The Savage Beauty of Cormac McCarthy’s Writing

Tommy Lee Jones, left, starred in the movie, No Country for Old Men, based on a novel written by Cormac McCarthy, right.
Tommy Lee Jones, left, starred in the movie, No Country for Old Men, based on a novel written by Cormac McCarthy, right.

Cormac McCarthy is brutally honest if nothing else.

H says: “There was never a person born since Adam who’s been luckier than me. Nothing has happened to me that hasn’t been perfect. And I’m not being facetious. There’s never been a time when I was penniless and down, when something wouldn’t arrive. Over and over and over again. Enough to make you superstitious.

“In talking to older people who’ve had good lives, inevitably half of hem ill say, ‘the most significant thing in my life is that I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.’ And when you hear that you know you’re hearing the truth. It doesn’t diminish their talent or industry. You can have all that and fail.”

Luck never let Cormac McCarthy out of its sight.

Back in 1965, he wrote his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. There he was just like the rest of us who write for a living. He had a manuscript. He had several thousand words on paper. So what do you do next when you’re a nobody and nobody has discovered you, and you feel rejected long before you are finally rejected?”

Cormac McCarthy sent his manuscript to Random House.

Why?

It was, he said, the only publisher he had heard of.

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy

Of all the publishers in the world, he happened to choose one who employed Albert Erskine, William Faulkner’s personal editor until the Mississippi author died.

It was the end of an era. All the pretty words were gone.

Maybe not.

Of all the manuscripts making their way through Random House, the story written by Cormac McCarthy happened to fall on Albert Erskine’s desk.

Erskine knew genius. He knew Faulkner.

Erskine recognized genius. He read Cormac McCarthy.

There was no one quite like him in the world of American writers.

McCarthy had a publisher. But no one knew him. His name was unknown among those who spent their hard-earned money buying books.

Cormac McCarthy sold a few copies. He learned to live on nickels and dimes. Meager sales probably cost him a wife. But McCarthy kept writing, and Erskine kept editing, and Random House kept publishing, and, almost twenty years later, here came Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West.

It was brilliant.

It was brutal.

The language was mesmerizing.

And the literary world suddenly sat up and took notice of the savage beauty of Cormac McCarthy’s writing. Time Magazine would later name Blood Meridian as one of the hundred best English-language books published between 1923 and 2005. The New York Times in 2006 called it the second best novel of American fiction published in the past twenty-five years. And literary critic Harold Bloom selected McCarthy as one of the four major American novelists of his time, ranking him alongside Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth. He labeled Blood Meridian as the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

His themes are simple: life and death.

His language is sparse

His style is spare.

Critics call it magnificent and have referred to McCarthy’s writing as pure poetic brimstone.

His All the Pretty Horses raced across the movie screen. No Country for Old Men won four Academy Awards. And of The Road, which won a Pulitzer Prize, Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “A boy and his father lurch across the cold wretched, wet, corpse-strewn, ashen landscape of a post–apocalyptic world. The imagery is brutal even by Cormac McCarthy’s high standard for despair. This parable is also trenchant and terrifying, written with stripped-down urgency and fueled by the force of a universal nightmare . . . Mr. McCarthy brings an almost biblical fury as he bears witness to signs man was never meant to see.”

To know Cormac McCarthy is to read his words, especially from The Road:

  • You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.
  • Nobody wants to be here, and nobody wants to leave.
  • People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I don’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.
  • There is no God, and we are his prophets.
  • He walked out into the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the interstate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
  • If trouble comes when you least expect it then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it.
  • When you die, it’s the same as if everybody else did too.
  • He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.
  • Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you’re happy again, then you’ll have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up. I won’t let you.
  • Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.

The words, the thoughts, the insights on the rhythms of life are lyrical and poetic and haunting.

Cormac McCarthy, however, is a loner, a self-imposed outcast in his own profession. He never shows up at book festivals, signings, or readings. He says he doesn’t know any other writers and prefers to hang out with smart people like thinkers and scientists and professional poker players.

He doesn’t believe that long books are marketable anymore, saying: “The indulgent 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore, and people need to get used to it. If you think you’re going to write something like The Brothers Kaaramazov or Moby Dick, go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t’ care how good it is or smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.”

Yet McCarthy has no interest in writing short stories, pointing out: “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.”

He does have his own distinctive style, explaining that he writes simple, declarative sentences, using capital letters, periods, and occasional commas, and a colon for setting off a list. But he never uses a semicolon.

McCarthy refrains from using quotation marks for dialogue and says there is no reason to “blot the page up with weird little marks.’

What Cormac McCarthy does is write. He says, “My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That’s heaven. That’s gold and anything else is just a waste of time.”

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t waste time and wouldn’t dare waste words.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    When I read Cormac McCarthy, I wonder why so many of us are still working at the craft. His words are brutal and save and beautiful, and they remain locked in your subconscious for a long time. You don’t forget his scenes.

  • There is a law somewhere that when someone says something positive about the future, they are usually right. And when they say something negative, they are usually wrong.

    I’m going to assume his statements – such as “The indulgent 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are
    just not going to be written anymore, and people need to get used to it.” – are as much subject to this law as anything else.

    It’s up to the readers to decide if it’s worth giving you that much of their time, and up to the writers to decide if a story needs to be a particular length.

    What he does takes time – that may be the part writers aren’t willing to put in.

    But there are readers for everything.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, as more and more readers turn to eBooks, they want more books and shorter books. You can still write Moby Dick, but simply take out the excess or, as Elmore Leonard says, take out the part that readers skip anyway. Moby Dick would then be a shorter and more manageable book for today’s reading tastes. Stephen will have a blog soon about data mined from reading habits, and i will be an eye opener.

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