Cormac McCarthy | Critical Review by Guy Davenport

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Cormac McCarthy.
This section contains 1,095 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Guy Davenport

Critical Review by Guy Davenport

SOURCE: "Silurian Southern," in National Review, Vol. 31, No. 11, March 16, 1979, pp. 368-69.

In the following review Davenport discusses the Southern influences in McCarthy's novels, and praises the novelist's originality and skill in rendering the "outrageous and the macabre."

In his fourth novel, Cormac McCarthy deepens his sounding of the Silurian depths of human nature. We are creatures designed and damned by the past. In an alley in Knoxville, all the animistic conjurations of West Africa thrive in their millionth year; the visionary mind of Wales and the stubborn will of Scotland, fueled by whisky and enraged by adversity, plunge the conduct of life in Tennessee into dark triumphs of irreality.

The people he writes about do not think, especially before they leap. He has subtracted from narrative tradition that running account, by author or character, of rationalization, opinion, and intent which reached an ultimate in Joyce's stream of consciousness and provides most novels with a large part of their matter ("She loves me, he reflected to his not ungainly image in the mirror, savoring the clean sting of the Aqua Velva").

In his second novel, Outer Dark, people move as in a silent film. Their actions are described as beautifully and fully as a camera sees. Voices speak. Awful things happen before our eyes. The denouement is shocking. But the adverbial element has been omitted. There is not even an ironic tone to guide us. And all motivation, all messages from minds, all reverie, all memory are kept from us as a dark secret.

McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for 1965. His third, Child of God, achieved as distinct a style as any in American writing, a harmony of vernacular and Renaissance English. In Tennessee, the setting of all McCarthy's novels, locutions survive from the bucolic English of two centuries ago, alongside the stuttering and depraved English all of us speak anymore.

Critics have sniped at McCarthy's studied prose rhythms and unfamiliar words, not seeing the need he has of them. He must summon his world before our eyes in all its richness and exactness of shape, because that is all he is summoning.

Cormac McCarthy's tales are all dark. Brother and sister beget a child; men who seem to lust to hurt everything in reach roam from murder to murder; a man copulates with corpses of his own killing, keeping them mildewed and cool in the depths of a cave. Such horrors are not offered as Grand Guignol; they are the doings of ordinary folk in an ordinary world. They are the doings of stubborn, willful, gaunt Tennesseans in overalls and aprons, chewers of tobacco and dippers of snuff.

In this new novel, Suttree is a fisherman who lives in a houseboat on the river that runs through Knoxville. He was somebody else once. He is, presumably, from a well-to-do family. He is just out of prison when we meet him; a good two hundred pages later we find out why he was there. He pals around with the fast sporting set that hangs out at the Greyhound Bus Station, with blacks who drink and gamble in back rooms, and with the derelicts who inhabit the arches of overpasses, sleeping in cardboard boxes.

What fascinates Cormac McCarthy about people is irrational intrepidity—unflappable stubbornness, inviolable mule-headedness. He treats it comically, heroically, even lyrically in this long novel which, in essence, rings and thuds with heads butted against ungiving oak. His protagonist (who is, for the first time in McCarthy's work, permitted a limited amount of interiority) is a stubborn will among stubborn wills of varying degrees of intelligence.

There is a hierarchy of these unlearning persisters. On the lowest rung is a chucklehead named Harrogate, a ratfaced adolescent, all bone and gall, who comes on the scene as a sexual violator of watermelons. He is a type in the South, one that can be characterized entirely by his prolonging his sentence on the chain-gang (raping watermelons is presumably bestiality under Tennessee law) rather than work in the prison kitchen. Masculinity is a finely graduated commodity.

Up from Harrogate on the scale we find various derelicts, scavengers, and professional pushers of their own luck. At the top, I'm not certain whether we are to understand an Indian who somehow still fishes in his native river, or a black who is a kind of chief to his people (a bootlegger and gambler otherwise) and whose brutal fights with the police exhibit a will that means never to knuckle under.

This is a violent novel, wild with fights and McCarthyan horrors, such as a body kept in an icebox for six months so that its welfare checks will continue. But it is a thoroughly believable novel, its every gesture authentic. There are multiple plot lines, a small-town's worth of characters, and enough episodes for a four-hour movie were the novel to be filmed. Though it seems to ramble from jail to river to alley, its structure is as tight as the strings on a guitar.

Cormac McCarthy is a Knoxvillian, and there is something of a portrait of the artist as a young man about this book. Coming after three objective novels with no trace of a self-portrait, there is nothing here of the author digesting his adolescence. Instead, it would seem that the author has projected himself into a character he might have been were circumstances otherwise, or that he is being autobiographical in an obliquely symbolic way. His protagonist has too subjective a cast to be an observed character. It is as if the author had asked what part of himself bears the imprint of the world in which he was raised, and answered himself by witnessing what these traits look like exemplified by a gallery of characters ranging from near-idiotic to noble.

Such a connoisseur of the outrageous and the macabre (and of the lyrically beautiful, when he wants to be) can be read for the story alone. One is soon won over, however, to Cormac McCarthy's radically original way with tone and his sense of the aloneness of people in their individuality. At the heart of Suttree there is a strange scene of transformation and rebirth in which the protagonist wanders in a forest, sees visions, and emerges as a stranger to all that was before familiar. This is a scene no one else could have written.

Very little of his work echoes other writers; where it does (Faulkner, for instance, and the King James Bible), the echo is in homage rather than imitation. Such originality and integrity are as rare as they are welcome.

(read more)

This section contains 1,095 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Guy Davenport
Follow Us on Facebook