Cormac McCarthy: a ‘King amongst the dunes’?

By Nicholas Connor 

If you were to drive six miles north of Santa Fe through dusty country, you would come to the town of Tesuque. A humble stone house sits on the outskirts of this tiny hamlet amongst the rock outcrops. Its occupant is barely seen; he rarely gives interviews, almost never makes public appearances, and it is unlikely that he would sign your book. And yet from this lonely house, every few years, written works emerge that turn the heads of the greatest literary minds.

Cormac McCarthy is as elusive as a man of his status could be. Few authors who engage so little in the literary community are thus celebrated for it. A vast array of accolades must hang upon his whitewashed walls, including the US National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. But the greatest prize of all eludes McCarthy and his relative absence from discussions about the Nobel Prize for Literature is highly perplexing.

McCarthy is perhaps best known as the author of the 2005 novel-gone-film, No Country for Old Men. His personal interest in the world of film and his close relationship with the Coen brothers culminated in a blistering two hour chase: the Texan, Llewelyn Moss, discovers a briefcase of money in the desert and is then relentlessly pursued by a hitman seeking its return. The film won four Oscars, including Best Picture. Yet, in a rare glimpse of McCarthy during an interview with Oprah in 2007, he appears awkward and uncomfortable, unable to look at the camera. After he was asked how he felt about the popularity of his books, he replied, ‘I don’t mind it. There’s nothing wrong with it.’

This may be why many fail to see behind the outwardly shy and humble McCarthy and his No Country for Old Men, which is not his best work. McCarthy’s latest novel, The Road, is a modern post-apocalyptic nightmare which runs over 300 pages like a feverish dream. A man and a boy attempt to survive a harsh winter in a world laid waste by an unspecified cataclysm. The Road is as shocking as it is beautiful; it is more poetry than prose. McCarthy’s language is stark and blunt with a graceful simplicity, barren as the landscape his characters tread. The result is spectacular. A beautiful appeal to human compassion, The Road inspires profound empathy for its two protagonists.

In many ways, however, McCarthy’s lesser-known novel, Blood Meridian, is his pièce de résistance. The premise of the work is simple: McCarthy follows the Glanton Gang, a group of marauders famed for their moral depravity in Mexico in the 1840s. If The Road offers a reader faith in humanity, then Blood Meridian cruelly and violently shatters the ‘illusion.’ McCarthy’s sparsely punctuated and bloodcurdling descriptions spill forth from the page like a symptom of literary Tourette’s. Although at times it is difficult to grasp what is going on, you can be sure of one thing – there is plenty of death and destruction.

Why, therefore, has McCarthy failed to win a Nobel Prize? While his deep and complex writing is music to some ears; many, after reading the confusing opening of All The Pretty Horses, might dismiss his writing as self-important and pompous rather than something to be taken seriously. Indeed, McCarthy himself does not hide contempt for those works which he considers less grandiose than his own. For some, McCarthy treads the line between brilliant and arrogant a little too closely.

It is understandable that some dislike Cormac McCarthy; a reclusive outsider, he is a literary snob and as self-absorbed as they come. Nevertheless, to disregard McCarthy from a possible Nobel Prize would be to drive through Tesuque without a second thought. McCarthy may be as meek and unassuming as this little town, but out in the deserts of New Mexico, he is a King amongst the dunes.

Photograph: Woody Hibbard via Flickr and Creative Commons

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