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Critical Review by Mark Royden Winchell
SOURCE: "Inner Dark: or, The Place of Cormac McCarthy," in The Southern Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, April, 1990, pp. 293-309.
In the following essay, Winchell maintains that the "pyrotechnical use of language that is McCarthy's distinctive signature as a writer" is the author's greatest achievement. Winchell also discusses the influence of Faulkner on McCarthy's work and comments at length on the "revulsion" and "horror" found in the novels.
Cormac McCarthy may be the most highly respected unknown writer in contemporary southern letters. Vereen Bell estimates that McCarthy's five novels have sold no more than fifteen thousand copies in their various editions, and two of those novels (Child of God and Blood Meridian) are listed as "out-of-stock" by their publisher. If McCarthy has been shunned by the public, he has steadfastly resisted that sure refuge of the "serious" writer—academic patronage. (In fact, he flunked out of the University of Tennessee once and dropped out after a second try.) Although he has been sustained by private foundations, he seems never to have fed at the public trough, and he obviously prefers the company of skid row derelicts to that of professional literary types. He has guarded his privacy with the zeal of a J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon without having their royalties as a buffer between himself and the critical establishment. When Mark Morrow finally tracked him down for a 1985 picture book on southern writers, he found McCarthy living in a ten-by-ten-foot room in the Colonial Motel on Kingston Street in Knoxville, his only visible possessions a portable typewriter and a '64 Rambler.
But eccentricity is so endemic to writers and would-be writers that no one would give McCarthy a second look if weird behavior were all he had to recommend himself. It is the stylistic brilliance of his five novels that makes Cormac McCarthy a writer's writer and would do so even if he were as truly unknown as B. Traven. McCarthy possesses a southern feel for character and dialogue (rendered without quotation marks) and a not-altogether-southern eye for the mystery and otherness of nature. His sense of the comic reminds one alternately of Flannery O'Connor and the best of the current "grit lit" crowd.
However, it is his pyrotechnical use of language that is McCarthy's distinctive signature as a writer. His cadences and syntax inevitably remind one of Faulkner, but McCarthy's working vocabulary leaves even Faulkner in the dust. (One can imagine the college dropout taking a perverse pleasure in sending erudite professors scurrying to the dictionary to verify the meaning of some arcane term used with astonishing precision.) As John Ditsky notes, "Though doubtless operating under some degree of Faulknerian influence, McCarthy writes as though Faulkner had never existed, as if there were no limits to what language might be pushed into doing in the last half of the twentieth century." Consider, for example, a not atypical passage from McCarthy's Outer Dark:
What discordant vespers do the tinker's goods chime through the long twilight and over the brindled forest road, him stooped and hounded the windy recrements of day like those exiles who divorced of corporeality and enjoined ingress of heaven or hell wander forever the middle warrens spoorless increate and anathema. Hounded by grief, by guilt, or like this cheerless vendor clamored at heel through wood and fen by his own querulous and inconsolable wares in perennial tin malediction.
Only a college sophomore with a thesaurus or a supremely gifted and self-confident writer would have dared construct such a paragraph.
The mixed blessing of Faulkner's influence has been a commonplace of southern criticism at least since the time that Flannery O'Connor commented on the wisdom of getting off the track when the Dixie Limited comes through town. As Louis Rubin points out in his essay "On the Difficulties of Being a Southern Writer Today: or, Getting Out from Under William Faulkner," that sage advice has too often been ignored by writers who appropriate aspects of Faulkner's style "to describe an experience that was not really Faulknerian at all."
Although this specific observation was made about William Humphrey, it could very well apply to Cormac McCarthy, whose first novel was published two years after Rubin's essay. The echoes of Faulkner in McCarthy's prose serve not so much to remind us of stylistic similarities as to alert us to philosophical differences. For all of the degeneracy and pessimism in his novels, Faulkner was at heart a moralist who believed in an irreducible core of human dignity. His works possess a moral center, either explicit or implicit, that judges the evil and depravity of the world. In McCarthy's universe that center either doesn't exist or cannot hold. Had McCarthy written The Sound and the Fury, Dilsey would have been gang raped by a bunch of Klansmen on the way home from church.
A good part of the difference between Faulkner and McCarthy lies in the fact that Faulkner gave his characters a far richer interior life. McCarthy's people more often resemble the Darwinian creatures who inhabited the naturalistic novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Even in his primitive emotional state, Benjy Compson seems less bestial than any half dozen of Cormac's cretins.) As we read McCarthy's descriptions of his characters and their natural habitat, sometimes blending into each other, we see a humanity that differs only in degree from the rest of the animal world. (When man and nature merge in Faulkner, as in Go Down, Moses, it is because nature has become more nearly human, man not less so.) When we do get inside McCarthy's characters, we find in Suttree a surrealistic dream world that exists outside the realm of reason, and in Child of God a cesspool of perversion that is not only unnatural but a grotesque parody of much that is human. And as we move back to the outside world, we find not even the rational jungle of Darwin but an absurdist wasteland where chaos and pointless brutality take the place of natural law.
In his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, McCarthy made a point of continually violating the comfortable expectations of his readers. Vereen Bell has noted how the novel's shifting, almost random, point of view defies even the illusion of authorial control. McCarthy so consistently avoids the transitions and connections of a well-made novel that we suspect neither accident nor ineptitude but some more insidious design to be at work. This design extends beyond the form of the novel to the story being told. At first glance, the basic outline of that story is what one might expect from the first novel of a contemporary southern writer. A young boy grows up in a rural setting besieged by the forces of civilization. With his father dead, the boy's two primary role models are a wise and fiercely independent hermit, from whom he learns the ways of nature, and a sociopathic bootlegger, from whom he learns defiance of authority. Years earlier, the bootlegger had killed a man who tried to steal his car and then dumped the body in an abandoned spray tank in an orchard near the hermit's cabin. What none of the three major characters knows is that the dead man was the boy's father.
In a conventionally plotted novel McCarthy might have had the young boy, John Wesley Rattner, torn between the two rather different forms of iconoclasm represented by the hermit and the bootlegger. Or he might have had the boy face a grave moral crisis by discovering that his bootlegger friend, Marion Sylder, killed the father he had sworn to avenge. Or John Wesley could have come to maturity by learning that his father was a tramp and a thief, not the sainted provider his widow made him out to be. McCarthy's steadfast refusal to turn any of these obvious tricks of plot may well be a higher form of realism, a fidelity to the disconnectedness of actual experience. The fact that this strategy is so disconcerting tells us something about the nature of art.
The greatest literature enables us to look into the very heart of darkness by making of the intolerable a thing of beauty. By giving coherence and articulation to human experience, art can make the fate of an Oedipus, a Kurtz, or a Benjy, an object of sublime contemplation, an occasion of catharsis. In the hands of a clumsy or indifferent artist, the materials of tragedy degenerate into soap opera or pornography. This is clearly not the case with Cormac McCarthy. Neither clumsy nor indifferent, he is presenting reality with a deliberate paucity of narrative structure—either conventional or experimental. Even when literary things happen, it is with the inconclusiveness of real life. Rebellion leads to suffering but not to martyrdom. Words of wisdom are spoken without conviction and with no long-lasting effect. Epiphanies change no lives. The final scene of the novel shows a grown-up John Wesley sitting on his mother's gravestone, concerned only about the wetness of his sock.
If there is a message in The Orchard Keeper it is profoundly naturalistic. The novel opens with a parable of three men cutting an elm tree that has grown up around a piece of fence. Obviously, this is a case of nature surrounding and obliterating a human construct. What is perhaps more significant, however, is that the men assume it is the fence that has grown up inside the tree. Not only are the effects of man less durable than the world of which they are a part, but human vanity frequently blinds us to that fact. At the end of the novel, we learn that the elm tree had been felled on the day that John Wesley visited his mother's grave and that the iron embedded in the tree had been part of the fence surrounding the cemetery. When he leaves, John Wesley walks through the hole in the fence oblivious to what it might teach him.
Near the end of McCarthy's second novel, Outer Dark, is an infinitely more grotesque instance of nature enveloping the merely human:
The tinker in his burial tree was a wonder to the birds. The vultures that came by day to nose with their hooked beaks among his buttons and pockets like outrageous pets soon left him naked of his rags and flesh alike. Black mandrake sprang beneath the tree as it will where the seed of the hanged falls and in spring a new branch pierced his breast and flowered in a green boutonniere perennial beneath his yellow grin.
The difference between this nightmare landscape and the more pastoral image of the fence in the elm is a measure of the increasing horror of McCarthy's vision, or at least the increasing gothicism of his technique. William J. Schafer sees Outer Dark (and McCarthy's work in general) as a testament of the "hard wages of original sin." However, in a world where there is neither primal innocence nor a hope for redemption, original sin seems somehow too positive a concept.
If, as we have long believed, a sense of place is one of the glories of southern literature, McCarthy again frustrates our expectations, for the setting of Outer Dark seems to owe as much to Beckett as it does to Faulkner. (In commenting on the opening paragraph of The Orchard Keeper, John Ditsky writes, "If this is the South, it is the South perceived by Vladimir and Estragon.") As in a dream, the locale of individual scenes is specific enough, often hauntingly so, without an identifiable context of period or region. We surmise only that we are someplace in the rural South toward the end of the nineteenth century. Beyond that, we know only that McCarthy's characters live in an outer dark of incest, murder, infanticide, and cannibalism.
The principal characters are a brother and sister, Culla and Rinthy Holme. Like a backwoods Adam and Eve (the comparison is William Schafer's), they couple and produce offspring—an infant whom Culla claims died at birth but whom he has really abandoned to the elements. When Rinthy finds no body buried in the child's ostensible grave, she correctly infers that the baby is still alive and in the custody of an itinerant tinker who sells household goods and pornographic postcards. Rinthy sets out in search of the child, and Culla in search of Rinthy. Although neither quest is successful, brother and sister continually cross paths with each other, the tinker and their baby, and three terrifying marauders whose behavior gives a whole new meaning to the concept of motiveless malignity.
Because he recognizes the taboo against incest (or at least against incestuous progeny), Culla is the more fully socialized of the two siblings. Rinthy is a far more innocent and elemental figure. She says, "I don't live nowheres no more … I just go around hunting my chap. That's about all I do any more." Her strong maternal instincts, including breasts that continue to lactate for her absent child, make Rinthy a positive symbol of the life force. However, her experience undercuts that life force at nearly every turn. Even when people take her in, which they are constantly doing, they are unable to help her find her child, and one of the homes where she briefly stays seems the very negation of family life. Although the husband and wife have produced five children, none lived to adulthood. The wife is reduced to churning butter to sell at the local stores (an ironic counterpoint to Rinthy's lactation). Not only is her husband unable to eat the butter, but he hurls an entire board of it at her in the midst of a pointless argument, as Rinthy beats a frightened retreat.
Culla encounters considerably greater peril in his travels. He sees graves robbed and men hanging from trees. In one unforgettable sequence, he crosses a river in a runaway ferry boat whose captain has been swept overboard. (During part of the crossing Culla frantically dodges a berserk horse he cannot see, until finally the horse gallops to his death in the swollen river.) Upon attaining the other shore, Culla encounters the three marauders, who insist on his sharing a sinewy and indigestible meat that may well be human flesh. He is then forced to exchange his nearly new boots for rotten old ones and left to fend for himself in the night. When Culla Holme (now ironically homeless) takes shelter in an abandoned house, he is arrested for trespassing and is sentenced by the local squire to ten days' labor to work off a five-dollar fine. When Culla asks to stay on later for no more than board, the squire tells him to get out of town.
Culla faces additional danger when he encounters a group of hog drovers. After the hogs inexplicably stampede and plunge over a cliff, taking one of the drovers with them, the surviving men conclude that Culla has somehow been responsible for the catastrophe and decide to hang him. They are even encouraged in a roundabout way by one of the many false prophet figures who populate McCarthy's fiction—a parson who looks as if he could have stepped right off the pages of "Snuffy Smith." Culla escapes this bit of irrational and undeserved punishment by leaping into the river after the hogs. The presence of the parson and the obvious parallel to the biblical story of the Gadarene swine makes this incident something more than just another example of gratuitous violence in an absurd world. Again, the surface comparisons are meant to highlight differences rather than similarities. Unlike Christ, Culla casts out no devils. (In McCarthy's world the demons are omnipresent and probably omnipotent.) He can save only himself, and that only by swimming with dead hogs.
McCarthy gives some sense of closure to Outer Dark when Culla Holme finally comes across the infant he had left for dead. The marauders have hanged the tinker (don't ask why) and stolen the child, and they seem to be waiting for Holme when he limps to their campfire after escaping from the hog drovers. Apparently having had a change of heart, Holme asks that the men give him the baby for his sister to raise. What follows is one of the most disgusting and harrowing scenes in contemporary literature:
Holme saw the blade wink in the light like a long cat's eye slant and malevolent and a dark smile erupted on the child's throat and went all broken down the front of it. The child made no sound. It hung there with one eye glazing over like a wet stone and the black blood pumping down its naked belly. The mute one knelt forward. He was drooling and making little whimpering noises in his throat. He knelt with his hands outstretched and his nostrils rimpled delicately. The man handed him the child and he seized it up, looked once at Holme with witless eyes, and buried his moaning face in its throat.
Although Holme has a too obviously symbolic encounter with a blind prophet a few pages later, the real end of the novel comes immediately after the butchering of the child. Arriving at the marauders' former campsite in the late afternoon (how many days later we do not know), Rinthy
trailed her rags through dust and ashes, circling the dead fire, the charred billets and chalk bones, the little calcined ribcage. She poked among the burnt remains of the tinker's traps, the blackened pans confused among the rubble, the lantern with its skewed glass, the axle and iron wheelhoops already rusting. She went among this charnel curiously. She did not know what to make of it.
That Rinthy's quest for her child should end this way is almost as horrible as the murder itself. Not only is innocence incapable of overcoming evil, it is sometimes incapable of even perceiving it. However, nature itself outlasts both the good and evil that men do. McCarthy reminds us of this when, leaving the perplexed Rinthy, he describes the hanging tree growing up around the body of the tinker:
He took the sparse winter snows upon what thatch of hair still clung to his dried skull and hunters that passed that way never chanced to see him brooding among his barren limbs. Until wind had tolled the tinker's bones and seasons loosed them one by one to the ground below and alone his bleached and weathered brisket hung in that lonesome wood like a bone birdcage.
If Outer Dark is a book of intermittent horror, McCarthy's third novel, Child of God, is calculated to produce revulsion on nearly every page. To take only one example, the incest that precipitates the action in Outer Dark is an undramatized given (sort of like the adultery in The Scarlet Letter). In Child of God, it is a merely incidental perversion—graphically described. When the local dumpman catches one of his slatternly daughters (offspring to whom he has given such names as Urethra, Cerebellum, and Hernia Sue) copulating in the woods, he chases the boy away and begins beating his child with a stick. "She grabbed it," McCarthy writes. "He overbalanced. Hot fishy reek of her freshened loins. Her peach drawers hung from a bush. The air about him grew electric. Next thing he knew his overalls were about his knees and he was mounting her. Daddy quit, she said. Daddy. Oooh." When he ascertains that her swain did not "dump a load" in her, "he pulled it out and gripped it and squirted his jissom on her thigh. Goddamn you, he said. He rose and heisted up his overalls and lumbered off toward the dump like a bear." Walter Sullivan hardly overstates the case when he says of this novel, "In spite of all the effective writing and the generation of dramatic tension, it is not a consummated work of art but an affront to decency on every level."
But McCarthy's reputation as a serious artist is such that critics are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that some higher seriousness redeems his gross sensationalism. Perhaps like Leslie Fiedler in Freaks, he is simply trying to define the human by the marginal rather than the central. In the second paragraph of his novel, McCarthy describes his hideous protagonist as "a child of God much like yourself perhaps." Robert Coles finds this hint of theology quite convincing and writes of McCarthy, "He is a novelist of religious feeling who appears to subscribe to no creed but who cannot stop wondering in the most passionate and honest way what gives life meaning." While such a characterization accurately describes Coles, it begs several questions when applied to McCarthy. I am not convinced that Cormac McCarthy believes there is meaning in life or that the search for it is a worthwhile activity. Nevertheless, in a bizarre way, Child of God may well be the most human of his first three novels.
As we have seen, The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark both demonstrate the powerlessness of humanity to withstand the forces of natural mutability. The central action of Child of God is the effort of one seriously depraved human being to defeat those very forces. As dialectical opposites, love and death have always been closely linked in life and literature. Undying love and no-longer-living loved ones are the stuff of both sentimental tearjerkers and the most sublime novels and poems of the Western world. No human sentiment is more understandable than the desire that passion should transcend death itself. Yet strictly speaking, this desire is profoundly "unnatural." Unchecked by a sense of reality, it can lead to morbid fixation and—at its most extreme—necrophilia. In fact, to some twisted minds, it may seem paradoxically necessary to kill the beloved in order to cheat death, or simple change, of its natural advantage. It was so for Porphyria's lover in Browning's poem and for Faulkner's Miss Emily. However, for sheer lunacy neither of these lovers of the dead can touch McCarthy's Lester Ballard.
For Browning and Faulkner necrophilia was the punch line (I hesitate to say climax) of the story, beyond which nothing need nor could be said. For McCarthy, it occurs at the center of the narrative, with its implications worked out in increasingly shocking detail. Before we even get to that narrative center, however, there is enough garden-level depravity to titillate the prurient imagination. In less than fifty pages, Lester threatens to kill an auctioneer, spies on a couple in lover's lane while spilling his seed on the fender of their car, kills a recalcitrant cow by throwing a rope around its neck and trying to pull it with a tractor, and strips the clothes off a woman who has been sexually assaulted and left by the side of the road.
We also learn that as a child Lester has bloodied a playmate who refused to fetch a softball for him and that he had walked into a barn where his father had hanged himself. In a particularly ghastly scene he gives a captured robin to the idiot child of a girl he is trying to woo. After leaving the child with the bird for a few minutes, they return to find "its mouth was stained with blood and it was chewing. Ballard went on through the door into the room and reached down to get the bird. It fluttered on the floor and fell over. He picked it up. Small red nubs worked in the soft down." Perhaps as a foreshadowing of Lester's future antics, the idiot has chewed the robin's legs off to keep it from getting away.
By the time Lester stumbles onto an abandoned car where a couple has been asphyxiated in the midst of coitus, less than ten pages after the incident with the robin, we are prepared for just about anything. McCarthy manages to heighten the ghoulishness of the scene by describing it in a matter-of-fact language that keeps our attention riveted to what is happening (here the resemblance is more to Hemingway than to Faulkner). While the dead man, his penis still sheathed in a wet yellow condom, appears to be watching him, Ballard kicks the man's feet out of the way, sniffs the girl's panties, and unbuckles his trousers.
A crazed gymnast laboring over a cold corpse. He poured into that waxen ear everything he'd ever thought of saying to a woman. Who could say she did not hear him? When he'd finished he raised up and looked out again. The windows were fogged. He took the hem of the girl's skirt with which to wipe himself. He was standing on the dead man's legs. The dead man's member was still erect.
Baroque language would have ruined the effect here. Like the sick jokes that began circulating in the late fifties and early sixties, this scene shocks precisely because it makes the horrible mundane, if not exactly banal.
Lester is not only a child of God (whatever that may finally mean), he is something of a mad god himself, ruling a world of make-believe people. In addition to the human corpses he acquires, he has stuffed bears and tigers he has won at the fair. "[A]s aberrant as Lester progressively becomes," Vereen Bell notes, "he is ruled at every turn both by unspeakable appetite and by a warped compulsion to domesticate it." He plays house with his menagerie—first in a run-down shack and, when that burns, in a cave. He even goes to town to purchase clothes, including black and red underwear, for his favorite corpses. It may be that Lester's behavior is most alarming when it comes closest to parodying the normal (just as the news that Ted Bundy collected cheerleader magazines seemed kinkier than if he had been exclusively a connoisseur of hard core pornography). The point is not that there is no distinction between normality and abnormality but that in assaulting that distinction, mockery of the normal becomes a special kind of perversion.
To appreciate the particular quality of McCarthy's vision, one need only consider what other writers might have done with Lester's story. Flannery O'Connor would certainly have made a theological parable out of it. (Robert Coles notwithstanding, this is something that McCarthy does not do.) Faulkner might have turned it into another tale of the individual against the community. Richard Wright probably would have made Lester a black man who found necrophilia to be an existential political statement. And a liberal humanist such as William Styron could have shown how Lester's deprived background turned him into a criminal. Instead, we have a novel that seems to owe more to the tall-tale tradition than to any influence of the Southern Renascence. There is no single reliable narrative voice here, but seemingly omniscient accounts of Lester's behavior interspersed with first-person monologues from various residents of the area. After awhile, the wary reader begins to wonder how much of this he is to accept at face value and how much is pure fabulation.
In no facile sense are we to assume that Lester is simply a product of his environment or that he is really no different from ostensibly normal people. However, if McCarthy's mode of narration is meant to suggest that Lester has become a mythic figure for his community (this is Vereen Bell's contention), we have to wonder that it is about that community that causes it to make such myths. At least part of the legend of Lester Ballard is pretty conventional fare. Speaking of his ability to handle a rifle, a townsperson observes, "I'll say one thing. He could by god shoot it. Hit anything he could see. I seen him shoot a spider out of a web in the top of a big red oak one time and he was far from the tree as from here to the road yonder." Lester is even barred from the fair because he has won too many prizes. But, of course, that note of diminution is itself telling. Rather than being a hunter of wild beasts, he is a winner of stuffed animals. In this modern-day parody of the frontier, it is only a matter of time before Lester's firepower and cunning are turned against his fellow man. And even then, his prey are not real live enemies so much as human trophies.
McCarthy also manages to draw subliminal parallels between Lester and the community through scenes that eerily resemble each other. After Lester bags his first corpse and tries to carry her up to the attic, he discovers that she is too heavy for him. So, he brings in some lengths of old plow line, which he pieces together before the fire.
Then he went in and fitted the rope around the waist of the pale cadaver and ascended the ladder with the other end. She rose slump-shouldered from the floor with her hair all down and began to bump slowly up the ladder. Halfway up she paused, dangling. Then she began to rise again.
After Lester's underground cache of loved ones is discovered, a rope is thrown into the cave.
When it descended they made it fast to the rope around the corpse and called aloft again. The rope drew taut and the first of the dead sat up on the cave floor, the hands that hauled the rope above sorting the shadows like puppeteers. Gray soapy clots of matter fell from the cadaver's chin. She ascended dangling. She sloughed in the weem of the noose. A gray rheum dripped (emphasis added).
These, however, are not the only two dangling corpses in Child of God.
Early in the novel, one of the townspeople surmises that Lester "never was right after his daddy killed hisself." This citizen was one of two men who cut the body down. "I seen his feet hangin," he recalls. "The old man's eyes was run out on stems like a crawfish and his tongue blacker'n a chow dog's. I wisht if a man wanted to hang hisself he'd do it with poison or somethin so folks wouldn't have to see such a thing as that." Much later in the story, an oldtimer recalls a public hanging from around the turn of the century. Obviously not sharing the squeamishness of the present generation, a crowd of spectators had streamed into town to see two malefactors brought to justice. It was the first of the year, and the streets were still decorated with holly boughs and Christmas candles. As the oldtimer remembers it:
People had started into town the evening before. Slept in their wagons a lot of em. Rolled out blankets on the courthouse lawn. Wherever. You couldn't get a meal in town, folks lined up three deep. Women sellin sandwiches in the street…. [The sheriff] brung em from the jail, had two preachers with em and had their wives on their arms and all. Just like they was goin to church. All of em got up there on the scaffold and they sung and everybody fell in singin with em…. Whole town and half of Sevier County singin I Need Thee Every Hour. Then the preacher said a prayer and the wives kissed their husbands goodbye and stepped down off the scaffold and turned around to watch and the preacher came down and got real quiet. And then that trap kicked open from under em and down they dropped and hung there a jerkin and kickin for I don't know, ten, fifteen minutes. Don't ever think hangin is quick and merciful. It ain't.
These men had been White Caps, a vigilante group to which Lester's grandfather belonged.
Lester Ballard, who has defied the forces of mutability with such monomaniacal zeal, finally cheats the hangman. Never indicted for any crime, he is confined to a mental hospital in Knoxville near a man who used to open people's skulls and eat their brains with a spoon. (They did not converse because Lester had nothing to say to a crazy man.) With journalistic specificity, the omniscient narrator tells us that Lester contracted pneumonia in April of 1965 (the only way we have of dating the story). When this ailment proves fatal, his body is shipped to the state medical school and reduced to spare parts. The dissection is described with clinical detail. (John Ditsky is reminded of the dissection of Gary Gilmore in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.) Then, "at the end of three months when the class was closed Ballard was scraped from the table into a plastic bag and taken with others of his kind to a cemetery outside the city and there interred. A minister from the school read a simple service." There is a certain poetic justice in the exploiter of corpses becoming an exploited corpse. At a more general level, however, Lester's end is simply another instance of the human person being reabsorbed into an indifferent nature. In that sense this child of God is indeed like all of us.
When we get to McCarthy's fourth novel, Suttree, we find three characteristics not evident in his previous work: a protagonist of obvious intelligence with a recognizable interior life, an affirmative sense of community, and a benign view of nature. The reason for these differences may simply be that McCarthy began Suttree before any of his first three published novels. Both thematically and technically, Suttree makes a good deal more sense if we see it as an earlier rather than a later product of McCarthy's muse. There is much of the apprentice novel about it and very little that resembles either Child of God or the more recent Blood Meridian. In fact, it seems hardly a novel of the seventies at all, but rather the sort of tour de force we might have expected in the sixties from an extremely gifted young man trying his damnedest to write like Faulkner, think like Steinbeck, and live like Kerouac.
Throughout a good part of the nineteenth century, southwestern humor featured a cultivated, upper-class observer thrown among barbarians. The humorists used this observer's superior sophistication as a means of judging the rabble while reaffirming conservative social values. In the character of Cornelius Suttree, we also have a representative of the upper class cast among the dregs of humanity. Suttree, however, is there by choice. Like many another sixties dropout, he finds life to be more authentic in the gutter than in the mansion. His entire life, and McCarthy's entire novel, is as much a social and political statement as the work of the southwest humorists. The difference is that McCarthy's vision is radical and proletarian rather than conservative and aristocratic. This is most evident on those few occasions when Suttree comes in contact with the world he left behind.
The most sustained of such encounters occurs when word arrives on skid row that Suttree's little boy has died. As this is the first inkling we have had that Suttree has left a wife and child behind, it comes as no surprise that he is not welcomed home with open arms. (Closed fists is more like it.) When he appears on the scene, his mother-in-law begins clawing and kicking him and tries to bite his finger off. His father-in-law clobbers Suttree in the head with his shoe and then goes into the house to fetch his shotgun. Later, the local sheriff, who could have walked off the set of any B movie about the South, buys Suttree a bus ticket and tells him to get out of town.
In the midst of all this rancor, Suttree manages to visit his son's open grave and pile dirt in with his bare hands while holding the cemetery tractor at bay. Given the man's obvious grief and his ill treatment by his in-laws, it would take a hard-hearted reader not to sympathize with Suttree. Since McCarthy tells us nothing about Suttree's married life and makes his antagonists into cartoon figures, we are not supposed to wonder why he abandoned this child he now seems to love so much. Nor does he seem to feel any guilt for having done so. Suttree's world is one where emotion crowds out moral responsibility. It reeks of a sentimentality lacking in McCarthy's other, harder and bleaker, novels.
Fortunately, we do not read Cormac McCarthy for dropout sociology any more than we read the southwest humorists for conservative politics. For whatever reason he may have taken up residence among the derelicts of the Knoxville waterfront, Suttree's adventures there hold our interest. Like the inhabitants of Steinbeck's Cannery Row, his cohorts are an assortment of whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches. By far the most memorable of these is a backwoods simpleton named Gene Harrogate. We first see Gene when he is arrested for sexually violating a patch of watermelons. Such wanton destruction of property earns him a stint on the chain gang (he would have been charged with bestiality had his lawyer not pointed out that watermelons are not beasts), where he meets our hero Cornelius Suttree. After becoming a free man (he prolongs his stay by refusing to work in the prison kitchen), Gene goes from one hare-brained scam to the next, until he is finally carted off to the penitentiary for stealing money from pay phones. The only other one of Suttree's associates who is almost as bizarre is a "pale and pimpled part-time catamite" named Leonard. When Leonard's father dies, the family doesn't tell anyone and keeps the body in an icebox for six months to keep the old man's welfare checks coming in.
Finding this book's humor its greatest virtue, I am simply not convinced that there is enough to admire in its unfunny moments to warrant its incredible prolixity. Published after such a superbly crafted novel as Child of God, Suttree seems particularly lugubrious and overwritten. No doubt the rhetoric and vocabulary are meant to impose some sense of order and beauty on a world distinctly lacking in both. I fear, however, that McCarthy is simply asking language to do more than it is capable of doing. With Faulkner, one has a sense that the ornate language is matched by a largeness of vision. In McCarthy's work, absence of vision—a resolute inner dark—would seem to be the point. One cannot illuminate that darkness with fancy talk any more than one can permanently light up the night sky with Fourth of July fireworks. It's a good show, but the stars are a better guide.
The linguistic thickets in McCarthy's most recent novel, Blood Meridian, are not as formidable as in Suttree, but the moral landscape is considerably more harrowing. Having left his native South, McCarthy writes about a region that is native to the American imagination—the Wild West. As one might expect, however, McCarthy's West is not the mythic land we have come to know from pulp novels, movies, and television. Ever since Columbus's discovery that the world had a West, a new life (if not necessarily a new Eden) has seemed distinctly possible just beyond the horizon. Living in a country much larger and younger than those of Europe, Americans have tended to mythologize their experience in terms of space rather than time. Even though Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the frontier a century ago (some four hundred years after Columbus had opened it), a belief in limitless space, personal freedom, and a second start remains an intractable part of the American Dream. Only in the past twenty-five years or so have we seen a substantial body of literature that can be regarded as anti-Western.
In his 1968 book, The Return of the Vanishing American, Leslie Fiedler argued that such writers as John Barth, Thomas Berger, Ken Kesey, David Markson, Peter Matthiessen, James Leo Herlihy, and Leonard Cohen were creating a new literary genre by exploiting and lampooning the pop Western. At the same time, the arbiters of middlebrow culture were also doing their best to debunk the West of our collective imagination. I recall reading in magazines such as American Heritage that Wyatt Earp really wasn't (in that marvelous redundancy) brave, courageous, and bold, but a cowardly bully who pistol-whipped drunken cowboys. Calamity Jane (or was it Belle Starr?) really wasn't a tomboyish actress whom one might one day marry, but a hideously ugly slut who copulated without regard to species or level of consanguinity. Even the movies got in on the act, giving us everything from the gentle spoof of Cat Ballou to the gut-bucket nihilism of Sam Peckinpah. Blood Meridian is very much in the Peckinpah tradition. In fact, it might even be regarded as a novelization (grotesque word for a grotesque phenomenon) of Peckinpah's West.
Set in the American Southwest and northern Mexico during the middle of the last century, Blood Meridian is loosely based on history. It follows a young man—known only as "the kid"—from his home in Tennessee to East Texas shortly after the Mexican War. From that point until the end of the book, some 330 pages later, we follow the kid's picaresque adventures among cutthroats so vile they would make a modern-day motorcycle gang look like a boys' choir. Although the titular leader of these free-lance killers is Captain John Glanton, the metaphysician of the group is a hairless behemoth named Judge Holden. Rather than seeing violence as a means to an end, the Judge regards brutality as its own justification. Throughout history, he argues, men have fought for a wide variety of causes and values. As a confirmed skeptic, he does not pretend to know whether any of these causes and values have objective validity. What is universal, however, is the act of fighting itself. Men make something valuable by fighting for it. According to this twisted logic, not only are all wars holy, but only war is holy.
Obviously, the pervasiveness of human evil is McCarthy's central point. (One of the book's epigraphs is an excerpt from the Yuma Daily Sun, noting the discovery of a 300,000-year-old skull that "shows evidence of having been scalped.") "To a remarkable degree," writes Vereen Bell, "the evil of suffering, which in Suttree merely impinged upon human life, in Blood Meridian has metastasized and become human." The problem is that the sustained and senseless violence of this book can shock for only so long before it begins to numb. The killing and maiming are finally so repetitious that action becomes the cause of boredom rather than an escape from it. In setting this tale in the old Southwest, McCarthy proves conclusively that it wasn't the Nazis who invented the banality of evil.
Whether Cormac McCarthy will continue to be "unknown" or eventually find a place in the mainstream of modern American (or at least modern southern) literature remains an open question. His books are too difficult and eccentric to woo readers away from Danielle Steele and James Michener, and unlike Harry Crews (the only other serious contender for "most degenerate southern writer"), he continues to shun the vulgarities of self-promotion. If McCarthy is to be discovered, it must be by the academic and critical establishment he has so far shunned. Although it is difficult to imagine a younger Malcolm Cowley preparing a Viking Portable McCarthy, Vereen Bell's recent book The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy (published as part of Louisiana State University Press's Southern Literary Studies) is an important first step toward canonization. The only problem is that Bell's book seems addressed to an audience that already understands and appreciates McCarthy's work. At present, that audience is probably too small to be anything other than a literary cult.
One cannot help admiring any contemporary writer of fiction who possesses sufficient self-confidence to go against the minimalist grain. Also, there is something refreshing about a novelist who still writes from experience and observation rather than from graduate courses in the Theory of Fiction. Of McCarthy's five books, however, only Child of God seems likely to outlive him. It is the sort of book that astonishes by testing the very limits of nihilism (pushing the outside of the envelope, as Tom Wolfe's test pilots would say). Such books (Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays is another) ask us to believe that the alchemy of style can transform patently offensive material into an object of aesthetic contemplation. The result is what Yeats might have called a terrible beauty, with the moralists among us italicizing the adjective and the aestheticians the noun. Whatever else one might say of him, the author of Child of God is a master craftsman with the courage of his perversions. But that distinction is probably not enough to earn him a place among the immortals. I suspect that Cormac McCarthy is what Faulkner would have been had Sanctuary been his greatest novel.
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