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Critical Essay by Edwin T. Arnold
SOURCE: "Blood and Grace: The Fiction of Cormac McCarthy," in Commonweal, November 4, 1994, pp. 11-16.
In the following essay, Arnold provides an overview of McCarthy's works, discussing how the novels address the issues of contemporary society. Focusing on the religious themes of the works, Arnold examines McCarthy's sensibilities and the deeper messages within the novels.
Cormac McCarthy's novels compose an extended journey. His characters travel the mountain roads and forests of east Tennessee, the city streets of Knoxville, the deserts and hills of Mexico and the Southwest. For the most part, their wanderings seem without immediate purpose, or purpose of the vaguest sort: an undefined desire to withdraw or to explore or to escape. They are descendants of Ishmael, both the biblical outcast and Melville's nomadic seagoer. I can think of no other author who so carefully charts his characters' movements from street to street or town to town—you can follow them on maps if you wish. And yet his novels usually cease their telling in the midst of journeys, still on the road, short of destination, for, in the world of McCarthy, the only true destination is death.
"He spoke as one who seemed to understand that death was the condition of existence and life but an emanation thereof." This is the author's description of a gypsy encountered by his protagonist Billy Parham in McCarthy's new novel, The Crossing, but it could apply equally well to McCarthy, who himself seems fascinated, at times even exhilarated, by the multiple manifestations of doom. In his novels, death is portrayed with astonishing variety in the constant violence men do to men. "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," reads a passage in Outer Dark, and the effect causes some to throw the book to the floor. In Child of God, death is amatory, a means for the necrophile-murderer Lester Ballard to "[pour] into that waxen ear everything he'd ever thought of saying to a woman. Who could say she did not hear him?" In Blood Meridian, a tale of Western scalp hunters, death is all butchery and business, murder for profit in a landscape of terra damnata:
They moved among the dead harvesting the long black locks with their knives and leaving their victims rawskulled and strange in their bloody cauls…. Men were wading about in the red waters hacking aimlessly at the dead and some lay coupled to the bludgeoned bodies of young women dead or dying on the beach. One of the Delawares passed with a collection of heads like some strange vendor bound for market, the hair twisted about his wrist and the heads dangling and turning together.
And yet it should not be surprising that a man so taken with death should prove equally passionate about life, for each, he argues, makes the other possible. McCarthy turns to the wild to revel in the majesty of unnegotiated vitality. In his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, he embodies this fierce joy in the hawk which the boy, John Wesley Rattner, traps for bounty, only later to comprehend that such an act is sacrilege. "I cain't take no dollar," he tells the clerk. "I made a mistake, he wadn't for sale." In later books, those set in the Southwest, McCarthy employs the horse, whose physical vitality he extols in lofty, mystical celebration:
While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations and of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.
In The Crossing, it is the wolf that stands as emblem of a fierce, uncompromised wisdom which sees the balance of life in death, and death in life:
He said that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there. Finally he said that if men drink the blood of God yet they do not understand the seriousness of what they do. He said that men wish to be serious but they do not understand how to be so. Between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world and in this world the storms blow and the trees twist in the wind and all the animals that God has made go to and fro, yet this world men do not see. They see the acts of their own hands or they see that which they name and call out to one another but the world between is invisible to them.
It is the "world between," the invisible place of blood and grace, that lies at the heart of McCarthy's fiction.
McCarthy, now sixty-one, is the author of seven published novels, one published five-act play, and one filmed screenplay. His first four books—The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, and Suttree are set largely in the first half of the century, in Tennessee around Knoxville, where McCarthy attended Catholic high school and, without graduating, the University of Tennessee. His screenplay, The Gardener's Son (directed by Richard Pearce, and shown on PBS in 1977), is based on an 1876 murder in Graniteville, South Carolina. His drama, The Stonemason (published in 1994 but written earlier, apparently around 1980) takes place in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970s.
Shortly before the publication of Suttree, McCarthy left his second wife (he is twice divorced) and moved to the Southwest, first Tucson and then El Paso, which he has since used as his home base. His subsequent books have been Westerns, although to label them as such is no more accurate than to call his earlier books Southern or Appalachian; McCarthy's writings, for all their detailed accuracy of speech and custom and place, easily transcend any notion of region. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, is a hyperviolent tale of scalp hunters in the 1840s, based on historical record and rendered with such realism that many readers cannot get past the first third of the book. All the Pretty Horses, the first volume of The Border Trilogy, is set one hundred years later and, in effect, reconstructs the world of Blood Meridian in more romantic and forgiving terms (for McCarthy, at least); it is not surprising that it has proved to be his one best-seller, although the scope of its success (it sold over 100,000 copies in the first year; won the National Book Award and the National Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; the screen rights were bought by Mike Nichols, filming set for next year) is astonishing, indeed. The second volume of the trilogy, The Crossing, was published last spring in an initial printing of 200,000 copies, and the book was a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. A darker, sadder, but also deeply compassionate work, The Crossing denies its readers the conventional plot satisfactions found in Pretty Horses, although it tells essentially the same story, paralleling its sixteen-year-old protagonist Billy Parham's journey with that of sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole in the first volume (and, inevitably, with the sixteen-year-old "kid" in Blood Meridian). Whether this somber, less engaging but, I believe, more significant novel will hold the readers of All the Pretty Horses remains to be seen. So far, however, it has sold well.
Incest, infanticide, necrophilia; drunkenness, debauchery, sacrilege; physical deformity and spiritual morbidity: this is a bleak place McCarthy explores in his fiction. But it has been too easy, especially of the books leading up to The Border Trilogy, to categorize McCarthy as an unusually talented purveyor of nihilistic Southern Gothic horror shows and to miss the essential religiosity at the core of his writing. Denis Donoghue, following earlier critics like Vereen M. Bell, the author of The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy, describes the characters in the first novels as "recently arrived primates, each possessing a spinal column but little or no capacity of mind or consciousness." And while it is true that Culla Holme in Outer Dark or Lester Ballard in Child of God and, to jump ahead, the kid in Blood Meridian are unlikely to put their feelings of despair and alienation into reasoned words, Culla dreams of himself standing before a prophet, crying "Me … Can I be cured?"; from his cave Lester watches the "hordes of cold stars sprawled across the smokehole and wondered what stuff they were made of, or himself"; and the kid, after his year with the scalpers, "began to speak with a strange urgency of things few men have seen in a lifetime and his jailers said that his mind had come uncottered by the acts of blood in which he had participated." In later time he wanders the Southwest carrying with him a Bible he cannot read, moving inevitably toward his final judgment.
The kind of spiritual devastation suggested in these novels is detailed at length in Suttree, considered by many to be McCarthy's magnum opus. The remnants of his Catholic education and sensibilities are displayed most clearly in this lengthy work. Suttree is a lapsed Catholic but a haunted one, hounded by the specter of death, especially that of his stillborn twin brother: "If our dead kin are sainted we may rightly pray to them. Mother Church tells us so…. I followed him into the world, me…. And used to pray for his soul days past. Believing this ghastly circus reconvened elsewhere for all time. He in the limbo of the Christless righteous, I in a terrestrial hell." Having abandoned his wife and own child, having broken with his well-to-do family, Suttree passes his days fishing on the polluted Tennessee River which runs near the slums of Knoxville. "He said that he might have been a fisher of men in another time but these fish now seemed task enough for him," McCarthy writes.
Suttree is a brilliant book by many measures, a hugely comic, extravagantly written, richly told epic of bedraggled humanity. Peopled by over 150 named characters (some actual figures from 1950s Knoxville), it concentrates on Suttree and on the country youth Gene Harrogate, whom he meets in prison and who follows him to the big city. Harrogate (an extraordinary creation, echoed by Jimmy Blevins in All the Pretty Horses and, to a lesser extent, Boyd Parham in The Crossing) brings out Suttree's sense of responsibility; he tries to save the boy from his own innate foolishness. But Harrogate is hell-bent, beyond rescue, and finally Suttree can try to save only himself. By the end of the novel, he has nearly died, faced judgment in his delirium, and been granted a kind of grace (it is mother's name: he comes to refer to himself as "son of Grace"). Given last rites by a young priest, he is asked, "Would you like to confess?" "I did it," he answers, and the truth embraces his whole life. "God must have been watching over you. You very nearly died," the priest says. "You would not believe what watches," Suttree answers. "He is not a thing. Nothing ever stops moving."
Although each of the earlier books (with the possible exception of The Orchard Keeper, a novel which suggests mystical truths but is largely devoid of outright religious considerations) questions the relationship between man and God, in Suttree it becomes a main theme. (The book was apparently written over a twenty-year period, and the three other novels can be read as offshoots of the larger work.) Starting with Blood Meridian (and including his play The Stonemason), McCarthy's writings have become increasingly solemn, his style more stately, his concerns more overtly theological. The world is a wild place in McCarthy's fiction, and its God a wild and often savage and mostly unknowable God, but a God whose presence constantly beckons. In Blood Meridian, the former priest, Tobin, says of the "Almighty": "Whatever could it mean to one who knows all? He's an uncommon love for the common man and godly wisdom resides in the least of things so that it may well be that the voice of the Almighty speaks most profoundly in such beings as lives in silence themselves…. No man is given leave of that voice."
"I ain't heard no voice," the kid spits in reply.
"When it stops … you'll know you've heard it all your life," Tobin answers.
It may be surprising to think of marauding scalp hunters debating the existence of God, but, as if in response to the muteness of his earlier characters, McCarthy's more recent ones engage in lengthy conversations discussing the issues of life and death and God's role in both. As another former priest tells Billy Parham in The Crossing, "Men do not turn from God so easily you see. Not so easily. Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from. To imagine otherwise is to imagine the unspeakable." He continues:
Nor does God whisper through the trees. His voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay his presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom he has spoken can contemplate no life without him but only darkness and despair.
There are godless men aplenty in McCarthy's novels, and many of them are evil, ranging from the three dark ghoulish figures who roam the land of Outer Dark, haunting Culla's path, to the "sooty-souled rascal" Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, who finally calls the kid to judgment, to the strange Indian who brings violence to Billy Parham's home and sets him journeying in The Crossing. But for each man there is always also the possibility of grace. "You think God looks out for people?" Lacey Rawlins asks John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses. He answers himself, "I do. Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some damn place and before you're done there's wars and ruination and all hell. You don't know what's going to happen. I'd say he's just about got to. I don't believe we'd make it a day otherwise." Or, as a Mexican bandit tells the kid in Blood Meridian, "When the lambs is lost in the mountain…. They is cry. Sometime come the mother. Sometime the wolf."
McCarthy's protagonists are most often those who, in their travels, are bereft of the voice of God and yet yearn to hear him speak. This is especially true in the first two volumes of The Border Trilogy. "Long voyages often lose themselves," a traveling actress tells Billy Parham. "The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons. If indeed they come to an understanding of them at all. Listen to the corridos of the country. They will tell you. Then you will see in your own life what is the cost of things."
The "corridos," the stories of the country: these are the messages, the lessons, the parables McCarthy tells. As a character says in The Crossing, "For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them. So everything is necessary. Every least thing…. Of the telling there is no end…. Rightly heard all tales are one." For both John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, the tale is very much the same, and the "cost of things" unusually high; and by his book's end, each boy seems depleted, shriven, leading one to contemplate their possible meeting in volume three and the consequences of that meeting.
Indeed, rightly seen, all of McCarthy's works take the same journey, tell the same tale, posit the same moral and spiritual questions. Everything is necessary, nothing ever stops moving, and when God speaks, in gift or in blood, all fall to their knees. As the priest tells Billy Parham, "In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God. For nothing is real save his grace."
This section contains 2,839 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)