Christened Charles Joseph McCarthy, Jr., and taking the name “Cormac” after a Gaelic king, Cormac McCarthy has led a solitary life as a writer, escaping from the public eye into the blind wilderness from Tennessee to New Mexico, and yet his novels serve as definitive works on American history and literature, while critics like Walter Kirn from The New York Times call him “Hemingway and Faulkner’s legitimate successor.”
In most of Cormac McCarthy’s books there is usually a male character on some sort of quest and one of the favorite lines the author has for his characters is “I got to go” (All the Pretty Horses 192), or “I got to get on” (Suttree 117). The journey itself is fully realized in his 2007 Pulitzer winning postapocalyptic novel, The Road.
The Road (2006) can be traced as far back as 1979 when in Suttree the author writes: “The sound of morning traffic upon the bridge beat with the dull echo of a dream in his cavern and the ragman would have wanted a sager soul than his to read in their endless advent auguries of things to come, the specter of mechanical proliferation and universal blight” (256).
And by the end of the novel Cornelius Suttree, or affectionately called Sut by his drunken pals in Knoxville, comes to an understanding of the world through a dream-vision brought on by typhoid fever and passes on the message to his caring nurse: “I have a thing to tell you. I know all souls are one and all souls lonely” (Suttree 459). A foreboding inclination indeed.
In Cormac McCarthy: American Canticles, Kenneth Lincoln explains that McCarthy’s canticles “serve as elegiac praise-songs for the frontier heroic, lamentations for the tragic fallen, warnings for the witnessing survivors and hopefully generations to come” (176), and this is where McCarthy joins the Southern Gothic guild, joining writers such as Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner, among several others. The term “Southern Gothic” was first used in 1936 by Ellen Glasgow to refer to authors who share similar themes with writers of Gothic romance, for instance: “decaying edifices, bleak settings, psychologically tortured protagonists—and place them in recognizably southern settings” (Frye 14). Call it what you will—Gothic romance or Southern Gothic—these Gothic tendencies repeatedly present themselves in McCarthy’s novels. In addition to the Gothic themes, McCarthy tells of the “poor man’s history.”
In his seventh novel, The Crossing (1994), McCarthy writes of stories told, much like his own: “The corrido is the poor man’s history. It does not owe it allegiance to the truths of history but to the truths of men. It tells the tale of that solitary man who is all men” (386). It is not, however, the quest of the solitary man that is required of study, but of how McCarthy’s solitary man goes in search, much like Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, for a greater understanding of the paths he has taken in the world around him and God’s role in both.
“The old man said,” writes McCarthy in The Crossing, “that it was not a question of finding such a place but rather of knowing it when it presented itself. He said that it was at such places that God sits and conspires in the destruction of that which he has been at such pains to create” (47). Lincoln explains that in The Crossing the characters “must find home in his heart on the endless road” (116).
Throughout McCarthy’s novels there is an evident attempt to unite and understand the spiritual world with that of the earthly. McCarthy’s gothic-hyperrealism, however, overwhelms the senses with homo homini monstrum, “man’s inhumanity to man.” But there is also a sense of purpose to witness the divine in all that madness and human degradation, as God rolls the holy fire within his fingertips and waits patiently to destroy the world a second time.
Meanwhile, in McCarthy’s literature it is difficult to come to a firm understanding of what he actually means in his Gothic-Southern worlds, and even more difficult since he shuns the limelight, having a history of turning down lucrative speaking engagements and interviews—his agent, Amanda Urban, politely declined an interview with this author—for a more Spartan and solitary way of life, much like his protagonists, and leaving critics and readers alike to scratch their heads.
Readers and critics are far too often left with only the words in his books. “One must come to understand that McCarthy, though reclusive, has given clues as to his evolving worldview,” writes Steven Frye in Understanding Cormac McCarthy, “Though in brief interviews he expresses uncertainty about the answers to essential questions—the existence of God, the relationship of good and evil, the nature of transcendent moral purpose and order—McCarthy is by no means devoid of hope” (5).
Frye goes on to claim that Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985) “emerges from the influence of McCarthy’s favorite works, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov” and that in all three of these novels there is a “preoccupation with unanswerable questions related to the existence, nature, and role of the divine, as well as the possibility of transcendence through human action and benevolence” (79). It is precisely these kinds of conflicting questions—pertaining to God, morality, good and evil—that McCarthy’s literature sets out to answer.
In The Sunset Limited (2006) two characters known as Black and White take upon themselves the attempt to define just such a question of original sin. Black, a self-made theologian and street preacher, tells White, who is an atheist and suicidal university professor, “When Eve eat the apple and it turned everybody bad. I dont see people that way. I think for the most part people are good to start with. I think evil is somethin you bring on your own self. Mostly from wantin what you aint supposed to have” (67).
And the conversation continues, Black attempting to stall White from another attempt at throwing himself in front of the train that gives the novel its name. Black is also trying to explain what it is exactly people, in fact, do want. Black suggests to White that drunks want what everybody wants.
“And that is?” White asks. Black responds: “He wants to be loved by God” (59).
McCarthy doesn’t shy away from the big, universal questions, but faces them head-on. People not only want to be loved by God, or by someone out there in the world, but they want to see that love still exists in a world filled with their days of turmoil and grief, of senseless murder and mayhem. And at times McCarthy grants the reader with just such moments, glimpses rather, in all those pages of darkness he creates.
In All the Pretty Horses (1992), John Grady Cole shares a moment of bliss before it is taken away:
It rained in the night and the curtains kept lifting into the room and he could hear the splash of the rain in the courtyard and he held her pale and naked against him and she cried and she told him that she loved him and he asked her to marry him. He told her that he could make a living and that they could go to live in his country and make their life there and no harm would come to them. She did not sleep and when he awoke in the dawn she was standing at the window wearing his shirt (253).
The moments of bliss, however, are fleeting in any McCarthy work, like rays of the sun breaking the gray storm clouds only to recede back into darkness.
Happiness adrift, unable to be held.
Frequently mourning the loss of a loved one, the image of the wayward man questioning and traveling the roads of life is found impressively often in the stories written by McCarthy. At one point in Suttree, McCarthy interprets biblical passages, and extrapolates on how Lazarus must have felt when returning from death to life:
Jesus wept over Lazarus, said the goatman. It dont say it, but I reckon Lazarus might of wept back when he seen himself back in this vale of tears after he’d done been safe and dead four days. He must of been in heaven. Jesus wouldnt brought one back from hell would he? I’d hate to get to heaven and then get recalled what about you?
I guess so.
You can bet I intend to ask him when I see him.
The Crossing dives further into the spiritual journey of a traveler, this time named Billy Parham, seeking to find some good in his “vale of tears” after his family has been killed. Steven Frye explains that Billy, now an orphan, connects to “the orphan status of Ishmael in Moby-Dick and Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov,” and that Billy “emerges as a remarkable blend of character types,” including “the young hero of the traditional bildungsroman, the mythic frontier American in the making, [and] the outcast cowboy who lives in the vain hope that the land will survive” (120).
Billy, in his wonderings across the Texan-Mexican border and frontier, comes across in Mexico a troglodytic priest who offers a history of his own journey:
I was seeking evidence for the hand of God in the world. I had come to believe that hand a wrathful one and I thought that men had not inquired sufficiently into miracles of destruction. Into disasters of a certain magnitude. I thought there might be evidence that had been overlooked. I thought He would not trouble himself to wipe away every handprint. My desire to know was very strong. I thought it might even amuse Him to leave some clue (142).
By the end of the novel, however, Frye explains that the characters, mostly Billy Parham, “never come to a complete and intellectually coherent understanding of the tale’s purpose or meaning” (124).
As McCarthy’s novels accumulate, so do the questions: Is there good in the world? Is there God out there somewhere? Or is humanity all alone to destroy itself? McCarthy’s response to such questions is not a hopeful one. His dialogue with himself is ceaseless, as though each McCarthy book is a piece in the puzzle of all the other books; McCarthy writes in All the Pretty Horses: “What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God—who knows all that can be known—seems powerless to change” (239). Powerless to change? A bleak notion indeed.
But a bigger question looms at the forefront of all these others: If religion separates men, what brings them together? As he rarely does, McCarthy attempts to answer just such an enigma.
In Blood Meridian, Judge Holden, who lacks hair upon his body and enjoys the company of young girls before murdering them, philosophizes: “What joins men together, he said, is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies” (319).
Frye adequately explains that the judge is “an expert rhetorician” and “a master of languages, philosophy, religion, natural history, and geography” and is revealed to be McCarthy’s version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch or “Superman” (69). Judge Holden preaches about war and God, at one point unifying them both: “War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god” (261). The judge has more to say on gods and men and his order and understanding of things:
The judge smiled.
Books lie, he said.
God dont lie.
No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.
He held up a chunk of rock.
He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things (122).
Later, the judge continues this series of thought on books and the divine, echoing the corrido in The Crossing about men’s interconnectedness: “Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacle in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world” (147); and later when a priest tells Billy Parham that “It is God’s grace alone that we are bound by this thread of life… This flesh is but a memento, yet it tells the true. Ultimately every man’s path is every other’s. There are no separate journeys for there are no separate men to make them. All men are one and there is no other tale to tell” (156-157).
And The Sunset Limited, published some twenty years later, continues this dialogue that the judge and priest have started; Professor White elaborates: “People who are always looking out for perfect strangers are very often people who wont look out for the ones they’re supposed to look out for” (4), and later on White tells Black: “The darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore. And yet we imagine that the future will somehow be different” (112). White is also foreshadowing the setting for The Road which will be published the same year as The Sunset Limited.
What is a reader, therefore, to make in McCarthy’s gloomed-filled, disconsolate canticles filled with lamentations, prophesies and warnings? The answer does, and must, lie in the road.
In 1965 McCarthy published The Orchard Keeper, and the theme of the road, like in all his literature, is introduced in the very first sentence: “For some time now the road had been deserted, white and scorching yet, though the sun was already reddening the western sky” (7). A bit of foreshadowing, or word play, having to do with Blood Meridian’s subtitle can be found in the opening line as well.
Outer Dark, so named for the biblical verses found in Matthew 22: 13-14 – “Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. / For many are called, but few are chosen” (The Holy Bible, King James Version) – McCarthy’s second novel like its predecessor, is an adumbration of all his other novels, especially The Road. McCarthy writes at the end of Outer Dark:
Late in the day the road brought him into a swamp. And that was all. Before him stretched a spectral waste out of which reared only the naked trees in attitudes of agony and dimly hominoid like figures in a landscape of the damned…He wondered why a road should come to such a place (242).
McCarthy asks the infinite void: How does one come to such a place? Around this time, in the early seventies, McCarthy was still growing as a writer.
He began his career by offering stories with very little moral justifications, but in his later novels his stories hold much more moral clarity, and instead of obfuscating the answers to such questions he begins to provide his own answers.
In No Country for Old Men (2005), Anton Chigurh, a hired assassin, sits before his soon-to-be victim, Llewelyn Moss’s wife Carla Jean, and explains matter-of-factly how one comes down the road to such desolation and death. “I had no say in the matter,” Chigurh says (259). Chigurh, explained in Kirn’s New York Times Book Review as having “achieved an evil state of grace the ambivalent masses will never know,” continues his words without rush:
Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning (259).
Likewise, the Spanish poet Antonio Machado had inscribed on his tombstone: “Traveler, there is no path, / You make the way as you walk” (Lincoln 149).
“Perhaps it is true that nothing is hidden,” McCarthy writes in The Crossing, “The shape of the road is the road. There is not some other road that wears that shape but only one” (230).
McCarthy hints at predestination and makes it clear that all men, despite their choices and attempts to change their destiny, must end with the truth, and the truth is death. Lester Ballard, a murderer and necrophile in Child of God (1973), shares the paths of many other McCarthy protagonists.
[Ballard] dreamt that night he rode through woods on a low ridge. Below him he could see deer in a meadow where the sun fell on the grass…He had resolved himself to ride on for he could not turn back and the world that day was a lovely as any day that ever was and he was riding to his death (170-171).
But perhaps the traveler’s quest along the road is not entirely one seeking a physical or spiritual death, but perhaps a psychological renewal, and one where the man so becomes the child. McCarthy is not alone in literature to have suggested such a thing. William Wordsworth in his often-quoted poem “The Rainbow” writes, “The Child is father of the man.”
In The Crossing Billy Parham also “thought to become again the child he never was” (129). Regardless, the loss of innocence is not at stake here, but the failed attempts of McCarthy’s protagonists who seek to reclaim innocence and in the end fail to do so.
Cities of the Plain (1998) was named from the biblical verses in Genesis 19; verse 25: “And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground,” and later in verse 29: “And it came to pass when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham” (The Holy Bible, King James Version).
In Cities of the Plain, McCarthy offers an explanation for the reason why his protagonists fail to reclaim their innocence. Eduardo, Magdalena’s pimp explains to Billy Parham why John Grady Cole’s love for the prostitute and his perception of the world are flawed and absurd:
“What is wrong with this story is that it is not a true story. Men have in their minds a picture of how the world will be. How they will be in that world. The world may be many different ways for them but there is one world that will never be and that is the world they dream of. Do you believe that?” (134)
The road, therefore, leads to the world and man’s goal of survival, as is literally the case in The Road, where a man and his son both go nameless throughout their journey in a postapocalyptic wasteland. And McCarthy makes abundantly clear the nature of the path men must take in a sad world. “‘It is an uncertain business,’ the old man said,” in Cities of the Plain, “‘you must persevere. To persevere is everything’” (81). Survival, as a result, is not enough. To reclaim innocence, or even the attempt to do so, is still not enough. Death, albeit tempting, is not enough. Perseverance, only, lies at the heart of the road.
In fact, McCarthy appears to be writing the same story over and over again in hope of voicing a question that has no real answer, an endless road in an endless world. In The Crossing, McCarthy seems to admit as much:
Rightly heard all tales are one… (143)
The task of the narrator is not an easy one…He appears to be required to choose his tale from among the many that are possible. But of course that is not the case. The case is rather to make many of the one. Always the teller must be at pains to devise against his listener’s claim—perhaps spoken, perhaps not—that he has heard the tale before (155).
He is even more transparent in an interview with Richard B. Woodward for the New York Times. In “McCarthy’s Venomous Fiction” by Woodward, McCarthy says, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books…The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”
This recalls poet Robert Frost who wrote in “The Prerequisites”: “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written… Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do” (97). Of course, most of the time it is not the novelist’s agenda to answer questions, but to pose them. The novelist must, as McCarthy once said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts,” echoing Ernest Hemingway (Lincoln 164). McCarthy echoes this sentiment in an interview with Wall Street Journal’s John Jurgensen when he explains that “creative work is often driven by pain.”
The road, metaphorical and real, “driven by pain,” must go on, for the sake and good of the world, for men and women to continue despite the losses stacked against them. William Faulkner’s banquet speech in Stockholm on December 10, 1950 further anticipates McCarthy’s The Road: fear; the great bomb; the end of man; perseverance. But the supernal questions remain without answers.
“An old man’s days are hours,” says the ragman to Suttree, and when Suttree asks about life after death, the ragman answers, “Don’t nothin happen. You’re dead”; but Suttree presses on and wants to know what’s beyond the life of strife, beyond the tomb: “You told me once you believed in God,” Suttree says, and with a wave of a hand the ragman says he wishes he could face God to ask Him, “What did you have me in that crapgame down there anyway?” and still Suttree wants to know what God’s answer would be, only for the ragman to respond, “I don’t believe he can answer it… I don’t believe there is a answer” (Suttree 257-258).
And so picking up where the ragman leaves off, Frye writes that “no quest for ultimate knowledge yields the complete answer because in a fundamental way this answer is unavailable” (62). “These profound questions,” surmises Frye, “present themselves to the characters in the same way they have throughout human history, becoming more pressing in times of crises. But in the end they remain unanswerable in objective terms” (178). Frye continues:
Many of the truths people live by must be constituted at a deeper psychological level and are born of experience and reflection—and perhaps from a capacity to imagine that may derive from more mysterious realms of phenomenal reality, which transcend scientific inquiry and the probing empirical intellect of the Enlightenment. At the heart of this are the complexities of human consciousness (178).
So, the supernal questions must be concluded, rather on a positive note, as does in the ending to The Road where a woman, who becomes mother to the fatherless son, says to the child that “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time” (286). And earlier in the novel the boy asks his father, “You forget some things, don’t you?” and the father replies, “Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget” (12).
So what is one supposed to remember? Supposed to forget? Perhaps the answer to both these questions, like all the others McCarthy has asked, is “Nothing is finally understood. Nothing is finally arrived at” (The Stonemason 131).
Nothing arrived at.
Nothing at all.
So we best be getting on.
Bell, Madison Smartt. “‘All the Pretty Horses’: The Man Who Understood Horses.” Review of All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. The New York Times Book Review 17 May 1992. Web. 13 March 2013. < http://www.nytimes.com/1992/05/17/boo… >
Brickner, Richard P. “‘Child of God’: A Hero Cast Out, Even by Tragedy.” Review of Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. The New York Times Book Review 13 Jan. 1974. Web. 13 March 2013. < http://www.nytimes.com/1974/01/13/boo… >
Brosi, George. “Cormac McCarthy: A Rare Literary Life.” Appalachian Heritage, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Winter 2011): 11-15.
Charyn, Jerome. “‘Suttree’: Doomed Huck.” Review of Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. The New York Times Book Review 18 Feb. 1979. Web. 13 March 2013. < http://www.nytimes.com/1979/02/18/boo… >
Cooper, Lydia. “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as Apocalyptic Grail Narrative.” Studies in the Novel, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2011): 218-236. Print.
Davenport, Guy. “‘Outer Dark’: Appalachian Gothic.” Review of Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy. The New York Times Book Review 29 Sept. 1968. Web. 13 March 2013. < http://www.nytimes.com/1968/09/29/boo… >
Frost, Robert. “The Prerequisites,” Selected Prose of Robert Frost, ed. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966). Print.
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—. The Road. New York: Vintage International, 2006. Print.
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< http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-ra… >
The Border Trilogy:
#2, The Crossing
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers