Cormac McCarthy Essay - Critical Essays

Cormac McCarthy American Literature Analysis

An overview of McCarthy’s work shows the sure and steady development of the writer’s craft, a deepening of metaphysical content, and expansion of thematic interests. His first four novels are rooted in the geography and experience of East Tennessee, the region where McCarthy grew up, while his next four novels, beginning with Blood Meridian, are set in the American Southwest and Mexico.

Early in his career, following the publication of The Orchard Keeper, comparisons were drawn between the Tennessee writer and William Faulkner, his Mississippi predecessor. There is certainly ample ground for comparisons to be made. The fictional worlds of both writers are grounded in their southern experiences. Like Faulkner, McCarthy has been an innovator in language, capturing regional idioms and imbuing his prose with a luminous verbal quality. The narrative designs, not to mention the naturalistic burdens, of Outer Dark and Child of God often remind one of Faulkner, especially novels such as As I Lay Dying (1930) and Sanctuary (1931).

McCarthy’s work, however, is not derivative, and any comparison must emphasize his uniqueness. The social fabric of Faulkner’s world is generally much richer and more interlocking than that of McCarthy, with the possible exception of Suttree. Faulkner’s modernistic narrative technique allows for the expression of more of his characters’ thoughts and subjective reactions than do McCarthy’s tightly controlled, omniscient storylines. With Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s style and concerns become unquestionably his own, not only as a result of shifting the locus of dramatic action from the South but also by concentrating more intently on the problematic nature of human violence and evil. The more recent novels have often been situated within the context of the traditions of the Western, both in film and literature. No contemporary American writer has devoted this kind of attention to the cultural interactions between the United States and Mexico.

McCarthy’s narratives are shaped by the journeys they inscribe. The condition of homelessness and wandering are themes that run through the writer’s oeuvre. In The Orchard Keeper, John Wesley Rattner’s search seems, in part, to be for his father who, unbeknown to him, has been murdered. At the end of the novel, he is paying homage to his mother’s grave. The movement of Culla and Rinthy Holme, in Outer Dark, as they look for each other and the offspring of their incestuous union, is a relentless groping for familial bonds and for an elusive home. Lester Ballard, the central character in Child of God, is left an orphan after his mother deserts him and his father hangs himself. Ever the outcast, fleeing the law, Lester turns to necrophilia in what seems a grotesque parody of love, a doomed attempt to reconstitute the family he never had. In Blood Meridian, “the kid” loses his mother at birth and runs away from his father when he is fourteen, initiating a story chronicling his vagrant travels in an amoral universe. Both John Grady Cole and Billy Parham leave their families at a young age and embark on journeys that expose them to a radically different cultural landscape, as they move from adolescence to adulthood.

McCarthy forces one to see and contemplate things one would normally find repulsive and would rather turn away from. In writing on Child of God, critic Doris Grumbach asserts that McCarthy “has allowed us direct communion with his special kind of chaos; every sentence he writes illuminates, if only for a moment, the great dark of madness and violence and inevitable death that surrounds us all.” Lester Ballard’s necrophilia, Culla and Rinthy Holme’s incestuous relationship in Outer Dark, and the gross violence in Blood Meridian are all rendered beautifully, with subdued values of a sympathetic human vision, producing for the reader that odd union of disgust and thrill often associated with the gothic. Energies in The Border Trilogy often refuse to be contained, propelling characters into realms of tragedy and death.

McCarthy’s project is an exploration of what humanity is, and his investigations take him to the fringes, aberrations where something has gone slightly afoul. His naturalistic inclinations lead him unflinchingly to follow the course of deformed lives, suggesting what delicate social and biological machines humans are and in what close proximity humankind is to perversion and violence. Lester Ballard, the reader is told, is “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” A haunting ambivalence lurks in the positioning of that “perhaps.”

Subterranean worlds exist concurrently with the world on the surface, a thin membrane separating the two. The cavern figures frequently throughout McCarthy’s early work as a metaphor for the submerged and primordial. In The Orchard Keeper, young boys explore caves and find “the inscriptions etched in the soft and curdcolored stone, hearts and names, archaic dates, crudely erotic hieroglyphs—the bulbed phallus and strange centipedal vulva of small boys’ imaginations.” In Child of God, Lester Ballard finally takes refuge in a cave, moving his collection of dead companions. In Suttree, one of Gene Harrogate’s hare-brained plots is to cause the city’s bank to collapse into the cavernous reaches beneath Knoxville. With Suttree he talks over his scheme:I reckon once a feller got in under there he could go anywheres he took a notion right in under the ground there couldnt he? I dont know, Gene. There’s lots of cave under there. Suttree was pulling a wire minnowbucket from the bottom of the river by a long cord. He swung it dripping to the rail and opened the top and lifted out two beers and . . . handed one to Harrogate and leaned back against the houseboat wall. That goddamned truck like to of fell plumb out of sight. I saw it. What if the whole goddamned building was to just up and sink? What about two or three buildings? What about a whole block? Harrogate was waving his bottle about, Goddamn, he said. What if the whole . . . city was to cave in? That’s the spirit, said Suttree.

Billy Parham and John Grady, in The Border Trilogy, become self-imposed exiles. Though the borders that they cross are geographic rather than moral, the motivation and effect is similar. They wish to come to know a world profoundly “other”; their choices and course of their narratives result in a sense of separation from their fellow men, a sense of separation from humanity itself.

A salient feature of McCarthy’s fiction is the rich linguistic texture of the prose itself. Opaque, concrete, deceptively realistic, the words turn in on themselves, creating a world of their own, cut from their referential moorings. Detailed descriptions of the physical landscape are juxtaposed with sparse dialogue. The end result is that humans are given a place in the universe no more elevated or sacred than the natural world which surrounds theirs. McCarthy’s characters are not loquacious. They say what they need to in order to get what they want, in a thoroughly natural diction. Rarely is access given to the consciousness of characters. One sees what they do and what they say, but seldom are motives explicitly displayed, leaving readers to form their own interpretations and moral judgments. Characters themselves, in fact, seem to lack any self-consciousness of their own actions. Detached from their egos, they perceive things “unshaped by the construction of a mind obsessed with form.”

Underlying McCarthy’s work lies the profound mystery of what incomprehensible, implacable force moves humankind. What keeps these characters going? This sense of mystery and limitless possibility might even be thought to be the very grounding of writing, of the construction of stories. “Where all is known no narrative is possible,” asserts a character near the end of Cities of the Plain. McCarthy’s vision may often seem to be nihilistic and cruelly gothic, with a relentless rapacity, yet it is not without a slim possibility of grace and redemption.

The Orchard Keeper

First published: 1965

Type of work: Novel

The lives of three men, outlaws of different kinds and ages, and various animals crisscross in the hills of eastern Tennessee.

Upon the publication of The Orchard Keeper, granted the William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel by an American writer, McCarthy’s promising literary talents were recognized. The young writer was singled out as a force to be watched and to be reckoned with.

Like a number of McCarthy’s early novels, The Orchard Keeper is set in eastern Tennessee. Its topography is related intimately in stunning prose, creating a remarkable, richly textured linguistic surface to the novel. Setting, for McCarthy, is of paramount importance. In fact, geographic contours seem to precede and form the characters that act within their folds. This stands as a kind of philosophical principle for McCarthy, who places the human dimension of life in perspective, always vigilantly invoking the presence of larger, more powerful, mystical forces that drive and control people’s lives. The hilly region east of Knoxville is perfect for supporting the thematic thrust of the novel. During the time the novel is set, in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, the area was yet outside the jurisdiction of law and beyond the reach of modern civilization. The land itself, and the connection of its tenants to it, represents a cultural value akin to that espoused by southern Agrarian writers such as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and others.

Threatened is humankind’s ability to live independent of society’s conventions and inflexible legal dictates. The novel serves as an elegy to a heroic past in which people lived in harmony with nature and made, individually, their own moral determinations. As McCarthy writes in the last lines of the novel, its characters are among the last of their kind: “They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.”

Only gradually does the reader come to know about the three main characters whose lives the novel intertwines: Marion Sylder, a bootlegger; John Wesley Rattner, a young boy who traps game illegally; and Arthur Ownsby, an old, single man who is the orchard keeper. Though these characters have no discernible relation to one another when the reader meets them, they are drawn to one another as the narrative unfolds. Sylder has killed John Wesley’s father, partly in self-defense, without even knowing who the man was. Sylder dumps the body of the dead man into an insecticide spray tank on the old decaying orchard kept by Ownsby. Ownsby finds the body but keeps it a secret, making periodic ritualistic visits to the makeshift grave, watching the body decay. Ownsby knows Sylder only by the car he used to run whiskey past the orchard, and he has no inkling he is responsible for the murder. John Wesley, however, knows both of them. He develops a friendship with the old man and comes to know Sylder after rescuing him from a creek where Sylder lands after driving his car off the road.

All of this is gathered in bits and pieces throughout the novel, for the narrative of The Orchard Keeper is the most disjunctive of any of McCarthy’s novels. The characters themselves are thrifty with their speech; they keep things to themselves. Scenes are short and episodic, with periodic flashbacks triggered by characters’ memories. Because the focus continually shifts, abruptly, without any signs as to with whom and where one is, the reader must continually adjust to new orientations. Plots are arrogant impositions on disconnected events. What McCarthy seems intent on uplifting in this novel is the remarkable random rhythm of human experience.

A sense of defeat lies heavily over the novel’s end. The law, standing in conflict with a harmony of natural and human values, prevails. The old orchard keeper is hunted down, finally arrested for shooting an “X” in a metal tank, which he takes as a gross intrusion in his life, and committed to an asylum. Sylder is picked up by the law, too, for transportation of illegal substances. The boy, John Wesley, leaves the area, returning some years later, in the last episode of the novel, to find his mother’s grave.

Outer Dark

First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

A brother and sister search for each other and the child born of their incestuous union, abandoned by its father and found by a tinker.

McCarthy’s second novel pursues thematic issues raised in The Orchard Keeper, though its narrative is channeled more rigorously. The novel is about union, its sundering, and the perpetual questing which ensues.

The narrative is set in motion by the birth of a son to Rinthy Holme, the product of a union with her brother, Culla, with whom she lives alone in an unspecified place (bearing resemblances to eastern Tennessee). No genealogical or social references guide or orient their lives. Living alone, cut off from any social contact with anyone, theirs is an order primordial, prior to civilizing influences. Despite the absence of underpinnings for a socially determined morality, their acts have consequences, and the brother and sister are condemned to wander across the countryside, by foot, helplessly and ceaselessly.

After the baby’s birth, Culla, feeling the guilt associated with the unnatural union, takes the child into the woods to die. An old tinker, however, comes across the child and picks it up to carry along with his other illegitimate wares—dirty books and moonshine. Instinctively Rinthy knows that the tinker has taken her child and commences her search for him. Culla, in turn, leaves to find his sister when he realizes that she is gone. The story then follows the respective journeys of the brother and sister, parallel yet separate and unique. The worlds of the brother and sister are kept distinctly apart in the metaphysical realm and in the narrative. Neither sees the other; neither path intersects the other, as close as they might get to each other. One knows little of what they think, or if they think at all.

The two seem to move through the landscape almost like apparitions, guided by some omnipotent force unknown to either. Rinthy is driven by her maternal instinct to find and care for her child. Her milk never dries up, a sign that the forces that move her are deep, impersonal, and universal. Though distinctly vulnerable, she seems only vaguely aware of possible dangers along the way. She is taken care of by those whose paths she crosses, as if they intuitively recognize her natural purity and innocence of the world’s ways.

Culla, responsible for the child’s conception and the abandonment that sent Rinthy off in its search, is driven by guilt. Indifferent to his fate, perhaps thinking his ill luck a fitting retribution for his acts, he takes what comes to him, moving “in a void, claustral to sound.” His wandering itself, let alone his cowed attitude, marks him. As he passes through places of permanence, he is suspect, taken one time for a fleeing felon, another time for a grave robber. Another time he is accused of causing a horde of hogs to march off a cliff to their death. Finally, after a dramatic scene in which he barely survives the overturning of a makeshift river ferry, Culla is driven into the company of three malevolent marauders who abuse him, take his shoes, and bend his will by threats. The unprincipled nihilism of the gang’s leader, who follows a law of brute force, stealing and torturing as he pleases, foretells the lawlessness of Glanton, the judge, and the wandering band of Americans in Blood Meridian.

The journeys come to tragic ends. Rinthy finds the tinker, but he refuses to relinquish his hold on the child, saying that she is poor and has nothing to give him in return for his provisional care. His own relationship with the child is a thin bulkhead holding back the huge lurking darkness of his own loneliness. The child, meanwhile, passes from the hands of the tinker to the three night riders, who taunt Culla, trying unsuccessfully to get him to admit to his paternity. They finally cut the throat of the baby and leave the remains, which Rinthy discovers shortly thereafter in a glade, with the tinker hanging from a nearby tree, vultures pecking at his carcass.

Outer Dark provides some basis for the comparisons often made between Faulkner and McCarthy. The handling of narrative in the novel and the almost absurd journeys of its characters call to mind As I Lay Dying. The poor, wandering Rinthy seems cut from the same pattern as Lena Grove’s in Faulkner’s Light in August (1932). A gothic atmosphere hangs heavily over the novel. Dead corpses hang from trees, characters trudge through the night followed by ominous sounds and small unidentified lights, cannibalism lurks on the edges, and darkness surrounds things.

With all its journeying and strident tone, the novel, like John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) or John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), invites allegorical interpretations. What purpose do these roads and these wanderings have? If some meaning is to be distilled, it might be simply that lives, by their very nature, must take some path which, in the end, will add up to no more or no less than those lines that have been traced. The human condition itself is a condemnation to homelessness. “They’s lots of people on the roads these days,” Culla says to a blind man he meets toward the end of the novel. The blind man agrees: “I pass em ever day. People goin up and down in the world like dogs. As if they...

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