Friday, October 9, 2009

All The Not So Pretty Tales of Cormac McCarthy


I have finally gotten around to reading Cormac McCarthy and now I wonder what took me so long. I have not kept my blog current these last two weeks because I have been busily trying to finish my own novel and I'm having trouble with that. Maybe a novel is never really finished in the mind of the author. Hemingway wrote the ending of 'The Old Man and the Sea' twenty six times. When asked by a reporter what the problem had been, Hem said "I couldn't get the words right." Well... there you have it.

I found 'Blood Meridian' in the western section at the library. Even though I live in the west, I'm not a big reader of westerns. The big exceptions have been 'The Ox-Bow Incident' and 'Lonesome Dove'. So I don't often find myself browsing there. But when I saw the name Cormac McCarthy a little thing (is it a buzzer?) went off in my brain. "Oh, yes. That's someone I should be reading." So I took that one home along with the Border Trilogy - 'All The Pretty Horses'; 'The Crossing'; and 'Cities of the Plain'. (There's another problem with keeping a blog current - when I'm not writing, I'm reading).

McCarthy lives over here in Santa Fe, which is maybe fifty miles away, but I've never met him. He says he doesn't know any writers and he apparently prefers the company of scientists and hangs out, so they say, at the Santa Fe Institute, which he helped found, where they study complex systems, (and I presume language is one of those). He has won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and more recently the Pulitzer for his post-apocalyptic 'The Road'.

The word apocalyptic has popped into my mind over and over again while I have been reading him. In an odd way his writing is prophetic while looking backward into our American past. Prophetic in the Biblical sense (not the mystical). Bible prophets warned against what the future would be if we do not change our ways. In the same way McCarthy is warning about the future based upon where we have been. So, to put it in more direct terms, (and declarative sentences is where McCarthy lives): If we don't change our violent ways, we are likely to end up where we have always been, with blood on our hands.

These books come at a perfect time for me because that is exactly the sort of novel I am writing, or attempting to write. The conclusions I have drawn from my own life have been different, because I have found the way of nonviolence - it is a way that offers a way out of the madness. But not many people in real life listen to me about that, and I wonder if many will listen in this blog or in my writing. If we continue our violent madness in our lives and in the world, we will end with blood on our hands.

To say these books by McCarthy are bloody is an understatement. I watched the movie version of 'No Country For Old Men' and guess what - it was bloody. But we have to get through the blood to get to the point. The point for Cormac McCarthy seems to be that violence and bloodshed in America is somehow redemptive. And that has been the story for a long long time. We confront the bad guys. We fight the bad guys but we are beset by obstacles. We reach a climax of blood and gore and the good guy (that's always me), wins.

Here's another possibility. We confront those who are destructive and violent. We would rather die than live in a world where such people get the upper hand. We confront that person or people with the truth of redemptive nonviolence. We stand up for that truth no matter what it may cost us. Then we either die, in which case we no longer live in such a world, or we open the truth up to that other person or people. They, having seen the truth, embrace that truth and the world is a better (more nonviolent) place. The thing is, I'm a writer of the realistic style. Most people believe that realism is violent climax with the good guy winning. Another way must be found to tell this other story.

Anyway, Cormac McCarthy is a great writer who must be read by anyone who is serious about books and such, and I make no apologies for the blood shed.


  1. Yes, he's skillful. I read and commented on two of his novels, "No Country for Old Men" (more violent and more complex than the movie) and "The Road" (haven't yet seen that movie). I expect I'll get to the other titles you mention here. I don't really enjoy his books, just admire them. The view of human nature is very sour, and there's not a lot of humor (though there is some -- like in "No Country", the take on old age, dark humor).

  2. Yes, very well put: I don't 'like' his work so much as respect it. Thanks. Jim

  3. I like the "redemptive" nonviolent idea; I'm not sure many of us spend enough time imagining what that would look like. It's almost too easy to go with the violence, because it's so familiar and because deep down I think people may believe violence is redemptive (either because it is a form of punishment--and if innocent, even better--or because violence in the hands of the "good" is always justified. In the end, an ends-justify-the-means line of thinking.


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