The 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.
Cormac McCarthy is an absolutely original writer. No one writes books like Cormac McCarthy. No other American writes sentences like Cormac McCarthy. In reading his new novel, Cities of the Plain, I came across a passage that could serve as a sublimated self-portrait of the author himself. Let me
substitute the word "writer" for "horse" to illustrate:
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.