Cormac McCarthy: A great American novelist
Cormac McCarthy's death, a month shy of ninety, is truly a loss for American literature. He had commanded a frenzied, feverish prose that crept into the hearts of his readers. Hearing of his demise, I found myself going back to Blood Meridian, his masterpiece, if only to douse myself in the violence and grime of his works again.
With his passing, McCarthy has once again hit the Bestsellers' lists, but one should remember that critical acclamations for him came at the end of a long road. Cormac was born in 1933 and grew up in the American South. He abandoned college for the US Air Force, where he began to read seriously. His debut novel The Orchard Keeper (1956) went unnoticed, as did many of his subsequent novels until All the Pretty Horses (1992), a rather middle of the road Cormac novel, became a hit. Awards and grants followed, which enabled McCarthy to write at ease. His The Road won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. The Coen Brothers' adaption of his novel No Country for Old Man won four Oscars the same year. Cormac's place in the American Cannon seemed complete with endorsements from old haggards such as Harold Bloom. His muscular, vivid language that traversed American landscapes with biblical zeal put him up as a perennial candidate for the mantle of a Great American Novelist, a project invariably linked with American insecurity.
For a nation that cannot boast of a Cervantes or Rabindranath, there will always be a need to find an All-American, a unifier who assures them of their place in the hallowed halls of literature. Cormac McCarthy, more than any other writer of his generation, was equipped to shoulder that title. He was interested in neither Don DeLillo's hyper-consumerist Americana nor in the Pynchonian comedies of paranoia, preferring to dwell within the constructs of harsh Westerns. In a New York Times profile he listed Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner as "good writers" because they dealt with "issues of life and death". It is fitting then that the writers he most resembles are Melville and Faulkner—to these two, Blood Meridian owes immensely. Melville in particular is a strong influence on Cormac, as Moby Dick is a constant silhouette to Cormac's magnum opus.
Indeed, reading through Blood Meridian (the book deals with the infamous Glanton gang who hunted scalps of indigenous Americans in the borderlands between Mexico and the USA) one comes away convinced of the author's prowess. Blood Meridian is a balm that promises to soothe the itch for respect. The book is a mirage, a western that upends itself. Its heroes are enigmatic specimen whose interiority we are never invited into, whereas the villain (in the memorable character of Judge Holden) is a sensation of evil most bitter. So visceral is Cormac's stories that one can smell the "heady reek of the wet and bathless" inside a tent, we must audibly hold in our breaths as the Comanche, a few chapters ahead, approach to wreak havoc: "The first of the herd began to swing past them in a pall of yellow dust, rangy slatribbed cattle with horns that grew agoggle and no two alike and small thin mules coalblack that shouldered one another and reared their malletshaped heads…"
Much imitated yet hardly ever equaled, Cormac had, over the years, amassed a reputation for being unrelenting. His marriages had broken down over his refusal to earn a living during the struggling years of his career. He often eschewed offers to read or lecture for money, finding it more sensible to recommend that they just read his book. Yet it would also be a mistake to categorize his work and character as only brutal, when there is much humanism in his writing. We see it right in Blood Meridian, when the character of the Kid over the course of the book acquires a moral measure. Remembered or not, he had gifted us the choices and turns of language that will be etched into the any reader's minds for years to come, affecting them profoundly for good.
Shahriar Shaams has written & translated for Third Lane, Singapore Unbound, Adda, The Hooghly Review, Arts & Letters, and Jamini. He is co-fiction editor of Clinch. Find him on twitter @shahriarshaams