When Cormac McCarthy died in June at age eighty-nine, the news touched off grief and adulation such as contemporary literary authors rarely inspire. Musicians, scientists, conservatives, Catholics, all have claimed him. One man circulated and posted the notes he’d taken after a series of phone calls with the author in the early nineties. A woman confessed to having stolen his garbage. As for me, I drove the mountain roads in Vermont this summer, thinking about McCarthy and imagining things. I might learn to can peaches, buy a gun, order iodine tablets, fit a hand pump on the well, dig a root cellar, stock an apocalypse pantry . . .
The response is McCarthy’s due, as he is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest novelists. But it also seems like a demand for a different kind of literary fiction than the kind we currently have, one with concerns Christians will recognize, penned by a different kind of writer.
Almost sixty years ago McCarthy began publishing dense, language-drunk novels in a Faulknerian, Southern-Gothic vein. The 1979 picaresque novel Suttree expanded that territory and began the cycle of his major works. It starts in the “maugre sinks” and “interstitial wastes” of a Southern river town. The river has been crushed and fouled by city and industry. The down-and-out men drifting in its small craft or holed up on its banks are nominally free, but befouled. Many of McCarthy’s great themes are here: technology, violence, masculinity, America, man’s ruination of nature. An absurdist stage piece near the beginning sets the tone for the book, and for his oeuvre. A raw country kid arrives in the workhouse, limping from having been shot in the rear. He is the youngest prisoner and is dim, guileless, and opinionated, knowing nothing—a boy in a state of nature, more or less. Slowly the other prisoners discover that he was convicted for having sexual congress with . . . watermelons. His practice was to sneak onto a neighboring farm in the “warm August night, lush and tactile,” bore a hole in a “supine” melon, and relieve his urges. The narration records the response of the indignant farmer upon finding the profaned melons, the cat-and-mouse game that followed, and the idiotic denouement, with the kid serving his first stint in prison.
It’s a joke, but also not. McCarthy was raised a Catholic, and, as I see it, the character’s concupiscence represents the emergence of sin—of the most laughable kind, but still an augury. McCarthy is often called “the last of the modernists,” an heir to Joyce and Faulkner. The comparison is stylistic and thematic: Like Joyce and Faulkner, McCarthy dwells in a territory where technology and modernity are attacking nature and tradition. Also like them, he operates among the ruins of an explicitly Christian framework. A crucial difference is that McCarthy, writing a hundred years after Joyce’s stultifying Dublin priests, has learned to regret the ruin. The kid humping melons in Suttree is one end of a spectrum of evildoing, and the man who drops the nuclear bomb is the other. Though sin goes under a different name in his books, it has been resurrected for a general audience—as something actually bad.
The resurrection is plain in 1985’s Blood Meridian: or, The Evening Redness in the West, the book often cited as McCarthy’s greatest and, by some, as America’s greatest novel. (McCarthy’s nominee for that honor was Moby-Dick.) Blood Meridian’s action takes place on the U.S.–Mexico border in the 1850s, during the lawless and bloody incubation of the Western states. It established many of the stylistic practices for which McCarthy is now known (and occasionally derided): the rejection of the comma in favor of “and,” long chains of unattributed dialogue, untranslated dialogue in Spanish. Its weight and moral grandeur are established in a central passage of slaughter, in which a government-affiliated team of armed men on horseback, alleged peacekeepers, are sprung from accountability and begin killing for the joy of it. The rampage is presided over by a character known as the Judge—a secular God-figure gone off the rails, who possibly signifies either the Devil or human evil personified as a supernatural force. In its length and brutality, the slaughter surpasses first titillation, then desensitization, and it forces us to look upon genocide as a human work. It knits a foundational evil into the origins of America. In the Judge’s last scene, he is “dancing, dancing” and “says that he will never die.”
McCarthy recurred throughout his career to the eternal and immutable presence of evil, savagery, and chaos within the human heart. Evil appears on the first pages of Suttree with the lines “The murengers have walled the pale, the gates are shut, but lo the thing’s inside and can you guess his shape?” And it appears in gentler form in the series of Westerns that followed Blood Meridian, starting with 1992’s All the Pretty Horses. The post-apocalypse novel The Road won McCarthy the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007; in its plain language and straightforward telling, it represented a departure in terms of style and genre. But evil is there on the first page, as a creature in a dream that “raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders.” It turns toward a man and his young son, the novel’s two protagonists, then lopes away. The two characters’ journey through the “barren, silent, godless” landscape is a morality play—both in the obvious sense that they are “the good guys,” fighting for their survival against hordes of cannibals, and in the less obvious though more haunting sense that the struggle begins to harden the man and the boy must continually draw him back.
McCarthy’s last books, The Passenger and Stella Maris, published within a couple months of each other in October 2022 and December 2022, take a scientific approach to evil. The two books make up a reading experience that is unconventional and challenging; nonetheless, they are my favorites of his long career. McCarthy tackles the nature of reality, the question of what we fundamentally are. Bobby and Alicia Western, a brother and sister in incestuous love, are the children of a physicist who served on the team that developed the atomic bomb. Alicia is a preternaturally talented mathematician, and her calculations lead her to “an ill-contained horror beneath the surface of the world,” a figure glimpsed through “a judas hole.” In one understanding of the work, the realization of the centrality of this dark biblical figure to human life causes her to kill herself in despair. Other readings are more mitigating, but barely.
Unremitting darkness suggests its opposite, a blaze of light. The Road has been called a romance, and in broad strokes, it offers love as a counterbalance to human evil. The man “knew only that the child was his warrant,” McCarthy writes on its first pages. “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” McCarthy was not a believer as an adult (as far as can be ascertained of a writer who declined all comment on himself or his work). His books inhabit a moral universe without faith. But he saw faith’s necessity. The substitution of “love” for God is a commonplace secularization of a Christian concept, and it allows the architecture of faith and hope to function. It goes a step beyond what reads as existentialism in places like the epilogue to Blood Meridian, where the rejoinder to chaos and meaninglessness is the low and stubborn dignity of continued human industry. In his explicitly ontological works The Passenger and Stella Maris, McCarthy presents Alicia and Bobby’s love for each other as the source of redemption, despite its broken and impossible nature. It’s a slim reed—a belief in some kind of human goodness and connection to a higher power, despite all evidence—but it’s the best unbelief can muster. And though he depicts it beautifully, the author seems to see its limitations. Both Bobby and Alicia discuss and seek God throughout the novels, though they are unable to find him. Bobby, able to believe in love, finds a way to continue living through his despair. Alicia, having lost her love, kills herself. When asked what is “the one indispensable gift,” she replies, “Faith.”
The final novels also present light and goodness in the form of sexual and reproductive virtue. This seems odd for a writer whose oeuvre has focused almost exclusively on men and has included very little romance. Yet the choice to write about only men is a sexed one (as is true also with respect to Moby-Dick). It’s possible that one reason McCarthy’s early dystopias are woman-less is that they are dystopias. The destruction of the couple is one of the modern degradations through which his male characters are living. In his later works, women are not merely absent but have killed themselves. Both Alicia Western and the man’s wife in The Road look at the horror of being human in a sin-battered world and opt out.
Viewed in this light, the incest theme in The Passenger and Stella Maris is best read as an expression of human brokenness: Bobby and Alicia are a couple to whom heterosexual love is forbidden, and they cannot have a child. An incest theme appeared also in Outer Dark (1968) at the beginning of McCarthy’s career, again suggesting that sexuality-gone-wrong is part of the foundational human turn toward error. And a transgender woman character in The Passenger, who has been the occasion of some critical head-scratching, likewise works this theme. McCarthy understands her in an old-fashioned, gender-essentialist vein. In the book’s presentation, she was a woman—a meaningful category—born in the wrong body. The miracles of technology have allowed her to change over to the right body, or at least to a very good imitation of it. Every human topic, even this most polarizing one, is complicated. Reflecting on her, Bobby thinks, “God’s goodness appeared in strange places.” The transwoman is presented as the person Bobby might love if he could get over Alicia. But, crucially, he can’t.
The family is the ghostly solution that hovers just outside the frame. Once you start looking for specters of family life, they’re everywhere. The protagonist of Suttree has a series of broken relationships and a dead child. The Road’s culminating abomination involves humans gestating babies for food. Its happy ending affords the boy a primordial mother and father. In Stella Maris, Alicia longs for a child. “What I really wanted was a child,” she says. “What I do really want. If I had a child I would just go in at night and sit there. Quietly. I would listen to my child breathing. If I had a child I wouldn’t care about reality.” Family lost and desired are two anguishes McCarthy seems to have recognized as perennial.
Neither a focus on sin nor a celebration of heterosexual reproduction is popular—or even, at times, acceptable—by the standards of contemporary literary fiction. But, of course, McCarthy existed mostly outside the literary mainstream. Throughout his career, he stayed out of the academic and prize circuits and avoided publicity. By all appearances he wrote what he wanted, without regard to its reception by readers or the establishment. These choices were difficult to make in his lifetime and are even more so in today’s publishing industry. But they seem to have helped him avoid the success-rot that sets in for many great talents. He continued to develop as an artist until the end of his life. The Road and The Passenger and Stella Maris were each new beginnings in terms of style and genre, and they are among his greatest works. And McCarthy’s relentless attention to life’s most fundamental aspects makes his work enduringly relevant. The renewed threat of nuclear war makes global apocalypse more likely today than when The Road was published seventeen years ago. Environmental issues have become more fraught. Families are more under siege. Relations between men and women are more broken. It is tempting to view McCarthy as the end of something—the last modernist, the last believer in great themes and the Christian framework. But his prescience suggests that those themes and that framework illuminate the present more deeply than do their postmodern successors.
My children are in the back seat as I drive around Vermont, and I imagine the three of us in the post-apocalyptic world described in The Road, where the sky is gray with ash, the color is gone, and nothing can grow. “Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting,” McCarthy wrote, which after 2020 seems realistic. The man and the boy find traces of human care among the ruins—a tidily buried cistern full of clean water, a well-stocked bunker—and these traces beckon and glow amid the book’s bleakness.
I am frightened by the scale of the dangers McCarthy presented. Nuclear war, in the view of his books, is not an if but a when. The Judge and other lords of misrule appear to have the upper hand. But I am also encouraged that McCarthy discovered goodness—a discovery all the more precious because it is shorn of every self-deception about the reality of evil.
By the end of the final novel in the Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain, the protagonist, Billy Parham, has seen much. In the final scene, a woman gives him a place to sleep. He can make little sense of his life and tells her, “I aint nothin. I dont know why you put up with me.” She responds: “Well, Mr Parham, I know who you are. And I do know why. You go to sleep now.” The Blessed Virgin Mary? Holy Mother Church? It’s foolish to try to pin McCarthy down. But it’s also foolish to ignore the invitation to rest in something, perhaps Someone, who knows us, even to the depths of our wickedness, and who puts up with us and knows why.
Valerie Stivers is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.