Cormac McCarthy 1933–
(Born Charles McCarthy Jr.) American novelist.
The following entry provides an overview of McCarthy's career through 1996. See also Cormac McCarthy Criticism (Volume 4) and Blood Meridian Criticism.
McCarthy is regarded as an important contributor to the Southern Gothic tradition as exemplified by William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor. His novels are praised for their powerful, descriptive passages and for their extensive examinations of evil. His protagonists are typically either extreme outcasts or young adventurers confronted with tremendous adversities who struggle against a brutal, merciless world. Occasionally faulted for his recurring themes and character types, McCarthy has nevertheless been praised for his command of language. Charles McGrath observed: "Even his most staightforward passages have about them a shimmer of grandness—achieved sometimes by importing arcane vocabulary, sometimes by repetition or tinkering with word order, and sometimes just by stretching a sentence out with 'and's until it acquires the desired pace and gravity."
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, on July 20, 1933, McCarthy moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, at the age of four, and later attended the University of Tennessee. After completing his first year there, he served for four years in the U.S. Air Force. He returned to the university, then left in 1960 without a degree to pursue a writing career. When his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965, McCarthy had already been awarded a fellowship for a year of travel abroad by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A William Faulkner Foundation Award followed in 1965. A grant from the Rockefeller foundation in 1966 and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1976 helped the reclusive author make ends meet throughout his early writing career. Annie DeLisle, McCarthy's second ex-wife, recalls his aversion to steady jobs and comfortable lodgings: "We lived in total poverty … [and] we were bathing in the lake…. Someone would call up and offer him $2000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week." A "genius award" from the MacArthur Foundation in 1981 enabled McCarthy to purchase a small home in El Paso, Texas, and move out of the motel in which he was living in Knoxville, Tennessee. He has published several novels since then. In 1992 All The Pretty Horses (1992) won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and landed on numerous bestseller lists. The Crossing, published in 1994, is the second installment in McCarthy's "Border Trilogy," and like the other novels, it has been praised for its portentous themes but faulted for, among other things, being "derivative, sentimental and pretentious."
The Orchard Keeper, McCarthy's first novel, is about an old man living in the mountains of Tennessee, and a young boy, John Wesley Rattner, whose father is killed by a whiskey bootlegger named Marion Sylder. A country bar burns down, young John saves a dog from an attack by a raccoon, and the boy is befriended by Sylder. Like all McCarthy's novels, The Orchard Keeper deals with a protagonist struggling against a brutal, hostile world. In Outer Dark (1968), Culla and Rinthy Holme are siblings who produce a child. Culla abandons the child in the woods and leaves his sister to fend for herself. Rinthy spends the rest of the novel wandering about looking for her child. Seeking work, Culla steals a squire's boots and subsequently flees four pursuers across a river in which he nearly drowns. The themes of murder, incest, and ignorance found in Outer Dark reemerged in many of McCarthy's later works. Child of God (1974) presents the story of Lester Ballard, a necrophiliac who drags corpses home, talks to them, and dresses and undresses them as he schemes to murder new victims. Man's capacity for evil is clearly demonstrated in such passages. In another passage, McCarthy describes the rape of a daughter by her father after he catches her having intercourse with a boy behind the barn. Providing readers with brutal and horrifying accounts, McCarthy's bleak vision of the world becomes appallingly real. To make Lester more empathetic, his farm is sold over his head, his cabin burns, and he is treated poorly at every turn. Here and in later novels, McCarthy uses the technique of portraying flawed or evil characters in a sympathetic way to achieve realism and authenticity. In Suttree (1979), McCarthy presents a character who has a degree of self-awareness and intelligence. Again, the setting of the novel is Tennessee, and Suttree, the hero, is a drunken loner who makes his living as a fisherman and resides on a houseboat. A floating body is discovered in the opening scenes and at the conclusion of the story Suttree returns to his houseboat to find a rotting corpse in his bed. A metaphysical theme runs throughout the novel, culminating when Suttree wanders about in the forest and undergoes a sort of transformation and rebirth. Foremost in Suttree are the themes of decay, death, and destruction, which were also prevalent in the earlier works. Blood Meridian (1985) is the violent and gory tale of "the kid"—a protagonist who finds himself in East Texas with renegade U.S. troops who are massacred by Comanche Indians. Falling in with American mercenaries after a stint in jail, the kid ventures into a gruesome journey filled with bloodshed, the defilement of corpses, and random slaughter. The dominant, towering, evil persona of Judge Holden further highlights McCarthy's theme of man's inhumanity to man. The novel is purportedly based upon actual people and events in history, making the violence especially unnerving. The setting of Blood Meridian departs from the Tennessee locales of earlier works, but the story follows McCarthy's pattern of using characters who struggle against a brutal, violent world. All the Pretty Horses carries on this tradition, as John Grady Cole leaves his home in Texas after the death of his grandfather and during the divorce of his parents. With his friend Lacey Rawlins, the two boys ride off into Mexico to experience a variety of adventures. John becomes entangled in a romance with a high-born, passionate, young girl named Alejandra, daughter of Don Hector and niece of a formidable aunt, Dueña Alfonsa. Relying on traditional Western props, All the Pretty Horses includes corrupt Mexican officials; a torturous jail term; long, dusty rides through the landscape; a murdered companion; and a fulfilling act of revenge at the conclusion. Following much the same story pattern of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing focuses on two teenaged brothers, Billy and Boyd Parham, who leave their home in New Mexico and travel south. Billy traps a wolf and becomes determined to return her to Mexico; later he and Boyd attempt to recover horses stolen from the family ranch where their parents have been killed; and Billy returns to Mexico late in the novel to search for the missing Boyd. The Crossing contains a metaphysical theme apparent in the novel's abundance of fables, sermons, morality tales and figures who dispense wisdom. Combining elements of the picaresque adventure and metaphysical pilgrimage that were present in All the Pretty Horses, Suttree, Blood Meridian, and other novels, McCarthy weaves a riveting tale that comments on man's capacity for evil.
McCarthy's early novels have not received much critical attention, and his first five books never sold more than 2,500 hard-cover copies in their first release. However, his later works have garnered more publicity, and he is emerging as a popular writer of bloody, violent, and richly detailed stories of the American West. McCarthy's prose style is a common topic among critics. Commenting on McCarthy's writing, Walter Sullivan states: "His prose is magnificent, full of energy and sharp detail and the sounds and smells of God's creation." McCarthy presents violence in his novels without motivation, reflection, or moral debate, and reviewers have found this discomforting. Despite the many shocking and gruesome scenes in McCarthy's work, critics recognize his skill in composing a story. Quoting a passage from Outer Dark in which a child is murdered, Edwin T. Arnold writes: "[T]he effect causes some to throw the book to the floor." Child of God produced similar reactions with its scenes of necrophilia and rape, yet critics praise it for its lyrical prose. McCarthy's skill at making evil characters empathetic fascinated Anatole Broyard, who states: "An evil character brilliantly portrayed will awaken our empathy—even sympathy—more readily than a good one in a pedestrian description." Other critics found the subject matter appalling. Suttree is another example of a novel filled with violence and unscrupulous, evil characters. While some would find McCarthy's cast of characters repugnant, McCarthy's vivid descriptions are both authentic and moving. In a review of Suttree, Guy Davenport remarks: "[I]t is a thoroughly believable novel, its every gesture authentic. There are multiple plot lines, a small town's worth of characters, and enough episodes for a four-hour movie." In All the Pretty Horses critics again found McCarthy's descriptive prose to be both his strong point and his downfall. Richard Eder writes: "McCarthy wavers between the lovely and the ludicrous… [L]oftiness gusts like a capsizing high wind, and the writing can choke on its own ornateness." The Crossing, like All the Pretty Horses, is concerned with the adventures of two young men, and critics have commented on McCarthy's repeated use of formulaic plot and scenery. Reviewer Robert Hass writes: "The Crossing is a miracle in prose, an American original … it is a tale so riveting—it immerses the reader so entirely in its violent and stunningly beautiful, inconsolable landscapes—that there is hardly time to reflect on its many literary and cinematic echoes." The overwhelming violence and brutality in McCarthy's writing is thus received differently by different critics. Yet there is consensus that there are deeper currents running throughout his work, and that the violence is not gratuitous. While McCarthy's florid prose is often faulted, he is considered a master stylist and peerless in his ability to provide authentic setting and mood.