I love Cormac McCarthy
The Road. No Country for Old Man. Great books that get made into great films. The fiction of Cormac McCarthy carries the fire for modern literature.
I love Cormac McCarthy. I’m no student of literature, not a book-critic and certainly far from qualified as a cultural commentator; but I love Cormac McCarthy. For me, he stands alone as the perfect novelist. Whether he’s writing about horse food or loving the dead, there’s a lyrical beauty in the handling of the subject matter. He can make the grotesque captivating and the unremarkable enthralling.
For the most part, McCarthy has avoided interviews with the press. To some extent this has led to a cult following, and a personality created in the mind of his readers based on the characters and descriptions in his books (the leading males of his novels are men of few words, but still charismatic, filled with passion and an eye for the finer details).
McCarthy’s genre-defying novels are part ballad, part nightmare and steeped in an almost unrelenting realism. ‘Write about what you know’ says the old mantra; well clearly McCarthy knows a lot about violence and uncomfortably tense situations. Every excerpt of dialogue feels like a showdown between its participants. Perhaps the departure from traditional grammar makes everything seem that much more matter-of-fact (especially in The Road which shies away from convention to an almost clinical degree – pure chaos). In any case, McCarthy is the master of atmospheric writing; carving every scene from stream-of-consciousness poetry and making every page as moody as the last.
McCarthy’s name has enjoyed a rise in exposure in recent years, due in no small part to major film adaptions of his novels. The 2009 adaption of The Road, whilst not quite as chillingly bleak as the book was probably as close as one could hope to get. James Franco is set this year to release a film version of the gut-wrenchingly sour Child of God. The mind boggles as to how some of the most graphic scenes ever committed to print will come across on the big screen, but it’s great to see someone making the effort.
No guide to an author would be complete without a summary of their best books. Here’s a rundown of my favourites:
“But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse”
Living on a riverbank in Tennessee, Cornelius Suttree is a doomed drifter who is haunted by trouble and some of McCarthy’s strangest characters. Allegedly somewhat autobiographical (although one can only wonder just how autobiographical); the book is filled with the imagination of a Roald Dahl book, and the dark humour of a Monty Python film. At one point, having heard about a new hygiene initiative in the town, Gene Harrogate – a young man formerly convicted of interfering with watermelons – carries a sack filled with dead bats into a hospital in order to collect a reward. Doomed optimism is very much the tone of this novel.
“He’d half meant to speak but those eyes had altered the world forever in the space of a heartbeat.”
McCarthy’s brush with the romance novel; All the Pretty Horses is the first and strongest part of The Border Trilogy. John Grady Cole leaves his Texas home at 16 in search of a better life as a cowboy. As he travels through the Mexican desert, friendship, childhood and identity are all put to the test; and McCarthy’s writing about horses is unparalleled. He makes a foreign way of life instantly accessible, and throws in forbidden love with the daughter of a Mexican aristocrat.
“I was afraid I was going to die and then I was afraid I wasn’t.”
If you like people being imprisoned; burned alive; scalped; branded; stabbed; shot; hanged or otherwise violently inconvenienced, then this could just be the novel for you. If you like those things AND you like deserts, this is definitely the novel for you. Telling the story of a teenage boy known only as ‘The Kid’, the story follows him as he travels around the arid plains of Nevada with The Ganton Gang. The group, headed by a former army Captain live to scalp Indians for both bounty and sport. The Kid finds his antagonist in a member of the posse: Judge Holden. Holden may be one of the finest literary characters in modern literature; his intelligence matched only by his ghoulish appearance and penchant for bloody violence.
“How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?”
Perhaps McCarthy’s best known book and certainly his most tense, No Country for Old Men is the ultimate game of Cat and Mouse. The plot follows three lead characters, changing focus and direction with the intensity of a strobe light. Llewelyn Moss is a Vietnam War veteran who stumbles upon a Mexican cartel deal gone awry and makes off with millions of dollars of cash; he is pursued by members of the cartel and, more importantly, by Anton Chigurh, an emotionless; unstoppable assassin. Killing nearly everyone he comes into contact with, his M.O. is executing his victims with a Hydraulic Cattle Pistol. Following the trail of murders and in-way-over-his-head is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell; an old-town Sheriff with old-town values. A violent thriller, this book is a must for any fans of modern fiction.
“He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.”
Years after an unknown force has destroyed most of the life on earth, an unnamed man crosses North America with his young son to find a warmer climate in the desolation. There’s a unique kind of minimalism in this novel; the only characters are doomed wanderers and cannibals who plague the duo’s passage throughout the book. The result is that the appearance of any people, or indeed anything except ruined buildings and dead trees is made remarkable. With typical McCarthy-esque poetic embellishment, the journey is coated in an atmosphere of despair. Despite this, there is something encouraging about the man protecting the innocence of his son, which also seems to be the main thing which puts him in danger. Whilst shielding the child from the horrors of the world, he treats the boy’s naivety as a kind of conscience. The Road is an emotional tour de force, rightly gaining Cormac McCarthy his Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Hopefully I’ve inspired you to read Cormac McCarthy (or read him again). In any case, one can hardly argue with the idea that his fiction is some of the most powerful prose ever written which will surely stand the test of time. Now, if you love reading, go out there and get reading!
Master writer Cormac McCarthy looks the walk he talks.
‘The Road’ was made into a rather excellent and bleak film starring Viggo Mortensen.