The Light Bearer: Cormac McCarthy, R.I.P.


By Wayne Allensworth


The man who was our greatest living writer, a man who wrestled with God along with the ghosts of Faulkner, Melville, Dostoevsky, and Conrad, has passed away at the age of 89. May he rest in peace after having struggled mightily as an artist with the big questions—meaning, purpose, God and Man, life and death, good and evil–he never let go of in his complex, violent, dark, and compelling novels. The McCarthy that showed through in his literary work was a serious, in some ways a haunted, man who stuck to his art at great cost, including three failed marriages and living in poverty much of his life, paying the price for freeing himself to fulfill his calling.

His second wife, Anne Delisle, recalls living under primitive conditions, bathing in a lake. Her then-husband was also a man loathe to talk about this work— “Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books,” she told The New York Times, but McCarthy would reply by saying that everything was there on the page, and “we would go back to eating beans.” He sacrificed security, and much in his personal life, in the service of his art, driven, as great artists are, by the compulsion to get the stories inside him on the printed page.

For decades, beginning with the publication of The Orchard Keeper in 1965, he worked closely with Random House editor Albert Erskine, who had also edited Faulkner. Erskine stood by McCarthy, even though his books did not sell, and McCarthy developed a following among serious readers as Faulkner’s heir. McCarthy was a “writer’s’ writer” for decades, enjoying a certain critical success, but notoriety and financial security eluded him until the publication of All the Pretty Horses in 1992. All the Pretty Horses was followed by The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, his “Border Trilogy” that established him as a noted author with the broader reading public.

Charles McCarthy (he would adopt the Gaelic “Cormac” as his nom-de-plume) was born in Rhode Island in 1933, but grew up in Tennessee, where his father worked as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Appalachia would be the setting for a number of his novels, hillbilly Gothics recounting tales of murder and incest, of lost souls wandering in search of something they can’t quite pin down. His harrowing novels eschewed standard punctuation (he once said he didn’t like all those “squiggly lines” breaking up the page), employing a language that echoed the King James Bible, as well as Faulkner. His style ranged from spare and sparse prose to soaring poetic heights that created new words, seeming to carve them out the elements themselves, his forbidding tales a spiritual and aesthetic experience as much as a narrative.

Man in his extremity was McCarthy’s opportunity to delve deeply into humanity’s capacity for violence and evil, as well as an elusive, but ever present, chance for redemption. Good appeared in the most unlikely places, while death waited in the shadows, ready to spring on passersby in the form of apostles of destruction such as Child of God’s Lester Ballard, a serial killer who lives in caves. Outer Dark’s malevolent preacher and his psychopathic disciples wreaked havoc in Outer Dark. A Luciferian prophet called “The Judge” in his masterpiece, the bloody existential Western, Blood Meridian, preached his own gospel of mass destruction, and Anton Chigurh, the philosophical assassin who goes on a violent rampage in No Country for Old Men, used a coin toss to decide the fate of his hapless victims.

Blood Meridian, based on the history of a gang of scalp hunters, heralded a change of venue for McCarthy from Appalachia to the American Southwest, and saw him further develop his style. The magnificently bleak moonscapes of the desert Southwest are described in geological detail, the beauty and strangeness of nature at once life affirming and red in tooth and claw. It’s a fit setting for the apocalypse that follows the Glanton gang like an outbreak of the Black Death, and the unlikely vessel for hope that is the Kid, who sets himself on a collision course with the Judge. The Judge’s philosophy of war is totalitarian, demanding the acquiescence of all the players in the Great Game he describes in some detail in his ruminations to the gang:

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way…

The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.”

The elements of chance and choice, of determinism and free will are constants in McCarthy’s work. The Janus-like duality of good and evil took on a Manichean aspect in his books, God and the Devil ever present as between-the-lines characters, God and good showing themselves indirectly in bleak landscapes by the smallest gestures of his deeply flawed protagonists. McCarthy held out the possibility of some hope in a world that condemns each of us to death.

In The Road, an unnamed father takes his son on a quest to find some place to survive in a world that has been literally reduced to ashes by an unspecified catastrophe. The father is determined to protect his son, and dies having delivered him to a group of survivors who have retained their humanity. In this passage, the boy sees his dying father for the last time:

“He walked back into the woods and knelt beside his father…He cried for a long time. I’ll talk to you every day, he whispered. And I won’t forget. No matter what. Then he rose and turned and walked back out to the road.

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him…She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget. That woman said that was alright. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.”

Fathers and sons. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men faces a dire situation he cannot cope with in a country quickly descending into an abyss. But the light is still there, if only in his dreams. In a dream of his father, Ed Tom sees him riding through a pass in the mountains carrying fire in a horn:

“I knew that he was going on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Writing is a solitary vocation, and it would be easy to cast McCarthy as an eccentric loner living out his life like a literary anchorite weaving his mythic, deeply religious narratives in a desert cave. But a close reading of his novels, and some bits and pieces revealed about him in the few interviews and reflective pieces done with him and about him reveals another McCarthy. In them, we catch glimpses of a man who enjoyed wood working and masonry, a man who picked up the details of everything from horsemanship to salvage diving by moving in circles far from ivory towers. The voices of his characters are the voices of work sites and pool rooms, of bars and the great outdoors.  

I’d venture a guess that McCarthy was a serious man who had a personable side to him revealed only in the private life he so jealously guarded. Hope springs eternal, and the flash of hope he experienced in the birth of a son, John Francis McCarthy (he had another son by his first marriage) late in life, a flash evident in The Road, was a sign of that other McCarthy. That sign manifested itself again, like No Country’s light in the horn, when his young son accompanied him to the Academy Awards ceremony in which the film version of No Country won a best picture Oscar, among others.

McCarthy once described the origin of The Road as coming to him during a trip to El Paso, Texas with John Francis. “I just had this image of these fires up on the hill and everything being laid waste, and I thought a lot about my little boy,” he said, and he sat down and wrote a couple of pages. He went back to that trip when he realized years later that he had a book in him that would develop from those few pages, a book about the odyssey of a man and his son through a wasteland of ashes.

Like many seeker-artists before him, I think McCarthy’s life was more about the journey than the destination, about answers he would never definitively find, about choosing what kind of life meant something, and never giving up on it. There is a school of thought that contends that the bleakness and stark violence of his work is nihilistic, but anyone who has spent time reading the body of his work should know better. As I wrote in a Chronicles piece on McCarthy’s The Passenger, just released last year, and his career and place in American letters, “It is impossible to think that a man who has written such moving, terrifying, inspiring prose could ever believe he was engaged in a futile act.”

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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Wayne Allensworth

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