Cormac McCarthy (1933-2023)

Although he remained in obscurity until late in his career, McCarthy is considered a key figure in modern American fiction. His novels are known for their grotesque vision of the South, mythical interpretation of the West, and cryptic rendering of such themes as violence, death, and redemption. McCarthy's protagonists often find themselves on a skewed version of the prototypical hero's quest as they navigate through bleak, nightmarish landscapes. While some critics have faulted his fiction for demonstrating a simplistic fascination with morbidity and romanticism, most have echoed J. Douglas Canfield's assertion that McCarthy is "one of the greatest American novelists of the late twentieth century."

("Cormac McCarthy." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 310, Gale, 2011).


In the three decades leading to his sixtieth birthday, Cormac McCarthy produced six novels and a screenplay that are stunning in their originality and craftsmanship. Though McCarthy has been loath to court attention, especially in the academic arena, and slow to receive it, he has never truly gone without recognition, receiving the admiration -- even the championship -- of such contemporary American writers as Shelby Foote, Ralph Ellison, Annie Dillard, Larry Brown, Lee Smith, Saul Bellow, Robert Coles, and Madison Smartt Bell. McCarthy has also gathered nearly a dozen significant literary fellowships and awards. In 1988 Vereen M. Bell published the first book assessing McCarthy's works, calling him "our best unknown major writer by many measures." Since then the first six of McCarthy's novels have been published in paperback, and two more book-length studies of his works have appeared. An increasing number of scholars are writing dissertations or theses on McCarthy, and in 1993 the first national McCarthy conference was held at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky.

McCarthy's novels have grown out of his experiences in and reading about Tennessee, Texas, and Mexico. Centering on spiritual nomads -- male characters who are, with varying degrees of consciousness, engaged in quests or antiquests -- his plots climax in epiphanies or antiepiphanies and occasionally in apocalypse. The metaphysical themes of McCarthy's books emerge out of his loving attention to the natural world and the world of human tools, crafts, and action. Thomas D. Young, Jr., observes that, "in all Cormac McCarthy 's work, nature is itself the principal presence." Several critics have noticed that in McCarthy's world animal forms (and even the landscape itself) seem to watch people -- witnesses to their folly and brutality or to their rare heroism. McCarthy is a master of tone and language (one reviewer has said that the English language is the real hero of all McCarthy's books), and his novels are symphonic orchestrations of the tragic, grotesque, lyrical, and comic.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, on 20 July 1933, McCarthy moved with his parents to the Knoxville, Tennessee, area at age four. He is the third child and oldest son of Charles Joseph and Gladys McGrail McCarthy; Cormac's two younger brothers and younger sister were born in Knoxville. He was named Charles Joseph McCarthy, Jr., after his father, a Yale-educated lawyer who worked as counsel for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The senior McCarthy also served as special assistant to the attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department, Washington, D.C., in 1938 and 1939. The McCarthys lived in a large frame house outside Knoxville. In the country surroundings McCarthy hunted, fished, and rode horses belonging to friends. He also came into contact with the country people about whom he writes; he told interviewer Richard B. Woodward, "We were considered rich because all the people around us were living in one- or two-room shacks."

McCarthy was raised as a Roman Catholic; he attended parochial schools, which he hated ("I felt early on I wasn't going to be a respectable citizen," he told Woodward). But he was keenly interested in everything he observed around him: "I remember in grammar school the teacher asked if anyone had any hobbies. I was the only one with any hobbies, and I had every hobby there was.... Name anything, no matter how esoteric, I had found it and dabbled in it."

After graduating from Catholic High School in Knoxville, McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee as a liberal-arts major for the 1951-1952 academic year and then devoted a year to wandering and working at odd jobs. He spent the next four years (1953-1957) in the U.S. Air Force -- two of them in Alaska, where he began an intensive self-designed reading program. In spring 1957 he returned to the university, where he eventually enrolled in Robert Daniel's course in fiction writing. Based on his work in this course, McCarthy was chosen by the English department to receive the Ingram-Merrill Award for creative writing in the 1959-1960 academic year. The university's literary magazine, the Phoenix, published two of his short stories -- "Wake for Susan" (1959) and "A Drowning Incident" (1960) -- the first of his known fiction. While at the university he began work on what became his first and fourth novels (The Orchard Keeper, 1965, and Suttree, 1979) and perhaps his second (Outer Dark, 1968) as well. After the 1960 summer term he left the university without a degree in order to pursue a writing career. McCarthy still harbors a distaste for organized instruction: "Teaching writing is a hustle," he told Woodward.

Though The Orchard Keeper is deeply anchored in McCarthy's home state of Tennessee, he composed it on the move, working on it in Sevier County, Tennessee; Asheville, North Carolina; and Chicago. On 3 January 1961 McCarthy married Lee Holleman, a fellow student from the University of Tennessee, who later became a poet. (Her first volume of poems, Desire's Door, was published in 1991.) They moved to Chicago, where he worked on The Orchard Keeper while he was employed part-time in an auto-parts warehouse. Although they had a son, Cullen, the marriage was short-lived, and they divorced before McCarthy finished his first book. McCarthy sent his manuscript to Random House, where it came under the wing of Albert Erskine, McCarthy's editor for the next twenty years. It was published on 5 May 1965.

Technically ambitious for a first novel, The Orchard Keeper centers on young John Wesley Rattner and his coming into manhood in the isolation of the east Tennessee mountains. The novel is composed of three main narrative strands, and John Wesley's is the last to be introduced. The others center on his two mentors, the men who teach him mostly by precept and example. The first is Marion Sylder, a young bootlegger who kills John Wesley's vicious father in self-defense, hiding the body in an insecticide pit in an abandoned peach orchard. This incident occurs in 1934, when John Wesley is six. The second mentor is the orchard keeper, old Arthur Ownby, who discovers the corpse and keeps watch over it for seven years, until he feels its soul is at rest. Neither knows the other or the identity of the dead man, and neither meets John Wesley until 1940.

The novel is developed chronologically, from 1934 to 1941, with most of the action following the course of seasons from fall through spring in the year 1940-1941 and with a prologue and final episodes set in 1948; but it is built of discrete episodes focusing on the various characters, with little exposition to clarify the relation in time among these incidents. Italicized passages present flashbacks to earlier events, most of these representing the reflective stream of consciousness of a major character.

Through its three major characters the novel explores the relationship between the individual integrity and independence achievable in the remote and primitive natural world of the mountains and the often mindless strictures imposed by the advance of urban technology and bureaus. From the outset of his career McCarthy thus announces his deep skepticism about the human capacity for progress. The urban, institutional mechanization of human interaction is represented in such inflexible legal codes as the taxation of liquor and by a government-erected tank atop a mountain. This structure so offends Ownby that he shoots an x on its surface to protest its encroachment on his natural environment. The x as the Greek letter chi also represents the old man's rejection of this "great silver ikon, fat and bald and sinister" that would replace the old human verities, whether Christian or pre-Christian.

Such structures of civilization make outlaws of Sylder and Ownby -- both, by contrast with the icon's keepers, "genial, unofficial, and awake" -- though each is possessed of more generosity, fair-mindedness, and discipline than the local constable and thug, Jefferson Gifford, or his inept tagalong, Legwater, who requires seven shots to execute a stray dog he has wounded with the first. Near the end of the novel both of John Wesley's surrogate fathers are incarcerated by the machinery of the new order. Sylder is jailed and beaten by Gifford; Ownby is locked up for an indeterminate period in a mental hospital.

John Wesley's grief for his friends leads him in turn to reject the new order of the modern world and to become a different man from the one his father had been. By internalizing the values of Uncle Ather (Ownby) he becomes the keeper of the orchard -- at least in memory. There is nothing sentimental about the boy. He has lived in poverty in the natural world of fecundity and decay, helping himself to its resources when he could use them, teaching himself to be a hunter and trapper. His repudiation of the world of bureaucracy and commerce occurs in the context of his sportsman's experience. He finds an ailing sparrow hawk that he first tries to nurse back to health; but when it dies he takes it to the county courthouse to collect a hawk bounty. Months later, after the arrests of his mentors, John Wesley returns to the courthouse to buy the bird back in a rejection of the purposes of the world of courts and laws. But he is further horrified to learn that the bird has been burned, "somehow figuring still that they must be kept, must have some value or use commensurate with a dollar other than the fact of their demise."

The fate of the sparrow hawk reinforces the lesson of Sylder and Ownby: "And thow people in jail and beat up on em.... And old men in the crazy house." In a final gesture of repudiation John Wesley thrusts the money onto the counter and leaves. When he returns to the region seven years later, the change has been accomplished completely: "No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust."

The corpse of Kenneth Rattner -- which decays over seven years and is finally unwittingly set afire by John Wesley and his boyhood friends--functions as an analogue for the race of John Wesley's fathers. After seven years Ownby tells the authorities about the corpse, and the ashes are sifted by Legwater, who hopes to find the platinum plate reputed to have been in its skull -- another bounty. His disappointment in locating nothing of value in the ashes leads him to kill Ownby's aged hound in a final demonstration of man's devotion to waste and death. When he returns to Red Branch at age twenty-one, John Wesley is an anachronism, a ghost of an earlier age. But he has inherited from Ownby the role of orchard keeper -- the guardian of old ways and values -- and this fate is not tragic.

Several reviewers of The Orchard Keeper saw in it great promise for even better work to come, and many lauded the evocative quality of its prose style. Arthur Edelstein (National Observer , 5 July 1965) admired McCarthy's "fusion of concreteness and metaphorical suggestiveness," a hallmark of his later work as well. Walter Sullivan (Sewanee Review, Autumn 1965) found McCarthy's language "magnificent, full of energy and sharp detail and the sounds and smells of God's creation." But many reviewers, even while noting the power of his language, stated that it was inconsistent, excessive, or overly indebted to William Faulkner and, less frequently, James Joyce. Sullivan responded that "such impressions are fleeting and prove to be false. McCarthy is like nobody so much as he is like all the writers who have gone before him and had sense enough to see in the land a source of human salvation." Reviewers were divided about whether the difficulties presented by the book's structure and narrative ambiguities were worth the reader's effort. And the objectivity with which McCarthy renders his characters caused some reviewers to miss the deep-running consciousness out of which the main characters act.

But the reception was largely positive, and Erskine likely brought The Orchard Keeper to the attention of the William Faulkner Foundation, which awarded the book its 1965 prize for the best first novel by an American. One of the three judges who made the selection was poet and Hollins College creative-writing teacher R. H. W. Dillard, who stated that " Cormac McCarthy is a young writer of dark vision who has been able in The Orchard Keeper to transmute that vision into an art which is strong and vital for all its darkness.... His is a powerful novel."

Later scholarly commentary has continued to focus on the ways in which The Orchard Keeper confounds the expectations of its readers and on the illusion -- created by McCarthy's devotion to "objective" description of the physical context in which his characters find themselves -- that his characters have no inner life. But those critics who have undertaken the most extended study of The Orchard Keeper, such as David Paul Ragan and William J. Schafer, have expressed appreciation for its complexity of structure and vision. Schafer finds in it evidence that "a mystery of existence which fascinates McCarthy is the resonance of human deeds -- how a single act of good or evil radiates and affects the entire human community." In "Values and Structure in The Orchard Keeper" (Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy , 1993), Ragan argues, "When disintegrating cultural values are understood as informing not only McCarthy's themes but his narrative method ... the episodes reveal a fully controlled, deliberately structured examination of the intrinsic human need to order, or at least to interpret, the world of nature and to understand the motivations of men."

When The Orchard Keeper was published, McCarthy had already been awarded a fellowship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for a year of travel abroad. He embarked for Ireland by way of England on the Sylvania in summer 1965 with a rough draft of his second novel. En route he met a young singer and ballet dancer, Anne DeLisle -- of Hamble, near Southampton in Hampshire, England -- who was employed as an entertainer on the ship. They were married on 14 May 1966. With additional support from a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1966-1968), the pair traveled in Europe for two more years, spending long periods in London, Paris, and on the island of Ibiza in the Balearics, often in the company of novelist Leslie Garrett. Anne recalled, "That was a time when Ebiza [ sic ] was all writers and musicians and it really was a bohemian time and ... it was like people were trying to recapture a feeling of '20s Paris with Hemingway."

McCarthy revised Outer Dark three or four times during this period. The novel was finished in Spain before he and his wife returned to the United States in December 1967 to live in Rockford, Tennessee, near Knoxville. Anne told an interviewer, "We lived in a little house for $50 a month, a little pig farm. Just outrageous." They settled into their new home just as McCarthy's parents were pulling up stakes. In 1968 McCarthy's father retired from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and he and McCarthy's mother moved to Washington, D.C., where he went into a private law partnership.

Outer Dark was published in September 1968. The plot of The Orchard Keeper is basically simple, but its episodic development makes for more complexity in form. In The Orchard Keeper McCarthy employs a mythic technique so infused with naturalistic detail that the possibilities for mythic interpretation are scarcely apparent until near the end, when the design in the fabric suddenly becomes clear. Outer Dark is similar in structure to McCarthy's first novel, but it is much sparser. Its allegorical nature is made apparent in its opening -- a prologue that introduces three mysterious figures who roam the landscape:

THEY CRESTED OUT on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability ... and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadow with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well.

The movements of these emissaries of darkness are reported in isolated italicized passages until fifty pages into the novel, when the three enter into its main action, scourging the environs of Culla Holme, the main character, who wanders the land. Ultimately their path twice converges with his, and they profoundly affect his fate.


In The Orchard Keeper the main characters are placed in an identifiable geographical region so remote as to be historically beyond the reach of civil law. The characters in Outer Dark, Culla Holme and his sister Rinthy, have taken up a life in the mountains in an ahistorical dreamscape of the outer darkness that bears topographical and cultural similarities to the rural American South. They are four miles from the nearest store and outside any human community -- in such isolation that they might seem beyond the reach of any custom, common law, or moral law regulating the relations of human beings. Guilty of incest, Culla has moved them here to avoid exposure, and their story opens as Rinthy goes into labor and delivers their son. Guilt-ridden, Culla leaves the infant to perish in the woods and tells Rinthy it died at birth. The baby is taken up by a grotesque tinker, himself an outcast of human society; and Rinthy, intuiting these circumstances with a "willingness to disbelief" in the death of her baby, sets off to find the tinker and claim her child. Culla in turn wanders in search of Rinthy -- or so he tells those who ask.

The title of the novel comes from Matthew 8:9-12 and is an allusion to Christ's prediction that the faithless will be cast out to wander in outer darkness. The different fates of Culla and Rinthy, who share equally in their original sin, are parables of the fates of the faithful and the lost. Rinthy's faith is almost a biological process. The mere thought of her baby, or any suggestion that she is close to finding it, causes her milk to flow, and in her months of searching her milk never dries up. She is treated with relative kindness by the strangers she meets, even when they sense her sin. Her steadiness of purpose, her willingness to take responsibility for her child, and her quiet self-acceptance typically exempt her from harsh moral judgment. She is a natural creature like the doe, to which she is often compared. Yet she wanders in pain, repeatedly encountering families with varying configurations of children, living or dead.

Culla's wandering is much harsher and full of threat. Followed or anticipated in his travels by the dark figures who dispense death and violence wherever they go and who seem to predetermine some of his acts, Culla is greeted with suspicion and judgment by the people he meets, often being accused of the crimes committed by the three "foot soldiers of the apocalypse," as Schafer calls them. The distrust of the people he meets seems to arise from their instinctive recognition of his state of sin. Indeed, the narrative faintly implicates Culla in the dark figures' crimes, and, though he is unaware of any connection between them and himself, he repeatedly acquiesces in the guilt of which he is suspected, fleeing rather than answering people's accusations.

Culla's guilt is not so much the incest for which he feels overwhelming shame, but the very state of his soul -- his lack of faith and grace -- which seems both his sin and his punishment. Culla claims to be seeking, but in fact he makes no inquiry, follows no lead that might bring him to Rinthy. In his soul sickness he avoids human ties, just as he has discarded his own son. The world he wanders is a spiritual wasteland, a limbo, in which all beings partake of the satanic, perhaps most when they judge one another.

The lack of distinction between the satanic and their victims is most remarkably exemplified when Culla encounters a group of drovers with an immense herd of hogs. The devilish nature of all hogs -- those with cloven hooves and those without -- is established in Culla's conversation with one of the drovers, a talkative man who is later carried over a river bluff to his death when the demon hogs stampede. The drovers howl in satanic despair at this disaster yet are shown to contribute to it "as if they were no true swineherds but disciples of darkness got among these charges to herd them to their doom." Subsequently they blame Culla for the event, and, at the instigation of a diabolic parson who arrives "fending flies," they drive him to follow the hogs over the bluff to escape hanging. Culla is ostensibly a victim, but by jumping he identifies himself with the demon hogs. As a blind disciple of darkness he becomes a victim of darkness.

Though he travels the same terrain as Rinthy and though his history is nearly identical to hers, Culla is brought to a different end because of his spiritual blindness. He tells one of his acquaintances that his father taught him that a man makes his own luck. The contrast between Culla's and Rinthy's fates reinforces the notion that Culla's world of darkness is of his own choosing, his own making. Rinthy also suffers, as any living creature must. She finds the tinker, but he refuses to give her the child, judging in his own bitterness that she is not fit to have it. She never understands what has happened to her, nor why. But her seeking is itself a kind of salvation, and finally she is released from her quest and sleeps, whereas Culla continues to wander. Called to answer for several crimes, Culla is invariably found guilty by his human and allegorical inquisitors, both real and dreamed. Rinthy is found guilty only once, by the outcast tinker.

The ultimate scene of judgment, however, is brought about by the three dark emissaries in a repulsive version of divine retribution. Culla finds them in the tinker's camp, where they have hanged the tinker (apparently claiming their own) and are in custody of the child. In emblem of his divided nature and of the opposed natures of his parents, the boy is scarred over one half of his body and blind in one eye. With every word and action infused with threat, the leader of the three challenges Culla to own the child, much as Solomon used the threat of murder to determine the mother of the disputed infant. Culla denies his kinship to the boy, and the bearded "prophet" cuts the child's throat and delivers him up to the cannibalistic enjoyment of one of his fellows.

Yet this climactic judgment against Culla brings him no closer to spiritual atonement. The final scene finds him several years later, still wandering. He watches a blind man progressing toward a swamp, with no insight of the relevance of such an image to himself: "He wondered where the blind man was going and did he know how the road ended. Someone should tell a blind man before setting him out that way."

Reviews of Outer Dark were even more sharply divided than those of The Orchard Keeper. Some critics gave it short shrift, complaining of its murky Gothicism, inconsistent tone, and flamboyant prose. Neither book was appreciated by British reviewers. But several American writers -- Guy Davenport, Robert Coles, and John William Corrington among them -- agreed that Outer Dark was superior even to The Orchard Keeper and admired the virtuosity of McCarthy's prose styles: the vernacular and the elevated. In a long, meditative, and highly serious review-essay, Coles (New Yorker, 22 March 1969) commented on the intersection of style and matter: "The reader ... is rewarded with an astonishing range of language -- slow-paced and heavy or delightfully light, relaxed or intense, perfectly plain or thoroughly intricate. Eternal principles mix company with the details of everyday, pastoral life -- always under some apocalyptic cloud, though." These reviewers compared the book's treatment of fate to Greek tragedy, its treatment of the horrific to Isak Dinesen's Gothic tales. Addressing the inner life of McCarthy's characters, Coles wrote: "[McCarthy] can bring about emotions in both his characters and his readers without making a whole showy business out of the effort."

Recent critics have tended to give more attention to McCarthy's later, bigger books, but Edwin T. Arnold, one of the earliest and most appreciative of McCarthy scholars, has seen in Outer Dark a paradigm for the moral vision that informs all of McCarthy's later work. Answering Bell's assessment that Outer Dark is "as brutally nihilistic as any serious novel written in this century in this unnihilistic country," Arnold argues that in this novel, as in the others, "There is ... always the possibility of grace and redemption ... although that redemption may require more of his characters than they are ultimately willing to give" because "sins must be named and owned before they can be forgiven." Arnold builds on Schafer, demonstrating the novel's use of biblical themes set forth in Matthew, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation.

In 1969 McCarthy received a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction writing. While living on such grants he continued work on Suttree, which he had begun in the early 1960s, but he again spelled himself on this big project by writing a shorter book that probably had its inception in 1965. Child of God (1974) is based on an actual murder case in the Knoxville area, and the novel dates the death of the main character and the recovery of his victims' bodies in April 1965. Possibly McCarthy had been reading newspaper accounts and talking with locals about this case just before he departed for Europe that summer. He was known to be working on Child of God in October 1968, and he and Anne were talking about going to Mexico and back to Europe when it was completed.

Lester Ballard, the central character in Child of God, is another outcast and outlaw, one alienated from human society and from anything else that might nurture the human soul within him. He is a child of God, "much like yourself perhaps," the narrator remarks. Yet what Ballard endures and what he does are outside the experience of McCarthy's implied reader. The novel chronicles the process of Ballard's alienation and consequent abandonment of any of the standards that typically govern human behavior. Its opening scene introduces the dominant theme of dispossession, as Ballard's small farm is auctioned for nonpayment of taxes. When he protests, brandishing a rifle, he is felled from behind with the blunt side of an ax.

In one of several scenes in which Ballard's neighbors in Sevier County, Tennessee, recall events of his childhood and youth, one among them concludes that Ballard was never quite right after being hit with the ax. But these brief scenes of idle community dialogue -- the source of a region's legends -- stand in opposition to the novel's third-person narrative of the twenty-seventh year of Ballard's life. Ballard's neighbors mean to account for his behavior, but their explanations are only partial ones. In recalling his mother's abandoning him and his father, his father's subsequent suicide, Lester's matter-of-fact report of that event in the nearby store, or his bullying behavior toward other children, the members of his community provide important background information, but they draw conclusions that do not fit the larger pattern as it is shown to the reader.

Ballard at twenty-seven is a man with almost nothing -- no family, no home, no profession, and no acceptance within the community. He is divested of all but his basic human needs, his raging anger, and his ability to shoot a rifle with deadly accuracy. After his property is sold, a neighbor allows him the use of an abandoned cabin, and Ballard seeks a way of living even as his range of choices becomes more and more constricted.

Ballard's predicament is dramatized in terms of his human needs not only for a home and shelter but also for sexual contact. Considered peculiar, he finds it nearly impossible to approach the women he knows. They rebuff him not because they are chaste, nor because they are less crude than he, but because he is in some way marked as a pariah. As his parents and the law have dispossessed him of what he considers his by right, so the women he approaches deny him both sexual outlet and intimacy. This process of denial reaches a culmination when Ballard discovers a whore sleeping by the roadside; she has been abandoned wearing only a thin nightgown. He wakes her to ask whether she is cold, only to be attacked, vilified, accused of rape, and temporarily jailed.

Given his status as social outcast, Ballard does what he can to satisfy his sexual urge. In an inexorable progression of events that bear a horrifyingly logical relationship to one another, Ballard relieves his sexual frustration first by spying on a couple parked at a turnaround on a mountain road and masturbating on their car fender; then by taking home the body of a young woman who has died there of carbon-monoxide poisoning so that he can possess her sexually; and finally -- after his borrowed house and the woman's corpse burn -- by killing people in order to possess them. He becomes a necrophiliac by apparent necessity. Ballard has an instinctive understanding of his first murder victim's idiot child (another child of God), who chews off the legs of a robin because "he wanted it to where it couldn't run off."

When his borrowed house and the first corpse burn, Ballard retreats to a cave in the mountains, living more and more like an animal yet still a child of God with his all-too-human perversions. Denied the society of the living, Ballard peoples his cave with the dead. Suspect and pursued, he struggles to preserve his life and belongings, dimly aware that he has become alien even from himself, dressing in women's clothing and scalps and wondering at night of what stuff he is made.

But, unlike Culla Holme, who is doomed to perpetual blindness, Ballard has brief, intermittent glimmerings of what has happened to him, and these insights bring an end to his life as an outlaw. The process of dispossession does not end (he ultimately loses his arm, his freedom, and his life), but Ballard seems finally to accept it. Spring brings a consciousness of soul sickness, and Ballard dreams of his death. In a desperate culmination of his self-destructive rage, Ballard tries to kill the man who had bought his home at auction, but his victim shoots back, blasting away Ballard's arm. A mob takes him from the hospital and forces him to lead them to his victims' corpses, but he eludes them in the caverns. After three days of wandering underground, lost himself, he emerges; and, after a startling vision of a little boy's face in the window of a church bus -- a face he feels is his own -- he returns to the hospital, where he says he belongs.

Though the story of Lester Ballard seems a case study in depravity, and though the progression of events from cause to effect seems inevitable and logical, the emphasis of this novel is not entirely on the psychological motivation of a psychopathic character. Child of God is the most overt example of McCarthy's practice of depicting his characters' motivations as they arise from that locus in the mind where psyche and spirit intersect. In fact, to a degree even more pronounced than in Outer Dark, this novel insists upon both the mystery of Ballard's fate and the fact that he is not inherently different from his neighbors. The suggestions of Sevier County residents that Ballard was born different, that he was always beyond the pale, and that his family had bad blood ignore his essential humanity and the community's bloody and corrupt history and thus emphasize the inadequacy of explanations for the violence and aberrations that so delineate human experience.

When Ballard, pursued, tries to cross a flood-swollen creek, the narrator comments, "He could not swim, but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up. Some halt in the way of things seems to work here." Rejecting what the reader "could say" -- that "he's sustained by his fellow men, like you.... A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it" -- he falls back on the question: "How then is he borne up? Or rather, why will not these waters take him?"

The horror of Child of God is that McCarthy insists that Ballard is not far removed from the reader -- an example of what can so readily go wrong with a child of God. In a set piece that serves as a kind of parable of Ballard's and of everyman's life, Ballard takes an ax to a blacksmith for sharpening, whereupon the smith delivers a discourse on the proper dressing of an ax. Lecturing as he works, he eulogizes attention to detail and careful provision of the proper conditions for fine, strong steel that will hold a sharp edge. The tool must be fashioned for its function from start to finish: "Do the least part of it wrong," the smith concludes, "and ye'd just as well to do it all wrong."

The implication is that the Craftsman is to blame for the flawed creation that Ballard is. Through inattention or indifference -- or perhaps by design -- such children of God come to be. Earlier, and more pointedly, the smith says, "Some people will poke around at somethin else and leave the tool they're heatin to perdition but the proper thing is to fetch her out the minute she shows the color of grace." Ballard is, until the end, without grace. "Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them," the narrator says. Dispossessed of his earthly parents, he seems dispossessed of God the Father as well. He is an outcast child, unable to establish ties with the human family or to find guidance from outside himself. As such, he -- like Culla -- wanders in outer darkness, loving death rather than life.

The reviews of Child of God were mixed. While most of the negative reviewers conceded that the novel was compelling and that its prose was lean and beautiful, they complained that Ballard was not sufficiently explained or motivated and the book lacked moral sophistication and universal vision. In the New York Times Book Review (13 January 1974) Richard P. Brickner chafed at McCarthy's "hostility toward the reader," and several reviewers were hard-pressed to come to terms with McCarthy's narrative stance. The more positive reviews were generous in their praise, and McCarthy's third novel received more extended, informed discussions from its American reviewers than had his previous two. Some critics, such as Doris Grumbach and Coles, praised McCarthy's tragic sense; Coles (New Yorker, 26 August 1974) found that "McCarthy resembles the ancient Greek dramatists and medieval moralists -- a strange, incompatible mixture," concluding that "he is a novelist of religious feeling who appears to subscribe to no creed but who cannot stop wondering in the most passionate and honest way what gives life meaning." Coles felt that McCarthy asked no compassion for his character, while Anatole Broyard (New York Times, 5 December 1973) marveled at the way in which the writer prompted his readers to care about the warped, loveless Ballard. Broyard pinpointed the strengths of McCarthy's prose style in its "risky eloquence, intricate rhythms and dead-to-rights accuracy."

In a mixed review (Commonweal, 29 March 1974) Robert Leiter placed the novel within the context of McCarthy's earlier books: "Lester is all there is to Child of God, and for all his mystery he is not enough. The novel is thinner, less full-bodied than either The Orchard Keeper or Outer Dark; this has little to do with length." Subsequent assessments of Child of God have not been inconsistent with Leiter's view. While most critics see the novel as fully successful on its own terms, it is regarded as a smaller, less ambitious work, interesting in its own right but also for its pronounced links with McCarthy's later, more ambitious treatment of the murderous history of humankind in Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985).

Although the Knoxville News-Sentinel carried stories during the 1960s and 1970s about McCarthy's books, awards, and travels, sometimes eliciting brief statements from him, he was already arranging his life to preserve his time and energy for his writing. To the dismay of his wife, he was willing to live simply and rustically and was reluctant to supplement their income by lecturing. She told Woodward, "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." To Williams she said, "He didn't carry insurance. He was such a rebel that he didn't live the same kind of life anybody else on earth lived." During most of the 1970s they lived in a refurbished barn in Louisville, Tennessee. McCarthy did the masonry work himself, constructing a stone chimney and room and salvaging bricks from the James Agee house, which was being demolished for urban renewal. They lived on grants and the income Anne gathered from operating a dance studio.

McCarthy's privacy became increasingly important to him. He had agreed to be listed in Who's Who as late as the 1972-1973 edition; after that he allowed no further entries. And he declined to be interviewed. In 1990 his brother Dennis observed, "It's almost like superstition.... He's afraid he'll ruin whatever he has going if he talks. I think there's a lot to be said for pushing your books. But then he's been able to write all these years. Sales have not been all that great, but he's been able to do it. I very much respect his sense of privacy."

According to Anne, an emotional separation developed between her and McCarthy around 1974, though they did not separate until 1976, nor divorce until 1980. But there were times when McCarthy was away from Knoxville working on his writing projects. He may have made his first extended trip to El Paso, Texas, as early as 1974. In 1975 he wrote The Gardener's Son for the Visions series of original television dramas on public television. He collaborated on the project with film director Richard Pearce, who was interested in making a film based on a historical event and who asked McCarthy to write the television play about a murder committed in 1876 in the textile village of Graniteville, South Carolina. They did much of the historical research together, and McCarthy was involved in the making of the film as well. He appears in it in a brief, nonspeaking role as one of the mill company's stockholders.

McCarthy's story of Robert McEvoy -- the crippled son of a laboring family who murders the scion of the Gregg family, owners of the mill -- is, like his novels, dark and complex. McCarthy said of McEvoy, "The kid was a natural rebel, probably just a troublemaker in real life. But in our film he has a certain nobility. He stands up and says, `No, this is intolerable and I want to do something about it!'" The teleplay has affinities with The Orchard Keeper in its exploration of the diminished sense of responsibility toward one's brothers that follows in the wake of commercial and technological progress. The tragic nobility with which McCarthy's teleplay invests Robert McEvoy resides in his conquering the soul sickness that dominates him in order to face his unjust hanging with acceptance and dignity. The program was first aired in January 1977.

Though McCarthy's involvement with The Gardener's Son took him away from the Knoxville area for at least part of 1975, he was continuing to work on Suttree. On New Year's Eve he told Anne that he would be leaving her, and he departed for El Paso in January. There he began Blood Meridian, another big project, which was not published for nearly ten years.

February 1979 brought the culmination of McCarthy's twenty years' work on Suttree . This big, ambitious book again focuses on a single misfit character who suffers from a kind of soul sickness. It employs some of the themes and techniques of the two novels that precede it but with a much richer texture and on a much larger canvas. In Suttree McCarthy moves from the rural mountain settings of his earlier novels into the city of Knoxville, but his main character has a wide range of mobility and experience. There are scenes in the Great Smoky Mountains; Asheville, North Carolina; Gatlinburg, Tennessee; and other places in eastern Tennessee as well as in various parts of Knoxville. Much of the action is centered in the McAnally Flats section of Knoxville -- a seamy district inhabited by the substrata of the black and white residents of the city, a half mile from the river where Cornelius (Buddy) Suttree lives in a houseboat. Whereas community life is sketched in broad strokes in McCarthy's earlier novels, in Suttree the community of drunks and derelicts among whom Suttree lives is finely articulated. Dozens of McAnally Flats inhabitants are introduced, and of these a good number emerge as fully conceived characters.

Suttree is a young man from a prominent Knoxville family who -- like McCarthy himself -- attended Catholic schools and then the University of Tennessee. While there Suttree met a girl from a small mountain town, married her, had a son with her, and then abandoned her, retreating to the riverfront in Knoxville, where he makes a meager living as a fisherman in the filthy Tennessee River -- the "cloaca maxima" of the city -- and occasionally, despite better intentions, gets drunk with the inhabitants of McAnally Flats.

The novel relates the events of Suttree's life from October 1950, when he is in the workhouse, until spring 1955, when he leaves the city. Opening in summer 1951, its structure is predominantly chronological except for the major dislocation in time in which the novel's second most important character -- Gene Harrogate, Suttree's "little buddy" -- is introduced and his life is brought into confluence with Suttree's in the workhouse. Throughout, McCarthy employs a flexible third-person narration that often takes on the diction and perspective of its subject to merge almost without seam into a first-person point of view. The narration fluctuates smoothly from objective, to central, to first-person perspectives, providing some of the intimate acquaintance with the main character that interior monologue might, without ever seeming to report anything but the experience of the character. Inner obsessions are projected into the external world, and inner experience, such as dreaming, is undifferentiated from external, sensory experience. The technique perfectly dramatizes what McCarthy uses the contrasting experiences of Culla and Rinthy Holme in Outer Dark to illustrate: that the world one experiences is of one's own making and that the outer world one experiences is as much a projection of one's state of mind and soul as is the inner world of dreams.

In its state of ruin Suttree's city is often perceived as a wasteland. Suttree himself is a refugee from life, especially from family life and from the life of commerce and professional achievement advocated by his father. Half in pursuit of death, half in morbid fear of it, Suttree in fact feels that he is twinned with death, since his twin brother was stillborn. He suffers, the narrator observes, a "subtle obsession with uniqueness," and part of his rejection of his family is his compulsive denial of the genetic repetition among family members -- the very repetition that makes life possible.

Dreading both death and life Suttree has withdrawn, but neither life nor death will leave him alone. His decaying environment is teeming with animal and vegetable life reclaiming the ruins of the city. His impoverished friends, all of whom have fewer intellectual and physical resources than he does, continually touch his humanity, drawing him into familial relations, involving him in their lives and their pain. And, because he cannot divorce himself from life, Suttree is constantly confronted with death. In grim succession his son dies, then a young girl with whom he shares a mock-pastoral love affair in one of the episodes set outside of Knoxville, and then a series of his friends from McAnally Flats.

Suttree's sensibilities, both physical and emotional, are constantly harrowed. His head is battered by a drunk wielding an electric floor buffer, by a boat thief slinging rocks, and by exposure to alcohol of inferior quality. He witnesses other men's pain, is coerced into helping a friend submerge the corpse of his father six months dead, and descends into the sewers under the city to find Harrogate, whose mindless opportunism has led him nearly to kill himself by dynamiting a sewage restraining wall, imagining it leads to a bank vault.

Intelligent, often admirable, and even sane by the standards of this novel, Suttree is yet another wanderer in outer darkness, prey to soul sickness. The metaphoric implications of existence in the wasteland of McAnally Flats are most explicitly stated in reference to Harrogate's wandering in the underground tunnels: "He began to suspect some dimensional displacement in these descents to the underworld, some disparity unaccountable between the above and the below." The nadir of Suttree's course occurs when he becomes involved with a whore who carries on unspecified but very lucrative dealings in successive towns in neighboring states. Suttree takes an apartment in Knoxville with her, holding the money she sends and gradually allowing her to support him. But he is unable to respond to the debased humanity in her or to understand why, finally, she falls into a drunken rage, kicking the car she has provided him and shredding the money that is the basis of their relationship.

Unlike Culla Holme, however, Suttree is at last redeemed. A near-fatal encounter with typhoid fever provides a final challenge to his life and sanity. In the last of a series of hallucinations and dreams, Suttree faces his own death, stands self-accused of squandering his life, and wakes affirming life as process and his own uniqueness. Returning to his houseboat, he finds a corpse in his bed, a body somehow identified with himself; but he is able to face it calmly and then to leave the waste of McAnally Flats. The brief final section of the novel suggests the changed quality of his experience in quick strokes: a blond waterboy offers him a drink and a passing car stops to offer him a ride, though he has asked for neither. The novel ends with Suttree's recognition of the agents of darkness that had dominated him:

Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn and in the castellated press of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.


Suttree provoked a new wave of reviewers' complaints about McCarthy's choice of horrific and grotesque materials and his "Thesauritis," although most critics praised his ear for dialect. Even Sullivan (Sewanee Review, April 1979), who had praised McCarthy's earlier work, found in Suttree a "limited use of an enormous talent": amorphous structure, lack of resolution, and overwriting. But Davenport (National Review, 16 March 1979), anticipating these charges, defended the book: "Critics have sniped at McCarthy's studied prose rhythms and unfamiliar words, not seeing the need he has of them. He must summon his world before our eyes in all its richness and exactness of shape, because that is all he is summoning." He added, "Though it seems to ramble from jail to river to alley, its structure is as tight as the strings on a guitar." In an impassioned defense of the novel provoked by a negative review in the Memphis Press-Scimitar, Shelby Foote (17 February 1979) pointed out the resolution provided in "Suttree's redemption" and wrote, "I cannot see how anyone ... can avoid the deep-rocking belly laughs I found on almost every page of this evocative and highly poetic examination of what is admittedly the bottom stratum of our society." Others praised the book's humor as well, and Jim Crace, reviewing the British edition for the New Statesman (2 May 1980), commented, "Compared to [ Suttree] much of the current British fiction seems insipid and self-consciously discursive."

Despite these appreciative assessments, Suttree received surprisingly little serious attention from reviewers -- perhaps because the book is too complex, too difficult to yield to a quick read. As much or more than McCarthy's earlier books, it seems to have been, initially, a succès d'estime. Even the New York Times Book Review (18 February 1979) assessment by novelist Jerome Charyn was relatively brief and noncommittal, and that by Broyard ( New York Times, 20 January 1979), while admiring the book's depiction of hell as local color, consisted mostly of plot summary and long quotations.

Since the middle 1980s, however, Suttree has elicited several article-length studies, most of them focusing on Suttree's obsession with death and his progress toward redemption, and the novel is now regarded as the pinnacle of McCarthy's work with his Tennessee materials. Thomas D. Young, Jr., has found that "the assertion of the ultimate integrity and sufficiency of the self and of the value of a human community based on an affiliation of such selves is what Suttree -- and McCarthy's fiction in general -- comes to affirm." Increasingly there seems to be a recognition that -- with its interior monologues of Suttree's hallucinations and dream states and even waking states -- this novel is McCarthy's most explicit portrait of the tumultuous inner life of his main characters.

In the decade between Suttree and Blood Meridian, McCarthy continued to live in spartan simplicity: he stayed in rented rooms and, like Suttree, gave up alcohol. While writing Blood Meridian, he traced the path of its nomadic characters, researching the geography, topography, and life -- wild and civil -- of its southwestern settings as well as the history and the Spanish language. With a home base in El Paso, where he had at least a vault for his manuscripts and an attorney friend to receive his mail, he worked on the book in Arizona, Mexico, Texas, and Santa Fe. McCarthy told photographer Mark Morrow, "I just decide to go to a place, take a room, and write." In 1981, when McCarthy learned that he had been awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" of $236,000 over five years, he was staying in a Knoxville motel. The following year he bought a small cottage in El Paso -- "a distinctly Andalusian structure of white-washed stone with black iron grilles over the windows," according to Robert Draper in Texas Monthly -- and began renovations. McCarthy finished Blood Meridian in a motel room on Kingston Pike in Knoxville, not far from one of his early childhood homes. It was published in March 1985.

"There's no such thing as life without bloodshed," McCarthy told Woodward. "I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous." This observation is an apt gloss on Blood Meridian , a deeply researched historical novel tracing the scalp-hunting expeditions waged by bounty hunter John Joel Glanton and his gang against the Apache Indians in Mexico and the American Southwest in 1849 and 1850.

The novel follows the life of a nameless "kid" -- loosely based on Samuel Chamberlain as he describes his adventures in My Confession (1956), but not precisely a historical character -- from the day he leaves his home and alcoholic father in rural Tennessee at age fourteen until his death in 1878 at forty-three. Ignorant, penniless, and already with "a taste for mindless violence," the kid drifts to Memphis, Saint Louis, and New Orleans, where he brawls with "men from lands so far and queer that standing over them where they lie bleeding in the mud he feels mankind itself vindicated." After the kid crosses the Mississippi River and heads west into Texas, the narrator announces, "Only now is the child finally divested of all that he has been. His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world's turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man's will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay."

The plot of Blood Meridian is in some ways a more fully articulated reworking of that of Outer Dark, with the kid retracing the spiritual wandering of Culla Holme while apparently answering some of the basic compulsions of Lester Ballard. Divested of family and nearly all material possessions, the kid passes up the opportunity to join a group of working cowhands, instead finding sustenance and companions first in a band of military irregulars organized by Captain William White to wrest Sonora from the Mexicans -- "a race of degenerates," White claims, "a people manifestly incapable of governing themselves" -- and then, when White's unit is destroyed by Comanche Indians, in Glanton's gang, hired by the Mexican government to scalp Indians. Under the direction of the mad Glanton and his familiar, the Mephistophelian Judge Holden, the gang wages an escalating racial war against all "niggers" -- Indian or Mexican -- and becomes hunted by the Mexican army until it takes control of the Yuma ferry on the Colorado River to rob and kill the argonauts and other westward pilgrims who must cross there. The gang is finally decimated by the Yuma Indians, whom they have cheated.

For much of the book, while Glanton is alive and the gang is pursuing his mad bloodletting, the kid is absorbed into the communal life of the gang -- like Ishmael, who follows his own mad captain in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), virtually disappearing into the narrative. After he joins Glanton, the kid's presence is seldom felt in the novel's narrative voice, and, though he is witness to and participant in the horrendous deeds of the gang, his particular acts of violence are not detailed. His individual life becomes real to the reader (and perhaps to himself) only in the few scenes in which he becomes separated out by his own choices or by those of the judge.

He differentiates himself when he commits gestures of compassion toward his ruthless companions: he would draw an arrow from his wounded ally Juan Miguel, but Glanton intervenes and puts a bullet through the Mexican's head. The kid alone volunteers to push clear the arrow lodged in the leg of another companion, David Brown, but when he has succeeded, the "expriest" Tobin hisses, "Fool.... Dont you know he'd of took you with him? He'd of took you, boy. Like a bride to the altar." The kid's fleeting and rare impulses toward sympathy are inspired by sentimentality and are quickly admonished. They come from no abiding commitment to life. One of the novel's epigraphs, from Paul Valéry, aptly comments, "Your acts of pity and cruelty are absurd, committed with no calm, as if they were irresistible. Finally, you fear blood more and more. Blood and time." The kid's compassion is as absurd as that of his friend Toadvine, who, to ransom them from a Mexican prison, has volunteered them both as Indian killers, but who is outraged when the judge murders and scalps a young Indian boy Holden has preserved from one of their massacres only a few days earlier.

It becomes increasingly clear that the kid's acts are little of his own determination: that he, like the others, has accepted a pact with the diabolical judge who has appeared out of nowhere to save Glanton's gang from Indians and who holds them all on a tether, mystifying them with learned discourse and obfuscating "sermons" delivered around their campfires. In one of the last of these sermons, he casts a coin that "must have been fastened to some subtle lead" into the dark beyond the firelight, catching it on its return to his hand: "The arc of circling bodies is determined by the length of their tether, said the judge. Moons, coins, men."

As if to test and temper his commitment to the life of the darkness, the kid -- only apparently by chance -- is elected by lottery to stay behind the gang to execute the wounded Shelby rather than leave him to the mercies of the Sonoran cavalry. Here the kid is left alone, resolved back into his individuality to make a choice for compassion or cruelty or any kind of responsible action. But he evades responsibility for Shelby's fate, offering to leave him alive if that is Shelby's preference, but declining actively to assist him by giving him a gun. He has no answer to Shelby's question, "You're no better than [Glanton]. Are you?" His gesture of offering Shelby the choice of life is again absurd; Shelby's choice is predetermined by his terror of death, and, as the kid leaves him, Elias's troops are fast approaching. Nor does the kid take this opportunity to free himself from his bond to Glanton and the judge. Pursued by Elias and separated from the gang for several days, he arduously tracks them down and rejoins them.

After Glanton's death the plot is less structured by historical event, and the narrative perspective focuses more consistently on the kid. Once more he is given latitude to break away from the judge's power. Stalked by the judge in the desert west of the Yuma ferry, the kid is urged by Tobin to shoot Holden -- a strange invocation because all along Tobin has tutored the kid on the demonic nature of the judge. But, when the kid has the judge in his sights, he fails to act. "Ye'll get no such a chance as that again," says Tobin, and, as if he has fulfilled his role, the "expriest" disappears from the novel soon thereafter.

The kid is arrested when he reaches San Diego. Jailed, "he began to speak with a strange urgency of things few men have seen in a lifetime and his jailers said that his mind had come uncottered by the acts of blood in which he had participated." In a dream or hallucination reminiscent of Suttree's, he is visited by the judge, who asserts the kid's responsibility for the destruction at the Yuma ferry (the kid had not been in the encampment at the time), accusing him of imperfect devotion to the life of the darkness:

You came forward ... to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise.

The kid counters, "It was you.... You were the one." The dream encounter dramatizes the interiority of outer dark. It is both the kid's self-accusation and his denial of responsibility, and like Culla Holme he continues to wander, neither fully committed to the life of carnage to which he has been initiated nor redeemed.


After several years of guiding pilgrims to the West, during which he makes a few aborted gestures of penitence or atonement, the kid -- now in 1878 "the man" -- is challenged to own his part in the deeds of the scalp hunters by another kid, Elrod, one of the "violent children orphaned by war." Provoking the man, perhaps out of jealousy for his violent deeds, Elrod expresses disdainful disbelief in the man's story of how he came to own the scapular of mummified human ears that he wears ambiguously, as souvenir or penance. When Elrod stalks the man at night, he is lying in wait, and he kills the boy.

A few days later, coming to the end of the tether allowed him, his path converges with that of the judge in a saloon in Fort Griffin, where the man claims to have come for drink and whores. Deeply afraid despite his denial, he avoids the judge's eyes, but the judge seeks him out, calling him "the last of the true" and saying, "Drink up. This night thy soul may be required of thee." In a reflection of the Faust legend, later that night the man as by necessity delivers himself up to the judge, who awaits him in the outhouse: "The judge was seated upon the closet. He was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him."

The final image in the novel proper is of the judge dancing in celebration of his triumph: "He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die." A one-paragraph epilogue that stands outside the narrative frame of the novel comments on those who search and those who do not and posits an alternative to the kid, a man who, unlike others, is able to progress over the plain, "striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there."

Probably because its chronicle of man's capacity for mindless violence is so unrelenting, Blood Meridian was not extensively reviewed, and those reviewers who stayed with the book but were confused by McCarthy's objectivity often were hard-pressed to identify its moral vision. Sullivan (Sewanee Review, Fall 1985), a longtime follower of McCarthy's career, professed difficulty, interpreting the novel as a "celebration of rapacity." At the same time, Sullivan admitted, "[McCarthy] comprehends evil in all its dimensions, and this makes him a prophet. Visit his blasted landscapes, read the dark hearts of his people, and get a view of the world in which we live." Both Sullivan and Terence Moran in the New Republic (6 May 1985) complained that the novel is sometimes boring. Moran savaged the book for its "hyperbolic violence, strained surrealism," and the judge's "pseudo-philosophic palaver," narrowly missing McCarthy's point when he declared that McCarthy's Holden is "The Man Who Never Shuts Up" and added, "He may also be the devil." Sullivan was kinder but writes, "His eye for terrain is too good: his catalogues of fauna and flora and geologic contour can be tiresome."

Yet the book had several glowing reviews, some by readers in the West who were new to McCarthy's work. They recognized that Blood Meridian is a revisionist historical novel that parodies the romantic popular Westerns of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even Moran admired this trait and agreed with more appreciative readers who noticed McCarthy's imbuing his allegorical landscape with a kind of sentience: "McCarthy's landscape is his real protagonist, looming over the kid's story like some perverse deity or idiot narrator." Several reviewers defended the brutality of McCarthy's fictional materials and argued for placing him in the contexts of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Melville, and Joseph Conrad, or John Milton and William Shakespear . Interestingly, complaints about McCarthy's use of language were not forthcoming.

In a retrospective on the 1980s for the Bloomsbury Review (January-February 1990) Gregory McNamee wrote that in that decade, " Cormac McCarthy 's Blood Meridian ... one of the truly great American novels, saw print, was immediately forgotten, and achieved cult status in the space of a little more than a year." This seems a fair statement. In an American Heritage (October 1992) feature listing contemporary writers' favorite historical novels, Blood Meridian was nominated by both Annie Dillard and Foote. The book has indeed won new readers for McCarthy; regarded as his most challenging work to date, Blood Meridian is becoming his most studied by academic critics.

John Emil Sepich has undertaken exhaustive identification of McCarthy's historical sources in a book and several related articles, and there have been studies of the philosophical themes in Blood Meridian. At the first national McCarthy conference, three separate sessions were devoted to this novel. Blood Meridian is seen by many as a culmination of McCarthy's career-long concern with humankind's dark history and with its feeble contention against spiritual wilderness.

Since moving to the Southwest in 1976, McCarthy has completed or drafted at least three novels in addition to Blood Meridian; a stage play, The Stonemason (1994); and at least one screenplay. When All the Pretty Horses was published in April 1992, his publisher announced that it was to be part 1 of "The Border Trilogy." The third volume was written more than ten years earlier as a screenplay, which Pearce was interested in directing if a producer could be found. According to Woodward its plot centers on John Grady Cole, also the protagonist of All the Pretty Horses, and concerns his love for a young Mexican prostitute. This may or may not be the same screenplay described by a friend as "a comparison between Sodom and Gomorrah with El Paso and Juarez." It is uncertain when the second volume, The Crossing (1994), had its inception, although McCarthy was working on it when Woodward interviewed him in March 1992, and it is doubtful that McCarthy himself conceived of the books as a trilogy in any usual sense.

The Stonemason was written in the late 1980s. It was to have been presented by the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in fall 1992, and McCarthy spent some time there that summer, participating in readings by a cast of actors and making revisions. But the production was postponed and then canceled. However, the play was published in April 1994 by Ecco Press. It concerns a family of black stonemasons in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970s and represents McCarthy's most extended treatment of the values of craftsmanship.

In All the Pretty Horses McCarthy returns to the kind of protagonist he first explored in John Wesley Rattner in The Orchard Keeper -- the young boy who represents an older way of life and values, the boy who, as McCarthy said of Billy Parham (The Crossing) in Esquire (July 1993), "is likely becoming something of an extinct species himself." The novel's young hero, John Grady Cole, at fifteen "sat a horse not only as if he'd been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway. Would have known that there was something missing for the world to be right or he right in it and would have set forth to wander wherever it was needed for as long as it took until he came upon one and he would have known that that was what he sought and it would have been." When John Grady's grandfather dies, his mother sells the ranch that he considers his birthright, and John Grady is left in something of the position of Lester Ballard.

But this boy, though young, is of sturdier character than either Ballard or the kid in Blood MeridianAll the Pretty Horses reads like an alternative to the spiritual wilderness that inhabits these earlier characters even while it brings John Grady dangerously close to succumbing to "the wildness within." Rather than accepting his loss, John Grady sets out on horseback for Mexico in hopes of finding a new ranch, talking his less resolute friend, Lacey Rawlins, into accompanying him. On the way they are joined by a younger boy who is traveling under the alias of Jimmy Blevins (borrowed from a radio evangelist), who rides a magnificent horse he has probably stolen and who proves to shoot a pistol with deadly accuracy. Reminiscent of Gene Harrogate in Suttree, Jimmy is amoral, unlovable, ridiculous, and yet somehow pathetic. He appears mysteriously, like an agent of the fall, and, though the boys are separated from him in the idyllic middle portions of the book, he resurfaces like a bad conscience.

Irrationally afraid of lightning, Jimmy loses his horse, clothes, and pistol in a thunderstorm; later the boys see the horse in the small village of Encantadas and help Jimmy to steal him back. Pursued, they decide to split up. John Grady and Rawlins secure jobs as hands on a large, prosperous cattle ranch where John Grady so impresses the owner, Don Hector, with his knowledge of horses that he is made trainer. He rides on the campo with Don Hector's daughter Alejandra and falls in love with her. But his youthful denial of the capacity for evil in himself and others and his reluctance to face what is, rather than insist on what should be, cost him this newfound paradise as well. He lies to the Don when asked if he and Rawlins have come into Alejandra's reputation given him by her great-aunt, the dueña Alfonsa, allowing Alejandra to use him as an agent of her rebellion against her aunt. They ride out together at night, making love at the lagoon where they swim, an experience John Grady finds "sweeter for the larceny of time and flesh, sweeter for the betrayal."

But John Grady discovers through experience what Alfonsa will later explain to him: "The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting." Don Hector discovers his betrayal and turns him and Rawlins over to the corrupt agents of law in Encantadas, where they are jailed with Jimmy Blevins, who has returned to the village for his pistol and has killed a man. En route to their ordeal in prison at Saltillo, the captain marches Jimmy out into the campo and executes him. Then John Grady and Rawlins must defend their own lives in the prison, and they are ransomed by Alfonsa in a secular moment of grace after John Grady has successfully stood the test of reality by killing the young cuchillero (knife man) hired to assassinate him.

Life is not through testing and tempering John Grady, however. His experiences continue to batter him as relentlessly as Suttree's do him. John Grady returns to the ranch to demand an explanation of Alfonsa, who graciously speaks to him honestly and at length of her own history and Mexico's, of responsibility and courage, and of desire and loss. Through his conversations with Alfonsa and later with Alejandra, he comes to accept that because of their shared denial and irresponsibility he has lost Alejandra, though he still only dimly sees that her loss has been at least as great as his. He spends one night drunkenly wallowing in his shame and grief, then recovers himself.

Returning to Encantadas to reclaim the American horses, he finds within himself a renewed integrity with which to face down life's pain, putting into action another of Alfonsa's lessons: "That all courage was a form of constancy. That it was always himself that the coward abandoned first." He retrieves the horses and makes good his escape from Encantadas by taking the captain hostage, receiving a bullet wound in the thigh at the same time. Having cauterized the wound with a red-hot pistol barrel and having decided not to let the corrupt captain die, he is relieved of his "loathesome charge" by the abrupt appearance of some "men of the country" in another moment of grace. He returns to Texas having regained no paradise but having learned a new love for the world and acceptance of himself that are based in reality rather than wishes. He will remain a wanderer, but of a kind different from Culla Holme, Lester Ballard, or the kid. John Grady's figurative older brothers among McCarthy's protagonists are John Wesley Rattner and Cornelius Suttree; the other three are these characters' dark twins, their shadows.

Readers have found mythic analogues to John Grady's descent into Mexico in Genesis, Dante, and the Orpheus myth. There are also parallels to the chivalric-romance tradition in the novel's romantic quest and the various tests, trials, and ordeals with which the young knight is challenged. Though the novel's ending is bittersweet, it represents McCarthy's most direct statement of the positive values his other novels affirm more obliquely by their lack of positive exemplars.

With this novel, deemed to be more accessible to the general reader than McCarthy's earlier books, his publisher orchestrated an avalanche of publicity. The book went into many printings in hardcover and paperback and in its first year was on the New York Times best-seller list for twenty-one weeks, selling more than one hundred thousand copies. It won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a close contender for the Pulitzer Prize. As a favor to his agent and publisher, McCarthy agreed to a single interview, which was published in the New York Times Magazine .

All the Pretty Horses was extensively reviewed in the usual forums for literary reviews and in general-readership periodicals as well. Unfortunately many of these reviews, while positive and while certainly contributing to the advertising and sales of the novel, appear to have been prompted by a bandwagon mentality. Among them there were no more thoughtful treatments than McCarthy's earlier books had received from fewer reviewers. The book was praised as an engaging adventure tale, a coming-of-age novel comparable to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), though its protagonist was often criticized for being unbelievably accomplished with horses and the chessboard, incredibly resourceful and stoic in the face of adversity. And there was disagreement about the success with which McCarthy handled the stock materials of his adolescent lovers. Denis Donaghue, in the New York Review of Books (24 June 1993), wrote, "I can only think that McCarthy, who has appeared to be able to imagine anything, can't bring himself to imagine the forms of civil life.... He is not good with village Romeos and Juliets or indeed with any lives that have entered upon communities, cultural interests, attended by customs, proprieties, and laws."

Other admirers of McCarthy were troubled by the book's affirmative vision and conventional plot and could not immediately reconcile it with the hauntedness of his earlier work -- particularly Blood Meridian, which All the Pretty Horses in many ways counterpoints. Eyal Amiran (American Book Review, February--March 1993), for instance, queried: "How does one reconcile its pitilessly predigested plot with its lyrical language and with McCarthy's proven depth?" Amiran suggested that McCarthy was yet again attempting "to push the formula of plot -- the possible -- to its limit." Gail Caldwell ( Boston Globe, 3 May 1992) observed that "while `All the Pretty Horses' propels itself by standard plot devices -- those of intrigue, romance and moral reckoning -- its central resource is the underground, near-mythic tale that runs throughout."

Novelist Madison Smartt Bell ( New York Times Book Review, 17 May 1992) wrote, "In the hands of some other writer, this material might make for a combination of `Lonesome Dove' and `Huckleberry Finn,' but Mr. McCarthy's vision is deeper than Larry McMurtry's and, in its own way, darker than Mark Twain's. Along with the manifold felicities of his writing goes a serious concern with the nature of God (if God exists) and, almost obsessively, the nature of something most readers have assumed to be evil." Still others found thematic continuities with McCarthy's earlier works. Bruce Allen (World & I, September 1992) stated that All the Pretty Horses is consistent with "McCarthy's uncompromising vision of human experience as continuous exposure to mortal danger" but noted that in the novel, "beneath the coiled dangers lurking everywhere on its surface, Cormac McCarthy 's world trembles with possibility and promise. God may be out there, and we had better keep looking."

The Crossing , published as volume two of the Border Trilogy, has strong affinities of theme, plot, and setting with All the Pretty Horses, but it does not continue the story of John Grady Cole. Rather, it focuses on another sixteen-year-old, Billy Parham, who lives with his family on a cattle ranch in New Mexico in the years just before World War II. Billy succeeds in trapping a live wolf that has crossed the border from Mexico and is killing his father's cattle. Leading it toward home on a rope behind his horse, he realizes he cannot take it there and sets off for Mexico to release it. This is the first of three round-trip journeys he makes into Mexico, each of which is a confrontation with injustice, mortality, his own limitations, and the novel's pivotal problem of one's having survived in a world that destroys what one loves. The wolf is taken from Billy and placed in a pit to fight dogs to the death.

Billy returns to New Mexico to find that his parents have been murdered by Indian vagabonds, and he and his fourteen-year-old brother Boyd venture into Mexico on a mission of revenge. After Boyd's bravado makes him a hero, he leaves Billy with a young Mexican girl they have rescued from would-be rapists. Billy searches for them fruitlessly and returns to the United States to find his country at war and to learn that he is ineligible to serve because of a heart murmur. At age nineteen he returns to Mexico, learns that Boyd has been killed, and recovers Boyd's bones. Though he succeeds in this last endeavor, the novel ends with the juxtaposition of Billy's utter aloneness and the rising of "the right and godmade sun ... once again, for all and without distinction."

The Crossing is punctuated with stories told to Billy by Indians, Mormons, Gypsies, Mexican peasants, and fortune-tellers. These tales oracularly predict his future or, in recounting at length others' struggles to accommodate their unspeakable losses, comment indirectly on Billy's painful experiences. The Crossing is likely to be more a critical than popular success; it is philosophically challenging, darker than All the Pretty Horses and infused with McCarthy's soaring and delving prose.

McCarthy is increasingly acknowledged as a consummate stylist and a deeply serious writer whose work comes out of a unique personal vision influenced by a panoply of great authors (scholarly exploration of the sources of his philosophical thought has lagged behind the identification of his historical sources). The 1990s should see the completion of his Border Trilogy and perhaps more efforts in dramatic forms. Vigorously working and as vitally interested as ever in all that he observes around him, McCarthy promises to remain productive.


From: Luce, Dianne C. "Cormac McCarthy (20 July 1933-)." American Novelists Since World War IIThird Series, edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, vol. 143, Gale, 1994, pp. 118-136. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 143.


  • Further Reading
    • Richard B. Woodward, "Cormac McCarthy's Venomous Fiction," New York Times Magazine, 19 April 1992, pp. 28-31ff..
    • Garry Wallace, "Meeting McCarthy," Southern Quarterly, 30 (Summer 1992): 134-139.
    • Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce, eds., Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993).
    • Andrew Bartlett, "From Voyeurism to Archaeology: Cormac McCarthy's Child of God,Southern Literary Journal, 24 (Fall 1991): 3-15.
    • Vereen M. Bell, The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988).
    • John Ditsky, "Further into Darkness: The Novels of Cormac McCarthy," Hollins Critic, 18 April 1981, pp. 1-11.
    • Robert Draper, "The Invisible Man," Texas Monthly (July 1992): 42-46.
    • John Lewis Longley, Jr., "Suttree and the Metaphysics of Death," Southern Literary Journal, 17 (Spring 1985): 79-90.
    • Dianne C. Luce, "Cormac McCarthy: A Bibliography," in Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, edited by Edwin T. Arnold and Luce (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993), pp. 199-206.
    • Mark Morrow, "Cormac McCarthy," in his Images of the Southern Writer (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), pp. 52-53.
    • William J. Schafer, "Cormac McCarthy: The Hard Wages of Original Sin," Appalachian Journal, 4 (Winter 1977): 105-119.
    • John Emil Sepich, "A `bloody dark pastryman': Cormac McCarthy's Recipe for Gunpowder and Historical Fiction in Blood Meridian,Mississippi Quarterly, 46 (Fall 1993): 547-563.
    • Sepich, "The Dance of History in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian,Southern Literary Journal, 24 (Fall 1991): 16-31.
    • Sepich, Notes on Blood Meridian (Louisville, Ky.: Bellarmine College Press, 1993).
    • Frank W. Shelton, "Suttree and Suicide," Southern Quarterly, 29 (Fall 1990): 71-83.
    • William Christopher Spencer, "The Extremities of Cormac McCarthy: The Major Character Types," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Tennessee, 1993.
    • Don Williams, "Annie De Lisle: Cormac McCarthy's Ex-wife Prefers to Recall the Romance," News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.), 10 June 1990, pp. E1-E2.
    • Williams, "Cormac McCarthy: Knoxville's Most Famous Contemporary Writer Prefers His Anonymity," News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.), 10 June 1990, pp. E1-E2.
    • Terri Witek, "`He's Hell When He's Well': Cormac McCarthy's Rhyming Dictions," Shenandoah, 41 (Fall 1991): 51-66.
    • Thomas D. Young, Jr., "Cormac McCarthy and the Geology of Being," Ph.D. dissertation, Miami University, 1990.