By James Calemine
Cormac McCarthy spent years living in cheap motels writing classic novels that no one bought such as The Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973) and Suttree (1979).
McCarthy’s novels operate in a ruthless, often violent landscape. His stories are not for the weak of heart. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, tells the complex story of a boy raised in the Tennessee hills who befriends a man whom he does not know killed his father. Outer Dark tells an incestuous story of a sister having a brother’s child and a gang of murderous travelers roaming the rural southern countryside. Child of God reveals an unsettling story of a necrophiliac called Lester Ballard that hides dead bodies in Tennessee caves.
During McCarthy’s rootless existence during these years he earned a travel award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the William Faulkner Foundation award and a Rockefeller Foundation grant. In 1979, perhaps McCarthy’s most autobiographical novel, Suttree, was published. Writer Stanley Booth wrote of this novel: “All of McCarthy’s books present the reviewer with the same welcome difficulty. They are so good one can hardly say how good they really are…Suttree may be his magnum opus. It’s protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, has forsaken his prominent family to live in a dilapidated houseboat among the inhabitants of the demimonde along the banks of the Tennessee River. His associates are mostly criminals of one sort or another, and Suttree is, to say the least, estranged from what might be called normal society. But he is so involved with life (and it with him) that when in the end he takes his leave, the reader’s heart goes with him. Suttree is probably the funniest and most unbearably sad of McCarthy’s books…which seem to me unsurpassed in American literature.”
In 1985, Blood Meridian was published. Blood Meridian echoes Sam Peckinpah’s murderous films such as Ride The High Country, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs with a venomous riddle of violence. The main characters of this McCarthy novel, The Kid (a 14-year old Tennessean) and The Judge (perhaps Lucifer himself), propel this novel’s ruthless balance between the mysterious tightrope between good and evil. Vivid pictures of grimness erupt on every page of this hypnotic book. This ranks, arguably, as McCarthy’s greatest novel.
After a move to El Paso, Texas, and later to New Mexico, McCarthy’s next book—All The Pretty Horses—won the National Book Award for Fiction and also the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It is a story about John Grady Cole, the last of a long line of Texas ranchers whose love for a girl takes him to wicked depths that change his life forever. Billy Bob Thornton later adapted this book to film. All The Pretty Horses served as the first book in the Border Trilogy, which were followed by The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998).
McCarthy’s next novel, No Country For Old Men, won a Pulitzer Prize and was later adapted to film by the Coen Brothers in 2005. His 2006 novel—The Road—a postapocalyptic story of a father and son that endures as one of his saddest novels. This novel behooved Oprah Winfrey to extend an invitation to McCarthy to appear on her show, even when she knew he hadn’t done an interview since 1992, and he surprisingly agreed. These days, McCarthy does not live a nomadic lifestyle, but that of a family man.
His most recent work, The Sunset Limited, is a play with only two characters, but they discuss eternal riddles that have caused strife since the beginning of time. McCarthy ranks as the greatest living southern writer…rivaled by only deceased writers Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. McCarthy forces the reader to face the meridian of darkness that surrounds us all.
There’s a McCarthy story in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2.