Cormac McCarthy, In Brief

So I’m about to start Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, No Country For Old Men. For me, doing so is a task saddled with a little extra baggage: McCarthy is the author whose works I spent a couple years totally immersed in, working on a dissertation that never coalesced. There’s a whole lot that sucked about that time of my life, but for all the stress and misery, never once did I actually tire of reading Cormac McCarthy. Nor did I ever feel like I ever got to the bottom of one of his books, or even close.

Still, not that many people have read him. College lit students will be reading him in fifty years, I predict, but what about you, now? Don’t know where to start? Here’s a handy-dandy guide.

*If you only read one Cormac McCarthy novel, read . . .*

Blood Meridian. A grandiose, brutal book set in the mid-19th century, telling the story of a lawless band of Indian hunters on the Texas-Mexico border. It is the most violent book I have ever read. In terms of style, it is the greatest accomplishment in English prose in the second half of the 20th century. The protagonist, the unnamed “kid,” must contend with Judge Holden, a terrifying figure who manages somehow to be both Captain Ahab and the White Whale wrapped into one. Whatever your hopes, whatever your beliefs, Judge Holden will bring them to their knees.

*If you only read two McCarthy novels, also read . . .*

_Suttree. With a caveat. Suttree is to Knoxville, Tennessee as Ulysses is to Dublin. And like Ulysses, it is long and convoluted and a downright hard read — and for a McCarthy fan to say this is saying something. So it is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re the sort of person with an appetite for that sort of book, Suttree will reward your effort in spades. It tells the story of a disaffected man who leaves a life of comfort to live among the vagabonds and wastrels of 1950’s Knoxville. But it is exactly the kind of book where telling you what it’s about tells you very little about what makes it great. I wish I could say more insightful things about it off the cuff, but a few years ago, only having read it twice back to back and thought about it a great deal, did I feel I finally had gotten my mind around it. It was a tenuous hold that has since slipped, but left behind memories of “Wow.” So yeah. One of those kinds of books.

*If you only read five of his novels, also read . . .*

The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. You can divide McCarthy scholars into a couple of camps: those who think these books have a lot to offer, and those who think that they’re watered-down and popularized, and that the man has lost his edge. (“Camps” is probably too strong a word, though, because McCarthy scholarship is a pretty small field just now, and whenever they meet at Southern lit conferences or what have you, I’m sure all these people are clustered together at the hotel bar, chatting amicably.)

The trilogy takes place on the Mexico border, and features two young men as protagonists — they each have their own story, and then they meet in Book Three. Each of them is a successor to the unnamed kid of Blood Meridian, but, for all the harsh conditions they must endure and the brutality they must confront, it’s a cakewalk compared to what that poor guy went through. What annoys the people in the second camp about these books is that in them McCarthy seems to be bringing together some concrete thoughts about Big Issues — language, human nature, God — and wrestling with them, whereas those second campers see in McCarthy’s works a relentlessly nihilistic vision, devoid of answers or even, for that matter, of questions.

Strong points of the trilogy: masterful prose, though more in a macho Hemingway-esque style, less in the Faulknerian vein of his earlier works. Some solid idea nuggets to chew on — The Crossing is a straight-up philosophical novel when you get right down to it, with its concluding chapter basically saved for the last part of Cities of the Plain. Weak points: see “macho,” above. Men and boys. Fights and grit. Conspicuous absence of strong female characters.

*If you only read six of his novels, also read . . .*

Child of God. Because, y’know, how many books about necrophiliac outcasts have you read, anyway?

As for where No Country For Old Men fits in here — I’ll let you know when I finish it.

UPDATE: Here’s the promised review.