The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is the author of five novels: The Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), Suttree (1979), and Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985). All were published by Random House, but none has achieved very much public notice. Indeed, according to Vereen M. Bell in his ground-breaking study of McCarthy, these novels have sold in the neighborhood of only fifteen thousand copies altogether in their hardback editions. Yet Random House has continued to publish him, and his books are also available in paperback (Suttree in a Vintage edition; the other four novels from Ecco Press). Bell describes McCarthy’s present position as follows:Cormac McCarthy is as elusive in life as life is in his fictions. He is a relatively young man, born in 1933, and little is known of him. His novels are scarcely read, even in Tennessee, his more-or-less native state. But both labor and obscurity seem to agree with him. He is a meticulous, unhurried craftsman and yet declines flatly to promote his own work, and he indirectly gives offense by disdaining academic patronage. . . . [McCarthy] remains committed to writing well and therefore patiently, aided intermittently by foundation support, including a substantial grant from the MacArthur Foundation. . . . He is a major writer in all of the conventional senses of the word, our best unknown major writer by many measures.
This is rather a romantic image Bell presents of the dedicated artist, but in McCarthy’s case it seems to be the truth. Certainly it is true that McCarthy has in no way sought fame or fortune through his writing, refusing to give interviews, to publicize his works, to make personal tours. His books have remained difficult and challenging, in both their style and their subject matter. His stories are always marked with incredible violence rendered in an unflinching manner. As Bell puts it, McCarthy celebrates “life beyond the pale.”
One need only look at the books to find how unappeasing McCarthy can be. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, focuses on three characters: a young boy, John Wesley Rattner; a moonshiner, Marion Sylder; and an old man, an isolate named Arthur Ownby. The story is told alternately from each character’s point of view. The boy’s father has been killed by Sylder and his body placed in an insecticidespray tank at the orchard “kept” by Ownby. Ownby tends to the body, keeping watch over it as the years pass. Both Ownby and Sylder become surrogate fathers to John Wesley, but it is a strange relationship McCarthy describes. In Outer Dark, he weaves a dark tale of a brother and sister living in the mountains of Tennessee. When the sister gives birth to their child, the brother abandons it in the woods, where it is found by a tinker. The sister-mother Rinthy goes in search of the baby, and the brother Culla follows. Their journeys are marked by threat and fear; Culla especially is stalked by three terrible figures, murderers and graverobbers both, who finally come to possess the now-deformed child themselves. Child of God is a horror story of madness and necrophilia in which the protagonist, Lester Ballard, murders his victims and takes away the women’s corpses for companionship. Suttree is set in the slums of Knoxville in the early 1950’s and reiterates scenes of degradation and disgust. Blood Meridian recounts the...
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