Cormac McCarthy | Critical Review by Vereen Bell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Cormac McCarthy.
This section contains 3,674 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Vereen Bell

Critical Review by Vereen Bell

SOURCE: "Between the Wish and the Thing the World Lies Waiting," in The Southern Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, October, 1992, pp. 920-27.

In the following essay, Bell discusses the desires of McCarthy's characters to live in a world uncomplicated by the influences and demands the contemporary world places on them.

Cormac McCarthy's most sympathetic characters wish to live only in the mode of description—the less narrative the better—but the God that rules their world—an editor, clearly—likes stories and, either for his own amusement or to test them, he imposes plots upon them. Take this case of John Grady Cole, in All the Pretty Horses. The plot for him begins before he is born and with someone else's kin:

It runs in the family, said Blevins. My grandaddy was killed in a minebucket in West Virginia it run down in the hole a hunnerd and eighty feet to get him it couldnt even wait for him to get to the top. They had to wet down the bucket to cool it fore they could get him out of it, him and two other men. It fried em like bacon. My daddy's older brother was blowed out of a derrick in the Batson Field in the year nineteen and four, cable rig with a wood derrick but the lightnin got him anyways and him not nineteen year old. Great uncle on my mother's side—mother's side, I said—got killed on a horse and it never singed a hair on that horse and it killed him graveyard dead they had to cut his belt off him where it welded the buckle shut and I got a cousin aint but four years oldern me was struck down in his own yard comin from the barn and it paralyzed him all down one side and melted the fillins in his teeth and soldered his jaw shut.

From thirteen-year-old Jimmy Blevins's fear of lightning—and from his not being afraid of anything else—otherwise inconceivably evil consequences for John Grady and his friend Lacey Rawlins ensue. Blevins, who has taken up with them on their ride into Mexico, loses his horse and his gun one night when he frantically dismounts and takes shelter in an arroyo during a thunderstorm. When against their better judgment the older boys help him repossess the horse in the next village—and later because Blevins goes back to repossess his gun as well—persecution and misfortune hound them as they ride on, seeking the good life that home in Texas no longer offers them. Worst of all, they are discredited and exiled from the ancient place of the good life, the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion, that they believe they have found.

These circumstances, which the boys endure stoically and resourcefully, are generated not only by the plot that comes upon them out of nowhere but by their own generous impulses and honorable conduct. John Grady is asked at a point later in the story if he does not fear God and he says, "I got no reason to be afraid of God. I've even got a bone or two to pick with him." A kindly cafe proprietor says to him later "that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they'd have no heart to start out at all." This turns out to be the real point: whether John Grady can endure such gratuitous tribulation with his hardheaded boy's idealism intact. By the time he makes his way back to Texas—on Thanksgiving Day—he has good reason to fear the God of such plots; but he is also sobered and stronger, so he does not. He also now knows what the main question is even if it takes the form of an answer.

He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he'd first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he'd presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and he felt a loneliness he'd not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world's heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world's pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

The word being still means something in McCarthy's writing—after all this time since Heidegger—and his finest and simplest characters set their bearings by it in a way that determines their lives. It is greater than God Himself, and it is sacred. It is also elusive and perhaps illusory, and human beings are wholly incidental to it, if not its nemesis. McCarthy's nature exists wholly on its own, indifferent to human purpose or desire; his vivid, austere landscapes seem mysteriously to be gazing at us rather than the reverse. In this novel even horses, in some sweetly comic way, reflect upon the issue. When the boys, drunk off a canteenful of a Mexican moonshine called sotol, become sick and commence vomiting:

The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they'd ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.

At best, human understanding and language can mediate being only imperfectly and, in action, only intuitively and in dreams or through the feeble agency of objective correlatives.

This is why McCarthy's narratives always seem to verge upon, without ever moving wholly over into, allegory: everything is potentially meaningful (even puking). It is also why the photorealistic details of processes or landscape and the substance and speech of ordinary human life ("The waitress brought their dinner, thick china lunchplates with steak and gravy and potatoes and beans. 'I'll get your alls bread'") are enveloped in an aura of stylization and romance. The aforementioned Alejandra Rocha y Villareal, for instance, with whom John Grady falls hopelessly in love as only a boy of seventeen can, is barely represented and, at that, only through John Grady's eyes; and yet she and her thwarted romance with John Grady are credible because of that special dimension of desire she inhabits which not only John Grady's infatuation but the novel itself creates. On the surface this central episode of the novel seems quite conventional, but its conventionality is animated by McCarthy's writing, which makes it new, and by the larger purpose that gives it value. The scene in which the two part for the last time is like a thousand others in film and literature and yet somehow redefines the genre. For John Grady it is like this: "He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave." And we believe him because we have been there before, in real life and in other fiction—not, precisely speaking, in love for the first time, but where love reaches. Love's having failed will change John Grady's reality, as the war and now cancer have changed his father's.

The deepest continuity with life in this novel is through horses:

His father rode sitting forward slightly in the saddle, holding the reins in one hand about two inches above the saddlehorn. So thin and frail, lost in his clothes. Looking over the country with those sunken eyes as if the world out there had been altered or made suspect by what he'd seen of it elsewhere. As if he might never see it right again. Or worse did see it right at last. See it as it had always been, would forever be. The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he'd been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway. Would have known that there was something missing for the world to be right or he right in it and would have set forth to wonder wherever it was needed for as long as it took until he came upon one and he would have known that was what he sought and it would have been.

What John Grady is said to love in horses is what, when he finds it there, he loves in men, "the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise." The deepest offense in this story is to steal another's horse, and much of the novel's action is devoted to the obsession with recovering those that have been stolen and restoring them to their rightful owners, for such a theft is not simply a crime but the desecration of a type of invisible bond with the powers of the earth. When John Grady has dreams he dreams of horses, and those dreams are of sacred order:

That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers red and blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a response that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.

McCarthy's symbols are never less than artfully naive, and their simplicity allows the reader to bear in mind that though this is a boy's story—in a richer but similarly ironic way that Huckleberry Finn is—it is deeply serious about the uncomplicated, romantic values that the boy's point of view keeps before us. We are not encouraged by the slightest inflection of the style to look upon John Grady and his friends with amusement or condescension. John Grady's youthfulness, and its associated idealism, is a correlative in itself—less a point of view than a private episteme, and one that refuses to be diminished. It is challenged persuasively both by experience and by a compelling history lesson in which John Grady is set straight by Alejandra's protective great-aunt; but it is never quite undone and we are not meant to think that it should be.

The Duena Alfonsa, Alejandra's great-aunt, is friendly toward and admires John Grady, but in the end she opposes him as a suitor for her niece not because he is of the wrong class or nationality or because he is penniless but, in effect, because his luck is bad—or more precisely because he has not been hardened in the ways that would give him more control over his—and by extension Alejandra's—destiny. The old woman's agenda is pragmatic and revolutionary and—allowing for the culture she speaks through and against—resolutely feminist:

Society is very important in Mexico. Where women do not even have the vote. In Mexico they are mad for society and for politics and very bad at both. My family are considered gachupines here, but the madness of the Spaniard is not so different from the madness of the Creole. The political tragedy in Spain was rehearsed in full dress twenty years earlier on Mexican soil. For those with eyes to see. Nothing was the same and yet everything. In the Spaniard's heart is a great yearning for freedom, but only his own. A great love of truth and honor in all its forms, but not in its substance. And a deep conviction that nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed. Virgins, bulls, men. Finally God himself.

Her own history encapsulates the horror and pathos of Mexico's history and because of that—because her story is a version of her culture's story—she has learned that the greatest tragedy is the cowardice of self-betrayal, and that self-betrayal occurs when one permits oneself to be diverted from the truth:

It may be that the life I desire for her no longer exists, yet I know what she does not. That there is nothing to lose. In January I will be seventy-three years old. I have known a great many people in that time and few of them led lives that were satisfactory to them. I would like for my grandniece to have the opportunity to make a very different marriage from the one which her society is bent upon demanding of her. I wont accept a conventional marriage for her. Again, I know what she cannot. That there is nothing to lose. I dont know what sort of world she will live in and I have no fixed opinions concerning how she should live in it. I only know that if she does not come to value what is true above what is useful it will make little difference whether she lives at all. And by true I do not mean what is righteous but merely what is so.

In this respect, for the old woman, no matter how courageous and honorable he might be otherwise, John Grady is dangerously unfinished. "In the end," she says, "we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even when we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting." This long Conradian monologue is presented through dramatic writing as chilling and as resonant as anything McCarthy has yet achieved.

The Duena Alfonsa's position in John Grady's story brings to the foreground its profoundest irony. The ruling desire of McCarthy's strongest characters, from Arthur Ownby in The Orchard Keeper to Cornelius Suttree in Suttree, is to live in some place that is not yet touched by the complications of the modern world, where it is possible to be one with the earth and to live in a genuine human communion. In practice this means that they want not so much to reverse history as to transcend it. It is no coincidence that when Cornelius Suttree is leaving Tennessee for the last time he stands above a roadbed where the new Knoxville expressway system is being built, connecting to the interstate system that will cause towns to die and cities to become indistinguishable. It is also no coincidence that he sees himself momentarily reflected and reclaimed in the blue eyes of a boy who has climbed the embankment to offer him water from a tin dipper.

John Grady Cole is Arthur Ownby in another time at a different age and also that reflection of himself younger that Suttree is permitted to see. Until now, in 1949, his grandfather's 18,000-acre cattle ranch has insulated him from history, but now that it is to be sold from around him, he can see the future coming. "People don't feel safe no more," his father says to him. "We're like the Comanches was two hundred years ago. We don't know what's goin to show up here come daylight. We don't even know what color they'll be." The father has given up, but John Grady is not waiting around to find out, and this is why he and Rawlins set out on horseback—how else?—meaning, without thinking or saying it in so many words, to move back in history by riding south. The great irony, as Senorita Alfonsa's story underscores, is that some kind of history is everywhere. The boys are too young to understand this yet (and many novelists and poets who should know better still don't): that there is no human place outside of time, and where human places are there are also the constructs and institutional artifacts of history. The fleas come with the dog. John Grady and Rawlins escape for a time the dissociating effects of the technology and capital of the new American order, but what they get from their adopted ancient culture is an attractive but totalitarian hierarchy—the autocratic rule of families, at best, and at worst, of brute power instead of law. In Enlightenment terms, a dignified ancient culture is also, inescapably, a primitive one.

It is not difficult at all to lapse into thinking of this story as taking place in the nineteenth century, or even earlier. The occasional battered truck and an especially ominous plane are surrealistically incongruous. John Grady and Rawlins bring an uncomplicated if wary democratic spirit into this old world which the system is unwilling to accommodate—itself stranded between past and future. What promises to be a dialectic turns out to be unproductive. What the outcome might have been imagined to be is, in the end, beside the point, for as the Duena Alfonsa says, in history there are no control groups—there is nothing but what happens—and her own paradigmatic reading of history is grounded in the authentic tragedy of Francisco Madero's rise and fall—a story for her for all time of what results when intellectual idealism and political reality collide.

The story of Madero (his brother had been a suitor of Senorita Alfonsa's) seems to be a paradigm for McCarthy as well. There can be no doubt by now that McCarthy is a genuine—if somehow secular—mystic. This novel along with Blood Meridian shows him to be also a serious student of history, and that he reads history's lessons clearheadedly without the slightest chance of projecting politically correct or utopian back-formations upon it. His project is like Conrad's Marlow's, to continue to be able to believe in a numinous value at the heart of existence while remaining wholly without reassurance about this project from the realities of political life. Nor are there any practical hopes that what we can imagine in our moments of concentrated intuition has any chance at all of flourishing in the institutions—using the term advisedly—of men. In his writing, too, McCarthy must therefore always wrestle with the deconstructive angel, seeking to represent in mere words the "resonance … like music … which is the world itself" while knowing full well that language and music cannot be the same and that to try to represent this presence through a medium which is hopelessly grounded in material nature is to fail, and that to fail in this dedicated way is to enact, yet again—a human fractal—the whole problem in itself of being in the world.

So as a writer McCarthy's story is exactly the same as John Grady Cole's, except in a different time. John Grady in turn is clearly intended to be a saint of this project, and humorous and ordinary as he is at one level, he is inhumanly demanding at another, both of the world and of himself. When he reconnoiters with Rawlins back in Texas for the last time, his friend tries halfheartedly to talk him into staying on, maybe going to work on the oil rigs where the money's good. "This is still good country," he says. "Yeah. I know it is," John Grady says. "But it ain't my country." "What is your country," says Rawlins. "I don't know," John Grady says. "I don't know where it is. I don't know what happens to country." So he rides on out, as each unaccommodated visionary must inevitably do. Riding on in McCarthy's world gets to be a habit. His characters remain both medieval and irredeemably American.

On the other hand almost all of the foregoing is both reductive and redundant, for this time around a McCarthy novel speaks lucidly and eloquently for itself. All the Pretty Horses is being described as more accessible than his other novels, and that is certainly the case. And that being the case no doubt accounts for its position (as of this writing) on the New York Times bestseller list. Probably this novel has already sold more copies than all of McCarthy's previous novels combined. The editors at Random House who stuck by him during the lean years deserve knighthood. Now that Random House / Knopf sees that they have a promotable book, they are promoting it and McCarthy. This has required him to emerge briefly from hiding and, not surprisingly, he has conducted himself with a dignity one could wish upon other authors. The faint of heart will be pleased to discover, too, that in All the Pretty Horses the overpowering ratio of evil to good that we have come to expect from McCarthy's fiction has been pretty much reversed. This may bode well for the next two volumes of what is being represented as a trilogy. On the other hand it is the very essence of tragedy that, as the Duena Alfonsa expresses it, "the world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even when we will not." The God who loves plots works in mysterious ways, and He stays busy. So we shall see.

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