The Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s novels, which included The Road and No Country for Old Men, dramatised how the past overwhelmed the present.
Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who in prose both dense and brittle took readers from the southern Appalachians to the desert Southwest in such novels as The Road,Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses, died on June 13. He was 89.
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf, a Penguin Random House imprint, announced that McCarthy died of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“For 60 years, he demonstrated an unwavering dedication to his craft, and to exploring the infinite possibilities and power of the written word,” Penguin Random House CEO Nihar Malaviya said in a statement. “Millions of readers around the world embraced his characters, his mythic themes, and the intimate emotional truths he laid bare on every page, in brilliant novels that will remain both timely and timeless, for generations to come.”
Shooting to fame
McCarthy, raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, was compared to William Faulkner for his expansive, Old Testament style and rural settings. McCarthy’s themes, like Faulkner’s, often were bleak and violent and dramatised how the past overwhelmed the present. Across stark and forbidding landscapes and rundown border communities, he placed drifters, thieves, prostitutes, and old, broken men, all unable to escape fates determined for them well before they were born. As the doomed John Grady Cole of McCarthy’s celebrated “Border” trilogy would learn, dreams of a better life were only dreams, and falling in love an act of folly.
“Every man’s death is a standing in for every other,” McCarthy wrote in Cities of the Plain, the trilogy’s final book. “And since death comes to all there is no way to abate the fear of it except to love that man who stands for us.”
McCarthy’s own story was one of belated, and continuing, achievement and popularity. Little known to the public at age 60, he would become one of the country’s most honoured and successful writers despite rarely talking to the press and never being seen on the red carpet.
An intensely private man, he almost never gave interviews. He granted a rare exception for Oprah Winfrey in 2007, telling her: “I don’t think (interviews) are good for your head. If you spend a lot of time thinking about how to write a book, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about it, you probably should be doing it.”
McCarthy wrote with a distinctive, spare style that eschewed grammatical norms but drew the reader in relentlessly to his world of blood, dust, and an unforgiving universe.
“He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all,” he wrote in typical fashion in his 1992 novel All the Pretty Horses.
That novel proved to be his breakthrough success and over the next 15 years, he won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He also saw his novel No Country for Old Men adapted by the Coen brothers into an Oscar-winning movie. Fans of the Coens would discover that the film’s terse, absurdist dialogue, so characteristic of the brothers’ work, was lifted straight from the novel.
The Road, his stark tale of a father and son who roam a ravaged landscape, brought him his widest audience and highest acclaim. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was selected by Winfrey for her book club. In his Winfrey interview, McCarthy said that while typically he did not know what generates the ideas for his books, he could trace The Road to a trip he took with his young son to El Paso, Texas, early in the decade.
Standing at the window of a hotel in the middle of the night as his son slept nearby, he started to imagine what El Paso might look like 50 or 100 years in the future. “I just had this image of these fires up on the hill....and I thought a lot about my little boy,” he said.
He told Winfrey he did not care how many people read The Road. “You would like for the people that would appreciate the book to read it. But, as far as many, many people reading it, so what?” he said.
McCarthy dedicated the book to his son, John Francis, and said having a child as an older man “forces the world on you, and I think it’s a good thing”. The Pulitzer committee called his book “the profoundly moving story of a journey”.
“It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, ‘each the other’s world entire’, are sustained by love,” the citation read in part. “Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.”
An announced return
After The Road, little was heard from McCarthy over the next 15 years and his career was presumed over. But in 2022, Knopf made the startling announcement that it would release a pair of connected novels he had referred to in the past: The Passenger and Stella Maris, narratives about a brother and sister, mutually obsessed siblings, and the legacy of their father, a physicist who had worked on atomic technology.
Stella Maris was notable, in part, because it centred on a female character, an acknowledged weakness of McCarthy’s. “I don’t pretend to understand women,” he told Winfrey.
His first novel, The Orchard Keeper—written in Chicago while he was working as an auto mechanic—was published by Random House in 1965. His editor was Albert Erskine, Faulkner’s longtime editor.
Other novels include Outer Dark, published in 1968; Child of God in 1973; and Suttree in 1979. The violent Blood Meridian, about a group of bounty hunters along the Texas-Mexico border murdering Indians for their scalps, was published in 1985.
His “Border Trilogy” books were set in the Southwest along the border with Mexico: All the Pretty Horses (1992)—a National Book Award winner that was turned into a feature film; The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998).
McCarthy said he was always lucky. He recalled living in a shack in Tennessee and running out of toothpaste, then going out and finding a toothpaste sample in the mailbox. “That’s the way my life has been. Just when things were really, really bleak, something would happen,” said McCarthy, who won a MacArthur Fellowship—one of the so-called “genius grants”—in 1981.
In 2009, Christie’s auction house sold the Olivetti typewriter he used while writing such novels as The Road and No Country for Old Men for $254,500. McCarthy, who bought the Olivetti for $50 in 1958 and used it until 2009, donated it so the proceeds could be used to benefit the Santa Fe Institute, a non-profit interdisciplinary scientific research community. He once said he did not know any writers and preferred to hang out with scientists.
The Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University-San Marcos purchased his archives in 2008, including correspondence, notes, drafts, proofs of 11 novels, a draft of an unfinished novel and materials related to a play and four screenplays.
Born Charles Joseph McCarthy Jr on July 20, 1933, in Providence, Rhode Island, McCarthy was one of six children in his Irish Catholic family, and later switched to using the old Irish name of Cormac. His father was a lawyer and he was brought up in Tennessee in relative comfort. But middle America was not for him.
“I felt early on I wasn’t going to be a respectable citizen. I hated school from the day I set foot in it,” he told The New York Times in another rare interview in 1992.
McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee for a year before joining the Air Force in 1953. He returned to the school from 1957 to 1959, but left before graduating. He was married twice before the 1960s were out—first to Lee Holleman, who he met at college and with whom he had a son, and later to English singer Anne DeLisle, from whom he separated in 1976. After a short spell in Europe, he returned to Tennessee to settle near Knoxville, and later moved to El Paso and then to Santa Fe.
His Knoxville boyhood home, long abandoned and overgrown, was destroyed by fire in 2009.
(with inputs from AP and Reuters)