A Master Class in Real Time: Cormac McCarthy

I have been reading Cormac McCarthy- religiously – for over twenty years. I remember when I first stumbled on his magnificent and dark western Blood Meridian. I read the first chapter and said to myself: “My god! This guy gets it!” The lyrical prose, the control, the vivid word pictures, the stunning characterization – at every turn where the western could stumble into a swamp of kitschy tropes, he stepped back and delivered… well… something amazing. I was hooked, and I did what I always do: go back to the author’s beginning and read everything he/she ever wrote. So, I did.

What I discovered (and we all do this when we immerse ourselves in an oeuvre) was the truism: all great artists learn by doing. McCarthy’s first novel The Orchard Keeper was dark and hard to access. It demonstrated absolute and uncontrolled power, uncontrolled story arc, an experiment in prose style – imitations abounding. But it was a pronouncement: I am here! The same with Outer Dark. And then came Child of God. This was dark, descriptive, the type of power where the reader cannot look away, but desperately wants to. The prose was so lyrical, hypnotic (a mongoose to the cobra), the characterization so intense… the subject matter un-blinking – a serial killer who mercilessly ruins the world in fire and darkness and great sorrow. If these three works of fiction were all McCarthy wrote, he would have disappeared from the world – little read, quirky, terribly dark storytelling with little contribution and the acknowledgment “well, at least he tried to do something spectacular.” But that’s not what happened. Like all great Writers/Artists – Cormac McCarthy started to learn what he could do well, what to put on the page, what to leave off. And he evolved ….

Suttree is a tome, almost no narrative, but amazing characterization of Tennessee and country life. It is subtle, quirky, at times dark, but mainly pastoral in nature. Suttree was the major step into figuring out McCarthy’s true passions, his exploration of huge, picturesque landscapes. And with that, the seeds of greatness, of true literary greatness were planted. From it sprouts a forest of novels that scholars will be writing about for the rest of time. I will list them here:

Blood Meridian – the controlled and now intentional blending of the western genre with dark realism and lyrical prose (and introducing the greatest character/villain in all of literature: The Judge).

The Pulitzer Prize Trilogy – All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain – the western re-imagined in the mid 20th century.

No Country for Old Men – A western set in modern day with another stunning villain Chigurh – a philosophizing psychopath hitman.

The Pulitzer Prize The Road – the best post-apocalyptic novel you will ever read about a father and son as they journey to the coast: Sparse in language, graphic, terrifying, and hopeful.

And finally, after years of waiting, through a pandemic and a seemingly apocalyptic world we now find ourselves in – Cormac McCarthy (now age 89!) has written his next novel – The Passenger. I’m only 60 pages in, and yes, it sounds like this or that from previous works (but who wouldn’t when the bar is so high), but I’m excited to read it, re-read it, marvel at an author’s life lived out as a masterclass for all to study.


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