The Balzac of Human Trash: Novelist Cormac McCarthy

“The truth was darker as yet truth is wont to be.”
The Crossing, p. 413

Ragged transients on horseback. Cave dwelling necrophiles. Stalkers, bums, dregs, exiles and living rot. Humans gone feral, ancient throwbacks, latter day Neanderthals, Homo erecti. Hobbling dobbins, putrescent pooches, vultures, pigs and maggots. These are the life forms on Cormac McCarthy’s fictional planet, crawling across a purposeless no-man’s-land of betrayal, showdown, and death. Like the novelist Honoré de Balzac, who minutely chronicled every aspect of 19th century French society, McCarthy examines exhaustively the reptile brain of Appalachian hillbillies, and assorted Sonoran flotsam. From the 1840s of Blood Meridian, to the 1950s of Suttree, his characters exist in an eerie periphery to anything civilized. Everything about them, from their clothes, to their food, to their very selves, comes right up out of the same clods cuffed by canny knuckle walkers from the dawn of human origins. The landscape is either arboreal, as in Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, or xerophytic as in Blood Meridian, The Crossing, and All The Pretty Horses. The only urban setting is the skid row jungles of Knoxville in the autobiographical Suttree.

Shielded by a snooty New York literary agency that hardly knows he exists, Cormac McCarthy is elusive and refuses to be interviewed. Every so often some clique will give him an award, but he doesn’t like to be there to collect it. He reportedly lives in motels and moves around the desert regions of North America like a land crab, collecting arcane data for his novels. At present no one seems to know where he is. For a while rumor had it he was living under an oil derrick. Two wives got rid of him. How would you like to be married to a land crab? McCarthy—or a McCarthy character—is like a cockroach struggling over the frayed fibers of your urban carpet, pushing through on its ancient purpose, thoroughly oblivious to your stereo, your baggy, your ideas.

As McCarthy’s roach people meet each other via common or cross purposes (retrieving stolen horses, repatriating a wild wolf, collecting scalps, transporting an exhumed body), they do so in a rich linguistic world of objects precisely identified. (He has studied Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and its limits.) The narrator’s complex prose style creates a fascinating contrast to the language of the characters themselves, who are barely literate, if at all, and speak in a form of English that is both primitive and colorful. They are caballeros and ganaderos riding across the vegas with guns in their mochilas, hide out in jacals as their horses drink at ciénegas and bandit jefes scheme ways to blow their brains out all over the catclaw and creosote.

My first exposure to Cormac McCarthy was through the sales pitch on the dust jackets of his books, hyping him as the winner of big time grants: American Academy of Arts and Letters, Rockefeller, Guggenheim, MacArthur, you name it, he got it. McCarthy’s style is often compared to William Faulkner’s and his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, won the—surprise!—William Faulkner Award. I figured anyone who could please a grant committee couldn’t please me. I’m not in the market for boring fellowship stuff with a strong sense of place and about the quiet struggles of ordinary people. But in McCarthy’s case—grants and prizes notwithstanding—I bungled upon an unusually high grade of hard-hitting work.

I doubt if Cormac McCarthy would ring up such an impressive row of cherries on the grant machine if he wrote about sex the way he writes about horses. McCarthy will give you fascinating details on the human body, but in the cadaver stage. You’ll experience the behavior of flesh, but through the stimuli of knives and bullets. McCarthy does explore to a degree the sensual connections of men with women, but men’s real relationships seem to be with their horses. Or, where there’s foliage, their coon dogs. The institutional check signers are probably pleased that his creeps and killers are crypto-testiculars. (By comparison, look how much trouble the grant givers got into over the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe.) The transvestite human scalp-wig necrophile in Child of God probably caused some round table frowns, but by that time McCarthy was a darling of the prize givers and could get away with anything. It also represents his most elaborate sexual writing, next to the whoring and raping in Blood Meridian.

What follows is a descriptive bibliography of the six novel McCarthy oeuvre, and does not include a play (The Stonemason) and a rare short piece in places like Yale Review, Sewanee Review and Antaeus. I’ve arranged them in order of recommendation. To me there’s no question that Blood Meridian belongs at the top of the list, although I’m sure the Faulkner minions will seethe at my putting The Orchard Keeper toward the bottom.

•     Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985): McCarthy wrote this over-the-top splatterpunk western of pure evil after divorce from his second wife. Kid Leonid, a kind of Yummy Sandifer of the 1840s, born exactly 100 years before McCarthy, joins a gang of sick degenerates hired by the governor of Sonora, Mexico to collect scalps for a hundred bucks a yank, preferably Indians, but no one seems real fussy. Haunting prose combined with hypnotic Peckinpah-style violence, incredible desert descriptions.

•     Child of God (1973): Lester Ballard is a mass murderer, transvestite and necrophile who lives with the bodies of his victims in an east Tennessee cave. In the end the authorities open up his brain and what do they find? Based on a real character.

•     Outer Dark (1968): Rinthy and Culla aren’t too smart, but they’re sweethearts. They’re also brother and sister. She has his baby out in the woods, but loses it. The lost and found turns out to be a sadistic trio of subhuman eye-gougers. This book will reinforce whatever pessimistic attitudes you might have about your fellow person.

•     The Crossing (1994): Young Billy Parham gets no respect. He goes home one day and finds his parents murdered. Even worse, the killers stole their horses. So down to old Mexico to try and get them back, har, har. Worth it for the section where he drags his brother’s corpse from one grave to another (several hundred miles apart) and his encounter with a band of gypsies who are transporting a dismantled airplane via crude ropes and pulleys across the mountains and steep walled gorges of northern Mexico.

•     All The Pretty Horses (1992): John Grady Cole, teenager, and friend Lacey Rawlins, go south of the border and get busted by Mexican pigs on fake charges of horse stealing. There’s a love interest here too—gringo meets señorita, with accompanying culture clash. The best section is Cole’s survival in a Mexican prison.

•     The Orchard Keeper (1965): story of a boy, John Wesley, and two much older pals—one his father’s murderer—all interested in coon hounds. You know what John Wesley doesn’t—the dead dude in the pit is his old man. Worth it if you’re willing to concentrate on the multiple points of view.

•     Suttree (1979): It took McCarthy 20 years to write this rambler. The New York Times called it “a good, long scream in the ear.” It’s good and long, but I don’t know if it’s a scream in the ear. Cornelius (“Bud”) Suttree, college grad, dumps the wife and hangs with Knoxville’s skid row homeys. Does he learn anything? I liked the guy who went to prison for raping watermelons.

Cormac McCarthy addresses that part of the collective unconscious that concerns itself with the bare essentials of life and death. That’s why his characters, who don’t reflect fashion of any kind, appear timeless. Whatever sense of historical placement there is, comes from casual clues, like a glanced newspaper headline, or word from a passing traveler. They are more a part of natural history than cultural history. The stories’ roots go into necessity, not manners or trends. Conversation concerns itself with where you are from, where you are going, what you want. After that it’s eat, fight or flight or any combination thereof. What few modern appliances appear are barely operational and require the constant intervention of hands and muscle.

I don’t know what kind of person would like Cormac McCarthy’s novels. The cretins in publishing today are good at sniffing a trend, then finding a sucker to serve it. McCarthy is no trend. That’s why his own books never sold and the agency that represents him barely knows his name. If there is a McCarthy demographic, I’d say it’s someone who, in their life or in their mind, travels fast and light through the cookshacks and hostelries of life, and meets the heart of darkness every day, hiding, running, fighting and looking death in the face. Kick around the Sonoran desert sometime. Set out from Douglas, Arizona on that long and lonely highway east toward Silver City, New Mexico and see, from the comfort of your rent-a-wreck, if you don’t feel swallowed up by desolate vastness the author describes so well. Scan the distant mountains and you’ll see—or think you see—Cormac McCarthy characters as little dots hobbling over the talus slopes on horseback like grungy ants, out to settle some score.

I’m including here an informal check list of items that may help orient you, if you’re not familiar, around the nihilistic wasteland of Cormac McCarthy’s imagination.

Death & Oblivion: If you can’t spot this theme right off, Cormac McCarthy is not for you. Death is always just a hoof clop away. This example from Orchard Keeper symbolizes the constant proximity of The Reaper: a cat slinks and sniffs along a journey of its own blissful making, parallel to, but outside of, the tracks of the mundane world. Then an owl swoops down and eats it. Even after you’re dead, man and nature is not through with you.

Language: The wordsmithing sometimes catches you off balance, but the net effect is nothing short of awesome. A cactus didn’t just burn in a fire, rather “the bones of cholla that glowed there in their incandescent basketry pulsed like burning holothurians in the phosphorous dark of the sea’s deeps.” There are generous daubs of Spanish in McCarthy’s desert pieces, which can be distracting if you don’t know a word of the lingo, but he doesn’t bury any secrets in the español and you can get the drift more or less from the context.

Christian Values: A preacher in Suttree, an old lech spitting backy juice into a jar, is in a river doing a full body baptism on a young girl in a thin dress with no undies. See if this image is not a skeleton key to religion’s many references in McCarthy’s books.

Fine Dining: Ya gotta eat. There are few intermediaries between the source of food and its trip down the gullet. An infant chews the raw legs off a robin in Child of God. Harrogate, in Suttree, eats pigeons caught in a rat trap. Indians, who save the kid in Blood Meridian, make him a stew of lizards and pocket mice. Elsewhere someone asks, where are your horses? Answer: we ate them. You are what you eat.

Something to Drink?: Evian over glacier ice? I think not. Watering holes are littered with dead animals caught by predators and cowboys kneel down and slurp up the leachate cheek to cheek with their horses. If you want whiskey, you’ll have to kill Glanton first and squeeze it out the spigot of a sheep’s stomach. Throughout, keep an eye on the water theme.

Universal Health Coverage: Syph-infected Indians, cholera wasted wagon trains, near death injuries self-treated, and damn if some fool doesn’t go and chop off the doctor’s head. We descend from untreated human wreckage.

Women/Horses: Suttree meets a streetwalker one night and she treats him to a freebie. Overlook the credibility strain. “What you don’t do right” she says, “you’re going to have to do over.” The only thing that comes is sunlight through the window in the next sentence, unlike the bullets coming through the window of the orchard keeper, a four pager. Long-suffering older women, under no illusions about the male instinct to roam and fight, seem to have more savvy than anyone. Everything they do and say, unpleasant as it might be, rings true, unlike our whimper dogs of the p.c. victim cult. McCarthy’s women are treated with Victorian mannerliness by his macho characters, but they just as likely may end up tied to a post like a dog in front of “a clay bowl of blackened meatscrap.” By comparison, how can you beat this touching intimacy: “He found he was breathing in rhythm with the horse as if some part of the horse were within him breathing and then he descended into some deeper collusion from which he had not even a name.” Note McCarthy’s portraits of pubescent Mexican girls and “the naive boldness of their glances.” Some of you know exactly what this means. McCarthy apparently does. Some hot young chica helped him quit drinking a few years back in Cuidad Juarez. The key question to bear in mind is, do women need men and vice versa, and for what?

The Law: One of McCarthy’s favorite jokes. The Judge in Blood Meridian translates legal terms from the Latin while his fellow thugs, drunk on whiskey, kill and rape the townspeople. Whatever seems to operate smoothly for a while, based on mutual cooperation, degenerates into greed and then violence. “Papers” are always extraneous elements, little more than leaves blown away by the wind. Were there laws before there were people?

The Truth and Nothing But: The library, that repository of the world’s wisdom, is described in Suttree as inhabited by “an assortment of wildeyed freaks... glancing furtively about, their cocks hanging out of their trousers beneath the tables, eying the schoolboys.” “Truth” comes out of loquacious or sententious hermits, drifters, gypsies, and assorted weirdos who have locked horns with life. An old hermit in All the Pretty Horses tells Cole, “Es que ultimadamente la verdad no puede quedar en ningún otro lugar sino en el habla.” Which I’ll translate in my whorehouse Spanish as, “In the end truth does not reside anywhere other than in language.” Which puts us, eventually, back in the library.

Fairs & Festivals: The most basic (some would say “lowest”) form of art and amusement, carnivals and side shows weave their way through McCarthy’s novels. A poet or a flautist may be naive and disconnected from what is really happening out there, but a carny never is.

Cautions: McCarthy will hit you with a long and minute description which can lull you with its detail, then he’ll drop a significant turn in the plot in a single sentence. Opening sections can be disorienting, like that business with the Indians at the start of All The Pretty Horses, or the drowned man at the beginning of Suttree. It can take a while to figure out who the main characters are and what they’re trying to do. In this, McCarthy resembles the 19th century novelists like Melville, who meandered all over the place and wrote for an audience not terribly concerned with time management. Watch for vague pronoun antecedents, abrupt transitions, passages of questionable relevance. McCarthy’s idea of dramatic structure seems to be a series of incidents ending with a symbolic blowoff.

Critical comment on Cormac McCarthy is the usual academic pap and journalistic jabber. Ignore it. It’s itch weed. McCarthy has said that anything you need to know about his work is in his books. He has further stated that lectures and public appearances to explain what he’s written are nothing more than a lucrative “hustle.” And with the utter incompetence in which publishing is handled I can see why a writer would need to do that to survive. McCarthy doesn’t. That’s why he made his ex-wife live in a barn for 8 years and use a lake as a bathtub. He’s never treated himself any better and the result is a strange gift to readers he will never meet and doesn’t want to know.

•••

This article originally appeared in Your Flesh #31 published in May 1995. Back-issues of this edition are no longer available. The illustration at the head of the piece was originally commissioned for this story by Jim Blanchard © 1995.

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