboys and horses in the mid-20th-century.
And McCarthy's cowboys are boys. It's traditional for young men to write coming-of-age stories. You know some of these writers. I do too. (I was once one myself.) There is a false innocence in these bildungsromans -- a hidden tension created because youthful writers still need to be weaned into experience themselves. Not so with Cormac McCarthy's coming-of-age novels. His books contain scenes of true innocence. He achieves this not just because he's an experienced old guy but because he's an experienced old guy who has written about necrophilia and incest and cannibalism. That man left his innocence by the side of the road years ago. This gives him the freedom to write beautifully of the unabashed purity in the wills of young cowboys.
McCarthy's trilogy begins with All the Pretty Horses. The year is 1949 and 16-year-old John Grady has ridden off with his pal Lacey Rawlins down into Mexico. They have adventures with horses and death and John Grady falls in love with a Mexican girl named Alejandra. Next is The Crossing, set ten years earlier, in the late '30s. It's about another 16-year-old, Billy Parham, and his journey south into Mexico to set a she-wolf free. Now Cities of the Plain closes the trilogy, bringing Billy Parham and John Grady together as cowboys working in the same south-Texas outfit. John Grady -- only a little bit older than he was in All the Pretty Horses -- falls in love with another Mexican girl. This one works in a Mexican brothel. She is also an epileptic. Billy Parham -- much older than he was in The Crossing -- unsuccessfully tries to talk Grady out of spiriting the girl north. Then Parham must come to Grady's aid because things happen.
You will read things you've never read in a novel. Some of these things are small details: how a horse's ears betray a hidden lameness. How a woman at a gas station becomes hysterical after seeing a hellish collection of severed heads in the grill of a car in the opposite pump. You will also read scenes of high drama. There is a knife fight between John Grady and a Mexican pimp named Eduardo that goes on and on and on. The single survivor of the novel will experience an epilogue that's part biblical parable with overtones of science fiction.
I will tell you again: You have never read a book like this before. Even if you've read All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing.
Now let me tell you a rumor. Supposedly Cities of the Plain was where McCarthy started the Border Trilogy. The book was originally a screenplay. Then McCarthy became interested in the backstories of John Grady and Billy Parham. He wrote those stories first.
Here's another rumor. You probably already know it: McCarthy is a terrible recluse. He isn't as much a phantom as Salinger or Pynchon, but the man has only given two interviews in 30 years. "That's just a myth about his reclusiveness," Garry Fisketjon, McCarthy's editor, tells me. "Cormac just doesn't move in writerly circles. He knows all sorts of folks. All walks of life. It's an amazing acquaintance over the years. He's far more social than people would expect."
So do any of you know Cormac McCarthy? It there a way to share your experiences with me? Today I got this e-mail from a fellow Cormac McCarthy freak: "David, I've driven by his house in El Paso, but didn't feel comfortable banging on the door. But his house is what you'd expect: a ramshackle faux-adobe structure with 2 rotting cars in the yard. This in the midst of an upper middle-class neighborhood of university professors. Weird...."
Is this true? Are any of you Cormac McCarthy's neighbors? Do you hear his typewriter clicking deep into the Texas night? I tell you in all sincerity, I cannot believe that Cormac McCarthy uses WordPerfect. I cannot believe Cormac McCarthy uses Microsoft Word. No. I picture him with a Royal typewriter or stack of legal pads and pencils. (Of course, McCarthy probably wrote Blood Meridian in blood on parchment -- but that was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.)
Let me now say this to those of you who want to read McCarthy but haven't yet. You can read the Border Trilogy novels in any order you want and not miss a thing. As for McCarthy's southern novels, I recommend Suttree with enthusiasm. It's a huge book that follows the eponymous Cornelius Suttree as he bums around on the Tennessee River outside of Knoxville. Then there's Blood Meridian, a visceral novel that is transcendentally bloody the way only the Bible can be. I dearly love Blood Meridian, but this title is where I make my confession:
Because Cormac McCarthy's concerns seem so intrinsically masculine, I worry that I am blind to his effect upon women readers. I tracked down Professor Dianne C. Luce, who has written extensively on McCarthy (and coedited Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, now, sadly, out of print), to share a woman's perspective on this writer.
"I would say that a woman would love Cormac McCarthy for the same reason that a man would love him -- that he is a great writer," she told me on the phone from South Carolina. Even if he's so relentlessly male? "Maybe I'm unusual, but I don't mind that he's relentlessly male," she said. "Why shouldn't a writer be what he is? I personally don't hold with only reading people who reflect exactly what you are. Then why read? Besides, McCarthy is such a brilliant stylist. He is so philosophically intense. He writes with so much integrity that it's hard for me to imagine why anyone would not respect him."
There. This is a woman who sees the justice in McCarthy's heart. To men and women alike I paraphrase this paragraph from Suttree:
Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is Cormac McCarthy and in the brooming corn and in the castellated press of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world.