Cormac McCarthy, novelist of a darker America, is dead at 89

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Cormac McCarthy, novelist of a darker America, is dead at 89
McCarthy’s fiction took a dark view of the human condition and was often macabre.

by Dwight Garner

NEW YORK, NY.- Cormac McCarthy, the formidable and reclusive writer of Appalachia and the American Southwest, whose raggedly ornate early novels about misfits and grotesques gave way to the lush taciturnity of “All the Pretty Horses” and the apocalyptic minimalism of “The Road,” died Tuesday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 89.

Knopf, his publisher, said in a statement that his son John had confirmed the death.

McCarthy’s fiction took a dark view of the human condition and was often macabre. He decorated his novels with scalpings, beheadings, arson, rape, incest, necrophilia and cannibalism. “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1992 in a rare interview. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.”

His characters were outsiders, like him. He lived quietly and determinately outside the literary mainstream. While not quite as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon, McCarthy gave no readings and no blurbs for the jackets of other writers’ books. He never committed journalism or taught writing. He granted only a handful of interviews.

The mainstream, however, eventually came to him. “All the Pretty Horses,” a reflective Western that cut against the grain of his previous work, won a National Book Award in 1992, and “The Road” won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Both were made into films, as was McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2008.

That film, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, gave the world the indelible image of Javier Bardem as McCarthy’s nihilistic hit man Anton Chigurh, dispatching his victims with a pneumatic bolt gun meant for cattle.

McCarthy had in recent years been discussed as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Critic Harold Bloom named him one of the four major American novelists of his time, alongside Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Pynchon, and called McCarthy’s novel “Blood Meridian” (1985), a bad dream of a Western, “the greatest single book since William Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’”

Saul Bellow noted McCarthy’s “absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences.”

Acclaim for McCarthy’s work was not universal, however. Some critics found his novels portentous and self-consciously masculine. There are few notable women in his work.

Writing in The New Yorker in 2005, James Wood praised McCarthy as “a colossally gifted writer” and “one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.”

But Wood accused McCarthy of writing sentences that sometimes veered “close to nonsense,” of “appearing to relish the violence he so lavishly records,” and of being hostile to intellectual consciousness.

The language and tone of McCarthy’s novels changed markedly over the decades. Among academics and McCarthy’s legion of obsessive readers, the essential question about his oeuvre has long been: What’s better, early McCarthy or late?

His first four novels — “The Orchard Keeper” (1965), “Outer Dark” (1968), “Child of God” (1973) and “Suttree” (1979) — are bleak fables, set in the Appalachian South, related in tangled prose that owes an acknowledged debt to Faulkner. Indeed, the editor of McCarthy’s first five books, Albert Erskine of Random House, had been Faulkner’s last editor.

These early novels could be carnivalesque in their humor. In “Suttree,” for example, one character has carnal relations with the entirety of a farmer’s watermelon field. The farmer sues, alleging bestiality, but the man later brags, “My lawyer told em a watermelon wasnt no beast.”

McCarthy’s later period began in earnest with “All the Pretty Horses,” the first volume in his Border Trilogy, which includes the novels “The Crossing” (1994) and “Cities of the Plain” (1998). These novels put on display his powerful and intuitive sense of the American landscape.

His prose was now rich but austere, shorn of most punctuation. It owed more to Ernest Hemingway than to Faulkner. The location in his fiction had shifted as well, to the desert Southwest.

The elegiac quality of “All the Pretty Horses,” with its existential cowboys, surprised some of his admirers. One of McCarthy’s friends, novelist Leslie Garrett, was quoted as remarking about it, “Cormac finally has succeeded in writing a book that won’t offend anybody.”

“All the Pretty Horses” attracted a vast audience, and was made into a film in 2000 starring Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz. It was not merely McCarthy’s first bestseller; it was his first novel to sell many copies at all. None of his previous books had by then sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover.

Early Life in Tennessee

He was born Charles McCarthy on July 20, 1933, in Providence, Rhode Island, the third of six children and the oldest son born to Charles J. and Gladys (McGrail) McCarthy. Within a few years the family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where McCarthy’s father, who had graduated from Yale Law School, worked as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

According to one account, McCarthy adopted the name Cormac, a family nickname, to avoid associations with Charlie McCarthy, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy. By another account, given on a website devoted to McCarthy, he renamed himself Cormac after an Irish king. Still another has it that McCarthy’s family had legally changed his name to the Gaelic equivalent of “son of Charles.”

The McCarthy family was affluent for Knoxville, its large white house staffed with maids. The young McCarthy was drawn, however, to the city’s seedier side. “I felt earlier on I wasn’t going to be a respectable citizen,” he told the Times Magazine. “I hated school from the day I set foot in it.”

He attended Knoxville’s Catholic High School, then the University of Tennessee, where he studied physics and engineering, in 1951 and 1952. He joined the Air Force in 1953 and served four years, several of them stationed in Alaska. To quell his boredom, he said, “I read a lot of books very quickly.”

McCarthy returned to the University of Tennessee from 1957 to 1959. He learned he had a knack for language, he once said, after a professor asked him to read a collection of 18th-century essays and repunctuate them for a textbook. He began to publish short stories in the student literary magazine. He never graduated, however, and he moved to Chicago, where he worked in an auto-parts warehouse while writing his first novel.

He sent the manuscript of that novel, “The Orchard Keeper,” to Random House, he said, because “it was the only publisher I’d heard of.”

Reviewing “The Orchard Keeper” in the Times in 1965, Orville Prescott called it “impressive” but noted that McCarthy deployed “so many of Faulkner’s literary devices and mannerisms that he half-submerges his own talents beneath a flood of imitation.”

McCarthy wrote for many years in relative obscurity and privation. After his first marriage, to a fellow University of Tennessee student named Lee Holleman, ended in divorce, he married Anne DeLisle, an English pop singer, in 1966. The couple lived for nearly eight years in a dairy barn outside Knoxville.

“We lived in total poverty,” DeLisle once said. “We were bathing in the lake.” She added: “Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 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.”

McCarthy’s second novel, “Outer Dark,” was about a woman who bears her brother’s baby; he leaves it in the woods to die. Guy Davenport, writing in The Times Book Review in 1968, praised its language as “compounded of Appalachian phrases as plain and as functional as an ax.”

His third novel, “Child of God,” was about a cave-dwelling mass murderer and necrophiliac. Reviewing it at length in The New Yorker, author and child psychiatrist Robert Coles called McCarthy a “novelist of religious feeling” and likened him to the classical Greek dramatists.

McCarthy moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1976 after separating from DeLisle. The couple later divorced. The settings of his novels soon changed as well.

His last of his early novels to be set in the South, “Suttree” (1979), was his most autobiographical. It is set among the fringe characters who populated Knoxville’s waterfront, a milieu he knew intimately. “I was always attracted to people who enjoyed a perilous lifestyle,” McCarthy once said.

Some saw the novel as a farewell to his raucous old life. He stopped drinking before the novel was published. “The friends I do have are simply those who quit drinking,” he said. “If there is an occupational hazard to writing, it’s drinking.”

McCarthy was briefly living in a motel in Knoxville when he learned, in 1981, that he had won a MacArthur fellowship. (In praise of his many mailing addresses, he commented: “Three moves is as good as a fire.”)

‘A Legion of Horribles’

The MacArthur money gave him the time to write “Blood Meridian,” which many critics feel is his finest book. A surreal and blood-drenched anti-Western about a gang of scalp hunters and outlaws in Texas and Mexico, the book features among its central characters a crazed, hairless, brilliant, 7-foot tall albino judge who put many readers in mind of Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab.

The book delineated what he called “a legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners.”

After the retirement of Erskine, his longtime editor, McCarthy moved from Random House to Alfred A. Knopf and acquired a new editor, Gary Fisketjon, who also worked with Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff, among other writers. It was before the release of “All the Pretty Horses” in 1992 that McCarthy agreed to talk to the Times Magazine for his first major interview.

The author of the article, Richard B. Woodward, noted at the time that McCarthy “cuts his own hair, eats his meals off a hot plate or in cafeterias and does his wash at the Laundromat.”

In that interview, McCarthy named the “good writers” as Melville, Dostoyevsky and Faulkner, a list that omitted writers who, as he put it, don’t “deal with issues of life and death.” About Marcel Proust and Henry James, he commented: “I don’t understand them. To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.”

“All the Pretty Horses” is a gritty but often romantic narrative about a young man named John Grady Cole who, evicted in 1950 from the Texas ranch where he grew up, heads for Mexico on horseback along with his best friend. The book sold nearly 200,000 copies within six months.

The next two books in the Border Trilogy also sold well, although some critics were not as taken with them. “It’s axiomatic in publishing,” Fisketjon said in a 1995 interview, “that the thrill of discovery is followed by a backlash.”

McCarthy for many years maintained an office at the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit scientific research center founded in 1984 by particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann and others. He moved from El Paso to live nearby. He enjoyed the company of scientists and sometimes volunteered to help copy edit science books, shearing them of things like exclamation points and semicolons, which he found extraneous.

“People ask me, ‘Why are you interested in physics?’” he was quoted as saying in a 2007 Rolling Stone profile. “But why would you not be? To me, the most curious thing of all is incuriosity.” He would drive to the institute after dropping off his young son John at school.

McCarthy published his stripped-down existential thriller “No Country For Old Men” in 2005. The next year he published “The Road,” a grueling novel about a father and son’s struggle to survive in a postapocalyptic landscape.

The novel is dedicated to his son.

“I think about John all the time and what the world’s going to be like,” McCarthy told Rolling Stone. “If the family situation was different, I could see taking John and going to New Zealand. It’s a civilized place.”

In the same interview, McCarthy said he had never voted: “Poets shouldn’t vote.”

Writing Till the End

McCarthy sold his archives — 98 boxes of letters, drafts, notes and unpublished work — to Texas State University in 2008 for $2 million. A year later, the Olivetti typewriter on which he’d written each of his novels sold at auction for $254,500. He immediately began working on a new Olivetti, the same model, purchased for less than $20.

In 2012, McCarthy wrote a screenplay, “The Counselor,” about a lawyer in the Southwest who falls into the drug business. Ridley Scott adapted it for a film in 2013 starring Michael Fassbender and Cameron Diaz.

McCarthy was married for a third time, to Jennifer Winkley, in 1998, when he was 64 and she was 32. The marriage ended in divorce in 2006. In addition to his son John, from McCarthy’s third marriage, he is survived by another son, Chase, from his first marriage; two sisters, Barbara Ann McCooe and Maryellen Jaques; a brother, Dennis; and two grandchildren. His first wife, Holleman, died in 2009.

Late in 2022, McCarthy released a pair of ambitious linked novels, “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris,” to mostly adulatory reviews.

“The Passenger” is about a racecar driver turned salvage diver named Bobby Western — he somewhat resembles McCarthy in his taciturnity, his Knoxville childhood and his fondness for New Orleans and its nightlife — who sees things he should not see. Before long he is pursued not only by G-men but, it can seem, also by all the ghosts of the 20th century. It’s a novel of ideas — about mathematics, the nature of knowledge, the importance of fast cars — that slips into pretentiousness at times but also contains flatulence jokes.

The title of the second novel, “Stella Maris,” refers to a psychiatric hospital in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. That is where 20-year-old Alicia Western, a doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago, has checked herself in because she’s been hallucinating. Central among her visions is the Thalidomide Kid, a shambolic dwarf with flippers and a bent sense of humor. Alicia is carrying a plastic bag stuffed with $40,000, which she tries to give away to the receptionist. Alicia also happens to be Bobby’s sister. Their father was a physicist on the Manhattan Project.

Shortly before McCarthy’s death, it was announced that he had been at work on a screenplay for a film adaptation of “Blood Meridian,” to be directed by John Hillcoat, who directed the film of McCarthy’s “The Road.”

In 2007, McCarthy took part in one of the most unlikely cultural collisions of the new century when he agreed to be interviewed on daytime television by Oprah Winfrey. She had chosen “The Road” for her book club.

He seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight. “I don’t think it’s good for your head,” he told Winfrey about being interviewed. “You spend a lot of time thinking about how to write a book, you probably shouldn’t be talking about it. You probably should be doing it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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