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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. —Cormac McCarthy, BLOOD MERIDIAN
One sentence. This account of a Comanche attack is among the best and most famous in a novel full of hewn, harrowing sentences, not all of them nearly as long.Thebook begins with "See the child." It ends with "He says that he will never die." The sentence quoted above is followed, appropriately, by, "Oh my god, said the sergeant."
Long as the above sentence is, it is only superficially Faulknerian. It was written by a southerner, in a high style — dense, yes, and biblical, too, but not so Latinate as Faulkner's. Its editor, Albert Erskine, was also for some time Faulkner's editor. It involves people on horses. Violence oozes from the prose's very cadences — though McCarthy, especially in Blood Meridian, sometimes has in a single page more violence than Faulkner included in his entire body of work.
An athlete who bursts upon the scene will inevitably be compared glibly to the great ones who have come before ("the next Jordan"; "the next Willie Mays"; "the next Martina"). If the athlete attains greatness, the athlete is compared to no one, and others are compared to him. With writers, there are no box scores, only book reviews, and so this comparison rarely fully ceases until the writer is long dead. But when a writer is championed as an original by giants of the previous generation (Bellow, Ellison, Robert Penn Warren, Shelby Foote) and is compared by critics not only to the greatest of the great but also to a long list of extraordinarily different great writers, it's probably time for the comparisons to stop. Exhibit A: Cormac McCarthy, who has been compared on multiple occasions to Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Melville, Beckett, Conrad, Proust, Twain, Poe, Paul Bowles, Owen Wister, de Sade, Dante, Shakespeare, and the translators of the King James Bible.
None of these comparisons seems to me without merit. But, in aggregate, they also suggest that it's high time to let McCarthy be McCarthy.
McCarthy is, of course, best known for the three novels that comprise his magnificent and commercially successful Border Trilogy: ALL THE PRETTY HORSES (1992), THE CROSSING (1994), and CITIES OF THE PLAIN (1998). A generation after the Western stopped being a commercial or cinematic force, these books tell the mid-20th-century stories of horseman extraordinaire John Grady Cole (All the Pretty Horses) and tracker-savant Billy Parham (The Crossing). The two join forces in the final book of the trilogy (which McCarthy wrote as a screenplay in the late 1970s and shelved): the episodic, deceptively simple Cities of the Plain. The title is an allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah, and anyone who thinks McCarthy has a penchant for sick stories told in deadpan, laconic prose should check out Genesis 19.
The books are as reader-friendly as Larry McMurtry's and as dense with American mythology as McCarthy's favorite novel, MOBY-DICK (oops, I slipped; no more comparisons). Take the American myth of being able, when all else fails, to light out for the territory. What does the heroic American protagonist do when there is no more territory? Where does an American myth go when it dies? These are questions the Border Trilogy confronts directly.
The "border" in question is explicitly that between the United States and Mexico, but the books concern other borders, too, all ones that can be crossed but not erased: the ones between men and women, between men and animals (especially horses, for John Grady, and wolves/dogs, for Billy), between men and landscape, between adolescence and adulthood, between innocence and experience, and, most resonantly, between the first half and the last half of the trilogy, the American century.
They are also adventure stories of the first rank.
But you probably know all that. You know that he's a photogenically gaunt semirecluse who won a genius grant and lives in El Paso.
What's easy to forget, though, is that McCarthy has been on the scene for almost 35 years, since the publication, fine reviews, and meager sales of his first novel, THE ORCHARD KEEPER. His first four novels, all set in eastern Tennessee, inspired first a kind of respectful, writer's-writer following that gradually grew to cult status, first with CHILD OF GOD (featuring a sympathetically drawn necrophilic hero who lives in an underground cave with huge stuffed animals he wins at carnivals and several male and female rotting corpses). Then, for my money, comes McCarthy's first masterpiece, SUTTREE, a book he began as his second novel then worked on for 20 years and published as his fourth. Cornelius Suttree evokes Joyce's Leopold Bloom and Shakespeare's Prince Hal (this is not comparison but evocation), but he is his own Knoxville, Tennessee self. Set among prostitutes, beggars, gravediggers, preachers, witches, and cops, the book's Falstaff figure is Gene Harrogate, whose violation of a field full of watermelons ranks with the funniest moments in American literature.
But it is McCarthy's fifth novel, Blood Meridian, that is among the cognoscenti most widely considered his best. It is certainly an incomparable book, probably the most violent serious novel in our literature and among the most exuberant and lyrically written, a historically based story set on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, one that punctures the pieties of anyone with PC notions about the West but that also unflinchingly depicts the evil wrought by America's fixation on manifest destiny. It's the story of a 14-year-old Tennessean known as "the kid," whose journey manages both to embrace and to explode the idea of the heroic quest. The novel's villain, Judge Holden, lives in a central circle of American literary infamy. His only peers are Captain Ahab and Thomas Sutpen.
I have again broken my own rule. But I again assert McCarthy's singular genius: Neither Moby-Dick nor ABSALOM, ABSALOM!, those other overtly biblical American masterpieces, contain an apocalyptic vision of a company of mounted clowns.