I’ve written here on the site before of my admiration for Cormac McCarthy. There are authors that I appreciate, and there are authors I try to emulate. But McCarthy is in a class entirely by himself. Who’s the greatest current living American writer? Could you make the case for Philip Roth, maybe, or Don DeLillo? Sure you could. Roth is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and DeLillo has written not one but several books that stir things in me in a fashion of which only a giant of the written word is capable. But McCarthy writes in a way that makes you sit up and take notice; he demands that you pay attention. Not just with his vocabulary, which can be dizzying, but with his mastery of every other element of craft, character development, dialogue, tone, and theme. His career now stretches over a half century, but he has written only something like ten novels, unlike, say, the recently deceased Elmore Leonard, another of my favorites, who cranked out a new book almost every year. But that’s okay, because McCarthy books are events, and they’re worth waiting for. His newest, The Passenger, has been pushed back again and again, and I’m content to wait for it. I know how good it’s going to be once it gets here. I’ve never read a book of his that I didn’t like. It’s not a question of whether one of his novels is going to be good once I pick it up. The only question is whether it’s going to become one of my new favorite novels ever, as is the case with Suttree and Blood Meridian.
I recently read Outer Dark and Child of God for the first time, earlier McCarthy, both grim books about people leading lives of questionable purpose, peppered with violence, sneaky humor, and a sense of hopelessness that pervades all McCarthy, regardless of whether he’s talking about a bygone time, as is the case in Outer Dark, close to the present day, as in No Country For Old Men, or the near future, as is the case with The Road. Outer Dark is about a child born of incest between a brother and sister in Appalachia near the turn of the nineteenth century. Child of God is about a drifter, a violent man, a serial killer, in fact, whose thinking and actions are a mystery both to the reader and to himself. McCarthy writes about people whose emotions and reasons for doing things are incomprehensible. The lesson he seems to want to make clear, again and again, is that everything is random, and if there is a God, then he, or she, or whatever, has long since left us to our own devices, and we’re doing a shit job of looking after ourselves, and each other. The problem being, as sad and pessimistic as this view of the world is, it’s one that is hard to argue against, because everything McCarthy writes seems to have the feeling of gospel. Preachers show up in McCarthy’s writing a lot, and McCarthy is himself a kind of preacher. His is the gospel of randomness and isolation and loneliness and chance and unrequited loves. There is very little purity in the world, he seems to say, in any time period. Good intentions are few, and they fail more often than not. Characters walk the earth for no other purpose, seemingly, than to speak cryptically and cynically, make a jest of our plight as human beings, and slaughter us indiscriminately. It is true of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, it is true of The Judge in Blood Meridian, it is true of the wandering killers in Outer Dark.
Even though I view McCarthy as a literary idol, I would never want to meet him. Which is fine, because from what I understand, he shuns the spotlight, and doesn’t seek out the company of other writers. His friends are, instead, scientists, astrophysicists and the like. If I ever met the man, I think I would be intimidated out of my very wits. My own meager writing, put up alongside his, is like a chimp scribbling pictures in the dust with a stick while in the shadow of the Sistine Chapel. Some of us are able to do it on another level, and McCarthy is one like this. His words make him almost inhuman. They elevate him to a level that I cannot hope to reach, and, while I envy him his abilities, I understand that our writing is so dissimilar that it’s a foolish idea to even entertain, comparing myself to him. I might occasionally encounter a written author and think, angrily, this is crap. I can write better than this; how is it that this person got him or herself a book deal while I have to self-publish? But in the case of someone like McCarthy, it has to be understood that his gift is so massive that his stories are why language was created in the first place. He is a person who has literally mastered the art of writing, and if I lived a hundred lifetimes, I could never hope to do so. That’s not me putting myself down. It’s just fact.
I’m not a religious person, in the conventional sense. Reading and writing are my religion, and, with that being said, someone like McCarthy is a veritable saint to me. So I’ll continue to read his books…and reread them…and reread them…but he’s never going to somebody like Stephen King, about whom I think, hey, he actually sounds like a guy I’d like to talk to in real life, have dinner with, maybe. If I ever went to dinner with McCarthy, I know I’d be a stuttering idiot. That’s okay. It’s good for all of us to know our place. I don’t know exactly where mine is, in literary circles. But I know where McCarthy is. He’s at the top of the mountain, standing larger, grander, wiser, than almost any other I’ve encountered.