Remembering McCarthy

The Greatest American Novelist

By Jim Hartsell

Where’d you get a gun like this? he said.

At the gittin place.

-John Grady Cole speaking to Blevins in All the Pretty Horses

I first discovered the writing of Cormac McCarthy in 1990 at the wonderful Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. Blood Meridian was sitting on a small table with a collection of several “Staff Recommendations.”  I had never heard of the author, but something about the book’s subtitle – Or the Evening Redness in the West – intrigued me. Also, a small note card stated that the book might appeal to fans of William Faulkner. That was enough for me to buy a copy. I immediately took it to Parham Bridges Park on Old Canton Road, found a shaded bench, and started reading.  Before I knew what happened, two hours had passed. After 30 years of reading the work of the great Cormac McCarthy, who died on June 13 at age 89, I believe that to compare him to William Faulkner is to do him a disservice.

Undoubtedly McCarthy’s writing, at least in his early novels – The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God and to a lesser extent Suttree– flows from the same stylistic vein as the work of Faulkner, Herman Melville and the Irish writer James Joyce.  He eschewed most grammatical conventions, the writing flowing elegantly and uninhibited like the mountain streams so often mentioned in his fantastic landscapes.  More importantly to me, he was a genius storyteller in a much more accessible way than his designated influences.  While his writing requires thoughtful readership, the reward is brilliant, complex stories and scenes that jump off the page and into the reality of the mind in a way that no other American author, except perhaps the late Oxford, Mississippi writer Larry Brown, has ever achieved.

McCarthy understood that the depravity and evil in the world was largely self-inflicted by the hubris of mankind. He also understood the inherent and fragile beauty of the natural world. The Road, published in 2006, follows the plight of a father and his young son attempting to navigate the bleak dystopian world of a diminished planet, following some unnamed apocalypse. The final passage offers the most eloquent elegy to the wonders of the natural earth that has ever been imagined by a writer. In the aftermath of the unthinkable destruction – and highly relevant in our increasingly unhinged world – he offers this virtual prayer to what has been lost:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

In Blood Meridian, which is considered by many to be his masterwork, McCarthy shatters the mythical Hollywood version of the settlement of the American west.  Perhaps the most depraved and beautifully written book in American literature, it follows the exploits of the brutal Glanton gang as they travel the deep southwest and Mexico to murder as many native Americans as the Mexican government, or anyone, will pay them for.  The story was based on extensive historical research and McCarthy spares neither the marauding Americans nor the natives from the unhinged brutality that ensues – think of what the exact opposite of a film like John Ford’s The Searchers would be. He deconstructs the largely accepted Western mythology in a way that is visceral, shocking, and essential.

Blood Meridian also includes the single greatest character in American fiction – Judge Holden – or more simply The Judge, as he is called throughout most of the novel. A massive seven-foot-tall giant with a shaved head, it is easy to assume that the character is the embodiment of all evil in the world. This Mephistophelian figure – even Satan can quote scripture to suit his purposes – metes out his curious form of justice based on strictures that only he comprehends. Yet he seems puzzled when someone does not view the world in the same terms.  This brutal, demonic figure keeps a sketchbook of native plants and animals that he updates frequently, with a religious fervor, during the travels of the Glanton gang. The wild dichotomy of the character is one of the more interesting juxtapositions in modern literature. Here he holds forth to group of heartless murderers in the Mexican desert:

In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic locations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God don’t lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

Over the years, I have probably given away as many copies of Blood Meridian as I have of Michael Bamberger’s classic golf book, To the Linksland.  A good friend that recently read it for the first time offered a completely different take on the end of the book and The Judge – one that I had never considered in all my many readings. This is due to the genius of McCarthy.  Is my friend’s thesis the correct one?  I do not know – maybe it is. More importantly, it caused me to re-examine those few pages of text in a completely new light.  Blood Meridian is not an easy read, but it continually rewards the reader who allows himself to become immersed in its dark, unmerciful world. The book is more relevant today than it ever has been.

Joel and Ethan Coen – the Coen Brothers – one of the triumvirate of great modern American filmmakers along with Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, famously won a 2009 Academy award for their screen adaptation of McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. The film is a perfect gateway into the world of McCarthy’s writing. Dialogue in the film is taken almost verbatim from the text of the novel.  The story, set in rural Texas in 1981, is about three men – Vietnam veteran Llewellyn Moss, local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and a seemingly insane sociopath called Anton Chigurh.  It is once again a meditation on the evils of humanity and the seemingly futile battle to stem the dismal tide.

Chigurh is an avatar of destruction and almost a modern-day version of The Judge – relentless, principled in his own bizarre way, and inevitable. In a more direct sense than his Border Trilogy of the early 90’s, No Country for Old Men is a commentary on the changing landscape of America from the perceived exceptionalism of the 50’s and 60’s.  In many respects, it is a brilliant predictor and allegory for the current monumental schism in American society. It also contains some of McCarthy’s best subtle humor and brilliant understanding of Southern speech:

The sheriff shook his head. He got down and walked over to where the dead man lay slumped. He walked over the ground, the rifle yoked across his shoulders. He squatted and studied the grass.

We got another execution here Sheriff?

No, I believe this one’s died of natural causes.

Natural causes?

Natural to the line of work he’s in.

He aint got a gun.


Wendell leaned and spat. Somebody’s been here before us.

I’d say so.

You think he was packin the money?

I’d say there’s a good chance of it.

So we aint found the last man, have we?

Bell didn’t answer. He rose and stood looking out over the country.

It’s a mess aint it Sheriff?

If it aint it’ll do till a mess gets here.

McCarthy, who spent much of his early life living in Knoxville, Tennessee was famously unconcerned whether anyone ever read his books. He gave just a handful of interviews over the years, with his best one coming late in life to two high school girls who contacted him for an English class assignment.  He chose to spend most of his last 35 years in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Santa Fe Institute, a sort of multi-disciplinary think-tank of philosophers, scientists and mathematicians. These were the people he felt most at home with.

In 2022, at the remarkable age of 88, he published his final two compendium novels – The Passenger and Stella Maris.  It was a welcome shock to the world of literature.  I quickly devoured them both.  The initial critical reaction to the work has been slightly muted, but I found them both to contain the same incisive insights and observations of the human condition as his previous works. The Passenger, whose main character Bobby Western is a deep-water salvage diver in New Orleans, offers the same blunt assessment of daily life and human interaction that is the heart of McCarthy’s unmatched prose:

He walked down to the French Market in the morning and got the paper and sat on the terrace in the cool sun and drank hot coffee with milk. He thumbed through the paper. Nothing about the JetStar. He finished his coffee and stepped into the street and hailed a cab and went down to Belle Chasse and walked into the little operations room. Lou was sitting at his desk pulling at the handle of an old-fashioned adding machine. What do you want? he said.

 I need to talk to you.

You are talking to me.

It is sad when a brilliant artist leaves the world. As readers or listeners, we feel like we know them personally.  We might feel that we know a musician like Bob Dylan after so many years of listening to his music. I have often felt there is a kinship between Dylan and McCarthy, mainly in their subtle understanding and expression of human experience. Dylan’s classic 1997 song Not Dark Yet has always seemed to me to be a musical version of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Artists like this transcend time and it feels as if they will always be there. McCarthy tries to teach us that nothing is permanent, but brilliant art lives on.

John Grady Cole, the main character of the 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses – the opening book of The Border Trilogy, followed by The Crossing and Cities of the Plain – could be considered a young, uncorrupted version of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. He has a code of how the world should be. There is right and there is wrong and that is all that matters, even as the archaic and simpler world that he is a part of vanishes in time. Despite doing nothing but what he thinks is right, he loses to the world:

He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led to nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave. When she came out of the bathroom again she was dressed and he made her sit on the bed and he held her hands both of them and talked her but she only shook her head and she turned away her tearstained face and told him that it was time to go and that she could not miss the train.

McCarthy tried to make sense of the world.  In doing so, he uncovered hard truths. He was unflinching in revealing them. The world is a beautiful place, but also terrible. As long as civilization exists, the words of Cormac McCarthy will exist as a dark testament to that harsh reality.