Cormac McCarthy, 56-years-old, is the author of five published novels, which between them have sold approximately fifteen thousand copies in the original hardcover editions, published by Random House. (The Ecco Press, in New York City, is maintaining these titles in print in paperback.) Born in Rhode Island, reared in Tennessee, and traveled in Europe, McCarthy has lived, for the past fifteen years or so, in El Paso, Texas, on the verge of the high desert country of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico that provided the setting for his latest published work, Blood Meridian (1985). There McCarthy is able to live in near anonymity. His closest friends, reportedly, are lawyers and judges. By contrast with the work of his contemporary, the unreadable Thomas Pynchon, McCarthy’s novels, according to Professor Bell, are “scarcely read, even in Tennessee, his more or less native state.” McCarthy, who refuses stubbornly to abet his publishers and his admirers in their attempts to promote his books, has never had even the limited renown enjoyed by William Faulkner in the 1930’s and early 40’s. Nevertheless, he is everything that Vereen Bell claims for him: “a major writer in all of the conventional senses of the word, our best unknown major writer by many measures.” As for Professor Bell, his own little book is a model of literary criticism, clear and elegant in style, unpretentious in aim and expression.
For his typically “grotesque” characters and the Southern setting they frequently inhabit, McCarthy has been compared inevitably, to Flannery O’Connor and to Faulkner; in fact he is, as a literary artist, quite unlike either of these writers, no matter how much he may have learned from them. While a major theme of his work—the capacity of human beings for nearly superhuman endurance—is plainly Faulknerian, its treatment as clearly lacks the warmth and variety that Faulkner bestowed on it. Nor does McCarthy, despite the historical setting of much of his fiction, share Faulkner’s abiding preoccupation with the social and political texture of the actual past, although a concern for the meaning of history in the abstract is rarely absent from his pages. Bell describes Outer Dark (1968)—the story of an incestuous couple separately engaged in their respectively poindess and hopeless journeying—as being as “brutally nihilistic as any serious novel written in this century in this unnihilistic country,” and McCarthy’s work as a whole as encompassed by “a prevailing gothic and nihilistic mood.”
Still (Bell concludes), “as unforbidding and uncompromising as Outer Dark is, as untouched by wishful thinking, it is a beautiful book as well—chaste, shapely, and compassionate—and this unlikely combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors finally makes a statement in itself, any paraphrase of which will seem inadequate.” The same can be said, I think, for all of McCarthy’s novels (with the possible exception of Blood Meridian). McCarthy’s metaphysic may be grim, but it is never ideologically fixed or dogmatic: “The pressure of meaning in [McCarthy’s novels] is strong, but they belligerently resist abstraction and clarification. . . . Not meaning itself but the traditional idea of meaning is made obsolete. . . . In McCarthy’s novels . . . the world itself is mysterious enough without involving ideas or transcendence of it. . . . Meaningfulness emanates even where there is no meaning.” If McCarthy, both as man and as artist, does not fathom in the universe what Flannery O’Connor found there, it is not because he refuses to do so but because he is unable honestly to find it.
It is, perhaps, more than anything his literary style that has separated, in these illiterate times, Cormac McCarthy from the wider readership he deserves. But it is also his style, I think, that marks him finally as a writer with elements of greatness. The problem confronting all modern writers especially, and one which every one of the great moderns has solved in his own way, is how to deal with mundane people, places, situations, and events in a manner that conveys poetic grandeur. The feat requires elevation of the poetic voice, achieved in so unobtrusive a way as to suggest no instantly apparent discrepancy between the treatment itself and the material; of all things in literature, it is perhaps the most difficult of illusions to create. Yet, with it, the artist attains to his distinctive style. Better than almost any contemporary writer I can think of, McCarthy has grappled with this problem. “What with any other novelist would be a merely ornate style,” Bell observes, “repeatedly seems to move us toward an epiphany, though only the kind that a seasoned gnostic might construe.” Compared to (say) Faulkner in his more experimental novels, McCarthy is not a “difficult” writer; he does not typically write sentences that are particularly lengthy or syntactically complex; he does not favor the subconscious or unconscious voices of Modernism; he prefers the unequivocal device of the omniscient narrator (with all that implies for point-of-view) to advance his stories. On the other hand, be is addicted to the use of technical terms and recondite or archaic words; and his long descriptive passages, rendered with photographic exactitude, become not infrequently tedious. Bell is at pains to demonstrate how the hand of the conscious artist is everywhere apparent in the fabrication of these, yet for most readers the proof is likely to remain in the pudding, not in the recipe.
It would be pleasant to predict that Vereen Bell’s elegant monograph will do for Cormac McCarthy’s reputation something approaching what Malcolm Cowley’s Portable Faulkner, published in 1946, did for the work of another Southern novelist of major importance. I, however, venture to make no such prediction.
[The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy, by Vereen M. Bell (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press) 140 pp., $22.50]