Cormac McCarthy | Critical Review by Gregory Jaynes

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Cormac McCarthy.
This section contains 1,597 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Guy Davenport

Critical Review by Gregory Jaynes

SOURCE: "The Knock at the Door," in Time, Vol. 143, No. 23, June 6, 1994, pp. 62-64.

In the following review, Jaynes comments on McCarthy's reticent nature and the author's emergence as a recognized best-seller, and touches briefly on his life and career.

When Cormac McCarthy's sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses, won the National Book Award last year, journalists naturally wanted a word with the author. McCarthy possesses a lifelong habit of refusing questions, however. As a Texas lawyer buddy says, "He solicits publicity like a man evading process." A prestigious literary honor did nothing to change his mind; for that matter, he didn't go pick up the award. It made for a good story all the same. Here was a man with a fine hand with the language and a clear scope on the darkness out there, an impoverished artist on the high rim of his middle years, a writer whose books until Horses had never sold more than 2,500 copies in hard-cover, and here, with recognition and cash at last on his cheap tin plate, he wouldn't talk.

As a result, the press in many cases diminished McCarthy's great value by making him out to be some sort of hermit caballero and by all but ignoring his remarkable prose. Not that any of it bothered him enough to respond. He just kept working, and this week bookstores are receiving copies of The Crossing, the centerpiece in a trilogy that began with Horses. The hero of that book was a boy ahoof in Mexico in 1950, to whom it was easy to give your heart. The Crossing moves two orphaned brothers on horseback across the same spare terrain, this time just before World War II. Violence, raw land, unlettered people, love, loss and a throat-slit dog have something to do with the new narrative; or you could say it is about that mean crossing from child to man, told as cleanly as you'll find.

But don't expect to hear McCarthy talking about it. It does the heart good to report one of life's little constants: he still won't speak. With basically one exception, McCarthy has never drummed for himself. The exception came with the publication of Horses two years ago. At the time McCarthy was 58 and unknown outside a small mob of readers, quite a few of them critics, English professors or writers, who thought he was God. Being God didn't pay spit, though, and after five books and 30 years, McCarthy had his first agent, Amanda Urban, and a new editor, Gary Fisketjon, two of publishing's more glamorous figures. They impressed upon him the idea that a little publicity never hurt. "It was very simple," Fisketjon remembers. "He had no interest in it." They leaned on him. "He said, 'If you start making exceptions …' He said, finally, 'If it will help—and I trust you in thinking it will help—but never again.'"

McCarthy allowed the New York Times to seek him out in El Paso, where he hangs his hat more days than not, but the paper didn't gain much purchase on the novelist. Meanwhile, due in the main to old-fashioned word of mouth, All the Pretty Horses broke free, sold some, won some awards and was acquired by Mike Nichols for the movies. The author bought a new pickup truck, set to work on The Crossing and clammed up.

Here, then, is what we know of Cormac McCarthy: He was the eldest of six children. His father was a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville. He didn't feel he fit in his family or his schools. He tried the University of Tennessee twice and the U.S. Air Force once. He married a young woman from college named Lee Holleman, the first of his two wives, and they had a son, Cullen, who is an architect in Spain. The elder McCarthy's first book was The Orchard Keeper, an unsentimental, striking, powerful, lovely commemorative to a gone way of life in the old Tennessee hills that ended so portentously it made you want to snatch Faulkner from the grave and choke him for his influence.

McCarthy got some grant money for The Orchard Keeper—the William Faulkner Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters—and there is no account of his having hit a lick at anything but novel writing since. His second wife, Anne de Lisle, recalls living in a barn with him outside Knoxville for eight years, bathing outdoors, eating beans, her husband rejecting $2,000 offers to speak at universities because everything he had to say was available in those books that no one was buying. The repellent could have been subject matter, but then only a simpleton would think that Outer Dark was just about incest or Child of God just about necrophilia. More likely, the villain was the complexity of language and thought that refused to meet the reader halfway.

McCarthy roved west in the early '70s, looking for a spot that hadn't been written out. The second Mrs. McCarthy wasn't invited along. Published words about the South were everywhere, thick as clematis on a mailbox. This border territory, though, offered room. And it came with a history. As McCarthy writes in his new novel, "A good deal of what could be seen in the world had passed this way. Armored Spaniards and hunters and trappers and grandees and their women and slaves and fugitives and armies and revolutions and the dead and dying. And all that was seen was told and all that was told was remembered."

As he dug in and began to write in Texas, McCarthy's published work remained a hard slog for readers who couldn't cut through his syntactical thornbush, but in 1979 he brought out Suttree, apparently the last book set in the South he had in him, and it was rough, gnarly, funny as hell and, for the first time, accessible. Here is the novel on the Big Question:

You told me once you believed in God.

The old man waved his hand. Maybe, he said. I got no reason to think he believes in me. Oh I'd like to see him for a minute if I could.

What would you say to him?

Well, I think I'd just tell him. I'd say: Wait a minute. Wait just one minute before you start in on me. Before you say anything, there's just one thing I'd like to know. And he'll say: What's that? And then I'm goin to ast him: What did you have me in that crapgame down there for anyway? I couldn't put any part of it together.

Suttree smiled. What do you think he'll say?

The ragpicker spat and wiped his mouth. I don't believe he can answer it, he said. I don't believe there is an answer.

The MacArthur Foundation got wind of McCarthy about the time Suttree was coming along, and in 1981 he was awarded one of its genius grants. Shelby Foote said, "I told the MacArthur people that he would be honoring them as much as they were honoring him." Saul Bellow mentioned his "absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences." Part of the grant money went to free the author from tumbledown motels: he bought a dogeared little stone-and-stucco affair the color of mayonnaise left out too long, a dirt yard out front and no space in back to speak of, on Coffin Avenue.

In 1985 McCarthy brought out Blood Meridian, an apocalyptic epic, his Moby Dick, about a scalp hunter in the 1840s; to read it is to say goodbye to peace. Few did read it. McCarthy continued to live close to the bone in El Paso, a close-to-the-bone kind of town, just across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico. He golfed, shot pool, ate modest portions of simple food at a cafeteria nearby and at a clattery coffee shop, hung with a couple of lawyers, an artist, an academic and a Nobel-prizewinning physicist next door in New Mexico, saw some young women ("He's not a real terrible rounder," says a local gossip who knows him), let the natural world claim him and continued to produce world-class literature that somehow got sweeter-tempered, as though it had occurred to him that nasty dispositions were unattractive in a book.

El Paso let him be until Horses made the best-seller lists and the local paper took stock of what was in town. Then came the dreaded rap at McCarthy's door. The reporter, Robert Nelson, young and just out of school in Nebraska, had been by four or five times, had knocked until his knuckles hurt, but no one had answered. This time a face, a high forehead, came moonlike to the black copper screen:

"Who are you?"

"Mr. McCarthy, my name is Bob Nelson, and I'm with the El Paso Times, and I wanted to know if there was any chance you would spend any time with me or in any way let me write anything about you."

"I can't do that, Bob." The door stayed shut, deadbolted.

"Would you play golf with me or something?"

"Oh, don't do this."

"All right, I tried."

"Yes, you did."

Bob Nelson went away—went back to Lincoln, Nebraska, in fact, after a brief tour with the newspaper. A year passed, and then the other day a Fleet Street reporter took a run at McCarthy at Luby's Cafeteria, where he sat with his coffee and his soup and his periodicals. "I'm sorry, son," said McCarthy, "but you're asking me to do something I just can't do."

With every good wish, this correspondent drove past the Casa McCarthy this morning, waved so long and hollered hasta luego.

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This section contains 1,597 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Guy Davenport
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