50 Years of Reading Cormac McCarthy

This piece was published in the blog Sacred Trespasses on December 22, 2015 (Photo by Lisa Graves)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Cormac McCarthy’s debut novel, The Orchard Keeper, we invited several writers to discuss their experiences of reading the author’s work. The following conversation, conducted via e-mail, includes commentary from Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville, Weatherford Award-wining poet and Tennessee native Jesse Graves, and the Buenos Aires-based writer Andrés Hax.
Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais: We never forget our first taste of a great writer’s prose. The experience can feel like falling in love. For me, with Cormac McCarthy, the opening passage of Outer Dark was all it took. You recognize at once that you’re in the presence of a writer driven by the same demons that haunted Melville and Faulkner.

Andrés Hax: I remember the exact date that I heard of Cormac McCarthy for the first time. It was the 19th of April, 1992. A Sunday morning. This was when his now famous profile in The New York Times Sunday Magazine was published. It seemed a bit unreal. Here was my ideal of a writer, someone solitary, austere, independent, indifferent to fame, far as possible from the literary crowd, interested deeply in science, persistent beyond the fact that he didn’t have very many readers. Although those readers were loyal, prestigious and unreserved in their praise of him. He had been a drinker but he didn’t drink any more. He was now publishing a book called All The Pretty Horses. For some reason, I found that title audacious. The photographs in the piece, by Gilles Peress from Magnum, were also—what is the word? They were romantic.

Jesse Graves: When All the Pretty Horses was published in 1992, and McCarthy received his first national fame, I was in my first year of college, heading off to the University of Tennessee, where McCarthy studied. Imagine being a nineteen-year-old first generation college student, deeply and suddenly in love with the sound of language and the world of books, whose family roots in East Tennessee go back more than two hundred years, and you have just discovered James Agee and Cormac McCarthy, both from less than forty miles from where you grew up. It was both incredibly daunting, and also strangely facilitating. Being a writer seemed possible. Not a writer like those two—I wasn’t deluded—but still, a writer who could work with the material experiences of my own provincial life. From the first paragraph of All the Pretty Horses, I felt I was reading a writer who witnessed some boundless mystery, like William Blake.

Rabalais: It’s strange to remember that McCarthy’s books were difficult to find before the publication of All the Pretty Horses. And yet occasionally you would hear writers mention the name—and often a single title, Blood Meridian—as though they were passing a flame.

Hax: I got All the Pretty Horses as soon as possible and read it straight through. I was twenty-one years old. I loved everything about the book, the book itself, I mean. The design by Chip Kidd, the author photo by Marion Ettlinger, the font, the smell. All of it.
None of this would have mattered, of course, if it were all hype. But I read the book and it glowed in my mind. I felt every word to be perfect. I don’t even particularly care for horses or cowboy stories. I didn’t even realize at first that I was reading a Western, of sorts. The book was alive. More than twenty years have passed and I am not tired of it yet.

John Banville: I vividly remember getting hold, though I don’t remember how, of Blood Meridianwhen it first came out, and being bowled over by it. I think I must have reviewed it, perhaps in theIrish Times, as I sometimes see a rather over-excited quote from me on the paperback. It was, of course, utterly unlike anything anyone else was writing at the time, harking back as it did all the way from Melville to Homer and the Bible.

Graves: Poetry is my main game, so I would not be truthful if I said anything other than the language drew me to McCarthy. I believe he is the fusion of the first two great American prose stylists, Herman Melville and Mark Twain (I know others have said Hemingway and Faulkner, and certainly he does fuse that pair in a particular way). My favorite McCarthy novel is Suttree, partly for personal reasons, but largely because it marks his greatest blend of the baroque sublimity and architectural rigor of Melville, with the vernacular hilarity of Twain. The way his character Gene Harrogate talks just amazes me, and it is no small point of reference for me that Harrogate is the name of the tiny town on the Tennessee/Kentucky border where I spent my first year of college at Lincoln Memorial University, and one town over from Lafollette, where James Agee’s paternal family lived. Harrogate’s dialect is perfectly tuned backwoods poor-white. I read Suttree when I was living in an apartment in Knoxville, with a tiny balcony overlooking the Tennessee River, at almost exactly the location where Suttree docks his houseboat.  

Hax: After All The Pretty Horses, Vintage in the United States started reissuing his back catalogue in beautiful black and white paperback editions. I read and reread them all. I have wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen. I think that I am not a writer because of Cormac McCarthy. I don’t say this with any resentment, as I think of him every day and even feel a kind of love for him, as if he were a father. But he has blocked me.

Rabalais: You and multitudes in several generations of writers.

Hax: I’m still trying to get over it. To find a loophole. I’m not too worried about it, though. I am more of a reader than a writer. I just always thought that writing would be like passing through the looking glass of reading.
When I read this in Suttree, for instance, I went numb:

In my father’s last letter he said that the world is run by those willing to take the responsibility for the running of it. If it is life that you feel you are missing I can tell you where to find it. In the law courts, in business, in government. There is nothing occurring in the streets. Nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and the impotent.

This is my father speaking

Banville: There is a primitive quality, a quality almost of savagery, to his books that fascinates, and, indeed, frightens me. The darkness of his vision is, I think—paradoxically—luminous. And I greatly admire the way in which he just doesn’t seem to give a damn what anyone thinks of him.

Rabalais: You witness that even in some of his greatest passages, this sense that, having too much talent to burn in a lifetime, he can be careless even in his genius. Take the final paragraph of The Orchard Keeper:

They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.

What seems to be prose handed down and honed through the revision of generations of storytellers includes, also, that seemingly careless homonym near the end. You stumble for a moment and then, as with so many of McCarthy’s endings, you want to begin another one of his novels right away.

Banville: I think Child of God is unjustly neglected. It’s a slim volume, but my goodness how large a thing it is. It’s the one that has stayed longest in my mind, hauntingly.

Rabalais: I feel that way about Outer Dark. A near-mythic quality infiltrates his earliest work. We see it in the first pages of The Orchard Keeper:

Marion Sylder labored with hammer and saw until late September of that year and then he quit, knowledgeable in purlins and pole plates, and with his savings bought some clothes and a pair of thirty-dollar boots mail-ordered out of Minnesota, and disappeared. He was gone for five years. Whatever trade he followed in his exile he wore no overalls, wielded no hammer.

Graves: Every novel contains lines and passages that I love, and I think his screenplay The Gardener’s Son remains undervalued even among serious McCarthy readers. My favorite passage in all of McCarthy goes for about ten pages, just over halfway through Suttree. After a bizarre exchange with a seer, Suttree hikes into the Great Smoky Mountains, loses his way, and ends up on a hallucinatory sort of vision quest. This long sequence contains the full spectrum of McCarthy’s genius, the sublime communion with nature and the human past, and the high/low vernacular style:

Old distaff Celt’s blood in some back chamber of his brain moved him to discourse with the birches, with the oaks. A cool green fire kept breaking in the woods and he could hear the footsteps of the dead. Everything had fallen from him. He could scarce tell where his being ended or the world began nor did he care.

Then after a few days of starvation and brute wandering, he meets a poacher in the forest:

Begone I say, said Suttree, shucking the tattered blanket at him. Why you dipshit idjit if anybody begones anywhere it’ll be you with a arrowbolt up your skinny ass. Suttree batted his eyes. Are you real? he said.

Hax: Reread all the last paragraphs of each of the novels. Unintentionally, I think there is a secret message in McCarthy’s work. Humanity, civilization, is the thinnest of crusts on the face of the earth. We just got here and we will only be here for a moment. I feel, and have felt since the beginning, that McCarthy knows something. I think he knows something about life and time and violence and the land and animals that few people now know. I think he is the last of a kind. Once he is gone, I know the earth will be bereft of a secret prince.


Cormac McCarthy’s next novel, The Passenger, will be published in 2016.

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