Like British Catholic writer Graham Greene, Cormac McCarthy is reluctant to develop any optimistic themes. He is also reluctant about stating his themes, although some of his titles offer strong hints. For the most part, he merely tells his stories and leaves it up to the reader to interpret their meanings. As a result, one critic has judged McCarthy to be nihilistic, but surely this judgment is incorrect. McCarthy’s reluctance to preach about the good news masks a profoundly moral sensibility that is forced to face the worst in human nature and to recognize the power of evil. In this way, his novels are comparable to the medieval morality play or to such films by Ingmar Bergman as The Seventh Seal (1957).
There is also a softer, more modern side to McCarthy’s morality. Few writers identify so thoroughly with people beyond the pale—the poor, the homeless and dispossessed, the criminal and degenerate, the outcasts. He manages to find some humanity even in the worst of these and to ascribe their conditions partly to contingency, bad luck, or the operations of respectable society. Their nemesis (besides themselves) is often the law and its officers, who, for them, become additional embodiments of the death and destruction that pursue everyone. McCarthy’s refusal to avert his sympathies from the outcasts thus raises some complex social and theological issues.
The Orchard Keeper
McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, introduces the outcasts as members of the disappearing mountain culture of East Tennessee. Young Marion Sylder lives by bootlegging, and in self-defense he kills a man and disposes of the body in an abandoned peach orchard that symbolizes the dying culture. Old Arthur Ownby, who fondly watches over the orchard, finds the body, but he does not report it. He lets it rest in peace for seven years. The old man also believes in his own peace and privacy, and when these are disturbed by a government holding tank erected on a nearby hill, he shoots his X on the tank’s side. Both the men live by old mountain codes that, by definition, are outside the law of the intruding modern world. However, the enforcers of the law, who finally arrest and beat Sylder and send the old man to a mental institution, seem degenerate in comparison to them. The novel’s theme is also represented in John Wesley Rattner (ironically, the son of the dead man), a boy who hunts and traps, is befriended by the two men, and comes of age in the novel. He decides to cast his loyalties with the old ways even if they have become anachronistic.
The episodic converging stories and italicized flashbacks of The Orchard Keeper recall Faulkner’s narrative techniques, and McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark, also owes a debt to Faulkner. The novel takes place in some vaguely Deep South setting early in the twentieth century and deals with the horrible consequences of incest between Culla and Rinthy Holme, brother and sister. Rinthy delivers a baby boy, and Culla abandons it in the woods, where a passing tinker finds and takes it. Culla tells Rinthy that the baby died, but Rinthy digs up the shallow grave, discovers his lie, and intuitively goes in search of the tinker. Culla goes after Rinthy to bring her back. Their wanderings on the roads recall those of Lena Grove and Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August (1932). Everyone she encounters befriends Rinthy, who moves along dripping mother’s milk for over six months, but Culla meets nothing except suspicion and trouble. These episodes also recall the journey down the river in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), particularly a wild incident in which a loose ferry is swept down a raging river.
McCarthy’s most original and unforgettable creation in Outer Dark is a set of three avenging angels, or devils, who rove about the landscape murdering people. On a realistic level, they are lawless, asocial drifters who have gone totally beyond the pale into the “outer dark.” They have lost all caring. Appropriately, Culla meets this unholy trio of blood brothers near the novel’s end. The three hang the tinker and dispose of the baby (now symbolically scarred as in a Nathaniel Hawthorne story) before Culla’s eyes: One slits the baby’s throat and another sucks its blood.
Child of God
If Outer Dark does not contain horror enough, McCarthy followed it with Child of God, which returns to a rural East Tennessee setting. Here, mountain man Lester Ballard loses his farm for failure to pay taxes; embittered and alone, he sinks gradually into necrophilia and then murder. His degeneration is marked by movement from the farm to an abandoned shack that burns, to a cave where he stores his supply of dead women. He is finally captured, dies in a state mental hospital, and is dissected in a medical laboratory. His neighbors, whose choruslike, folksy comments are interspersed throughout the story, always thought him a bit strange, with bad blood. McCarthy suggests that all Lester ever needed, however, was a home and love. Lester was only “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.”
A short, tightly unified work, Child of God contrasts with McCarthy’s next novel, Suttree, usually considered his masterpiece. Suttree displays the variety and range of McCarthy’s talent. Set in Knoxville during the 1950’s, the novel is a long, rambling work rich in incident, character, language, and mood, including some surprisingly amusing, bawdy humor. However, Suttree has certain features in common with Child of God. Misery and unhappiness also predominate here, and instead of one child of God, Suttree has hundreds—drunks, prostitutes, perverts, petty criminals, and the poor generally, black and white—all dumped together in a slum known as McAnally Flats. The characters have such names as Hoghead, Gatemouth, Worm, and Trippin Through The Dew, and their dialogue is spiced with slang and expletives.
The central character is Cornelius “Buddy” Suttree, scion of a prominent local family. He has deliberately chosen to live in this slum on a houseboat moored in the Tennessee River, from whose filthy waters he catches a few carp and catfish to sell. Why he has made this strange choice gradually becomes clear. On one hand, he has made a mess of his life. He and his parents are no longer on speaking terms, and his wife left him long ago, taking their child (who dies in the novel). Suttree sank to drink and served a term in the prison workhouse. Now he lives in McAnally Flats because, on the other hand, he feels at home there. There, he can find the company of like-minded, fun-loving pals who can help him pass the time and avoid involvement in the pain of life. There he sits, the fisher king in his wasteland, and with dread and longing he awaits the oblivion of death.
A happy flaw in Suttree’s character, however, prevents his nihilistic scheme from taking effect: compassion. He cannot avoid feeling compassion for the people around him, such as the ignorant but irrepressible Gene Harrogate, a country boy who serves a term in the workhouse for having sex with a farmer’s watermelons and who dynamites the city’s sewer system down on himself trying to rob a bank (the “country mouse,” as he is first called, soon becomes the “city rat”). Further involvement with people leads to further pain for Suttree—a girl he falls in love with is killed, his long affair with a rich prostitute breaks up, and most of his pals are killed or imprisoned. Deeper emotional commitment on Suttree’s part, however, might have saved both the girl and the affair with the prostitute. After a solitary retreat to the Great Smoky Mountains and a near-fatal illness, Suttree decides to embrace life—pain and all—and to leave Knoxville. He leaves just as the McAnally Flats are being torn down to make room for an expressway. His parting words of advice concern the hounds of death: “Fly them.”
McCarthy’s fifth book, Blood Meridian, is a historical novel set in the American Southwest and northern Mexico around the middle of the nineteenth century. The novel’s protagonist is a nameless character known only as “the kid (with suggested parallels perhaps to Billy the Kid), who runs away from his Tennessee home when he is fourteen and heads west. His story might be that of Huck Finn after Huck “lit out for the territory” and left civilization behind. After repeated scrapes, always moving west, the kid joins a band of scalping bounty hunters who hunt the Apaches when the Apaches are not hunting them. The massacres go on endlessly, all duly noted in the running summaries that head each chapter.
In some ways, Blood Meridian provides a useful retrospective view of McCarthy’s work. It returns to the horrors of his earlier novels but seems to relate these to the social themes of Suttree. The scalp hunters are, after all, the advance guard of Western civilization. They suggest a terrible moral ambiguity at the heart of civilization, as in the hearts of individuals, that enables it to stamp out Apaches and backward mountaineers and to create such slums as McAnally Flats. Judge Holden, the repulsive and evil philosopher of Blood Meridian, argues that God made humanity thus, that morality is irrelevant, and that superior violence shall triumph. The naked judge finally embraces the kid with an apparent death hug inside a privy behind a whorehouse in Fort Griffin, Texas. Readers can probably find a warning in this to flee such philosophers.
The Border trilogy
The American Southwest and northern Mexico also serve as the setting for McCarthy’s most ambitious work, the Border trilogy, the sweeping saga of two boys’ initiation into manhood immediately before, during, and after World War II. With this work the author sheds the label of southern regional writer by combining universal themes and postmodernist thought with the bold experimental style he exhibited in Blood Meridian.
In the opening book, All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy paints a splendid yet harsh landscape populated by an equally noble yet coarse cast of characters. Among them are John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, who spend much of their time in search of a cultural identity and Western way of life that is on the verge of extinction. A sense of restlessness permeates the tale as Cole and Parham, despite their determination, seem incapable of attaching themselves to a particular time or place, other than the disappearing open range.
In The Crossing, a prequel to All the Pretty Horses, the sense of homelessness is similarly pervasive, starting with the opening sequence when Parham becomes obsessed with trapping a renegade she-wolf. After he captures the animal, he decides to release her back into the wild, a symbolic act indicating the wild-at-heart temperaments McCarthy instills in his characters. It is the first of a series of losses experienced by Parham, a list that later would include his parents, brother, and dog.
The thematic “quest” continues in Cities of the Plain, as Cole and Parham are united while working as a pair of hired hands on a New Mexico cattle ranch where they quickly become inseparable friends, bound by a love of horses and life on the range. Soon, Cole finds another love in the figure of Magdalena, a Mexican prostitute. In an attempt to rescue her from an abusive pimp, both Cole and Magdalena wind up dead, leaving Parham alone to wander the land, performing odd jobs, before finding himself back in New Mexico an elderly man.
The Border trilogy is unconventional in word and deed and filled with an imaginative succession of contrasts and conflicts that drive the author’s narrative to its conclusion. Throughout his story he is able to juxtapose competing cultures, languages, and moral codes to create a milieu that spawns extraordinary actions and stretches of dialogue, such as the series of tales by the priest, the blind man, and the gypsy in TheCrossing. The mystic element of these exchanges underscores the thread of the natural versus the supernatural running through the story. Yet, whenever otherworldly elements edge closer to becoming the balm for his protagonists’ troubles, there is always the landscape to return them to reality. As critics have noted, the surrounding land becomes another of McCarthy’s characters with contrasting features of its own, from august mountains to desolate plains. It is not an oversimplification to conclude that much of the trilogy becomes a matter of when humankind and nature meet and that the author’s characters do not change or grow over the course of his story. Rather, they are blended into the ever-present landscape that, in the end, is destined to unite them.
Cities of the Plain
Set in the early 1950’s around El Paso, Texas, and across the border in Juarez, Mexico, Cities of the Plain brings together the protagonists of the first two novels of the Border trilogy. Billy Parham, now in his thirties, and John Grady Cole, now nineteen, both find themselves working on a ranch in the Tularosa Basin, an area threatened by U.S. government appropriation for military purposes. “Anyway this country aint the same,” Billy tells John Grady. “The war changed everthing. I don’t think people even know it yet.”
The central action revolves around John Grady’s single-minded obsession with a young Mexican epileptic prostitute, Magdalena, an obsession that readers understand better in the light of his experiences in All the Pretty Horses. The extent to which John Grady is devoted to this woman and willing to sacrifice for her shows how difficult it can be to distinguish between foolishness and heroism. Grady’s powerful emotions propel him along the path of romance, despite cautions and counsel offered by older men such as Billy, Mac the ranch owner, and the maestro, a blind Mexican musician who subscribes to a kind of fatalist philosophy: “Men imagine that the choices before them are theirs to make. But we are free to act only upon what is given. Choice is lost in the maze of generations and each act in that maze is itself an enslavement for it voids every alternative and binds one ever more tightly into the constraints that make a life.”
There are plenty of signs that the relationship will not work; the narrative bears the usual markings of tragedy. The most stubborn, insurmountable obstacle turns out to be Eduardo, the girl’s pimp who is also in love with her. Despite her mortal fear of Eduardo, Magdalena finally arranges to escape with John Grady. The price of her defiance is death: She is caught and killed in her attempt to flee. When John Grady finds out what happened, he seeks revenge, going after Eduardo. An extremely graphic knife fight between the two men ends with a critically wounded Grady killing his rival. Despite Billy’s attempt to save him, Grady dies from his wounds. Neither energies nor the beings housing them stay within prescribed boundaries. Grady’s obsession, the woman’s epilepsy, Eduardo’s capacity for jealousy and desire for triumph over his rival—all are displays of excess, and, while this excess leads to tragedy, it at least is vivid proof of life’s intensity, perhaps preferable to a dull, lifeless, modern existence, void of tragic potential.
As do the first two novels in the trilogy, Cities of the Plains discloses the complex dynamics between the United States and Mexico, fraught with tensions, mutual suspicions and fascinations. Both Billy and John Grady, fully aware of cultural differences, register a real appreciation of their neighbors south of the border. Billy recounts the extraordinary generosity and hospitality of ordinary Mexicans:
I was just a kid. I rode all over northern Mexico. …Iliked it. I liked the country and I liked the people in it. I rode all over Chihuahua and a good part of Coahuila and some of Sonora. I’d be gone weeks at a time and not have hardly so much as a peso in my pocket but it didn’t make no difference. Those people would take you in and put you up and feed you and feed your horse and cry when you left. You could of stayed forever. They didn’t have nothin. Never had and never would. But you could stop at some little estancia in the absolute dead center of nowhere and they’d take you in like you was kin. You could see that the revolution hadn’t done them no good. A lot of em had lost boys out of the family. Fathers or sons or both. Nearly all of em, I expect. They didn’t have no reason to be hospitable to anybody. Least of all a gringo kid. That plateful of beans they set in front of you was hard come by. But I was never turned away. Not a time.
For Grady, Mexico has retained a certain vitality lost in the United States. “Don’t you think if there’s anything left of this life it’s down there?” he asks Billy at one point. His obsession with the Mexican woman might be seen as a way to come to terms with, even to embrace, the “other.” The presence of Americans south of the border is not welcome by all, as shown in Eduardo’s remarks to John Grady during their knife fight: “They drift down out of your leprous paradise seeking a thing now extinct among them. A thing for which perhaps they no longer even have a name.” The story’s outcome underscores how difficult it is to surmount a history of hostility, distrust, and misunderstanding.
The novel’s epilogue, transcending the tragic story, features a seventy-eight-yearold Billy, at “the second year of the new millennium” and his encounter with a Mexican fellow-traveler. In their exchange, in the mutual listening and telling of dreams and stories, readers are urged to consider the metaphysical import of dreams, stories, death, the relationship between life and representations of it, and the contingent forces that conspire to make a particular life what it is, and not something else. “Every man’s death is a standing in for every other,” the Mexican pronounces toward the end, as a kind of moral. “And since death comes to all there is no way to abate the fear of it except to live for that man who stands for us.”
Long fiction: The Orchard Keeper, 1965; Outer Dark, 1968; Child of God, 1973; Suttree, 1979; Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West, 1985; All the Pretty Horses, 1992; The Crossing, 1994; Cities of the Plain, 1998; The Border Trilogy, 1999 (includes All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain); No Country for Old Men, 2005; The Road, 2006
Play: The Stonemason, pb. 1994. Screenplay: The Gardener’s Son, 1996. Teleplay: The Gardener’s Son, 1977.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.