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Cormac McCarthy passed away on June 13, just shy of his ninetieth birthday. Accolades in the press have rapidly followed, nearly all of them informing readers that McCarthy’s novels are violent and dark. That McCarthy is a macabre nihilist has been a persistent cliché throughout his career, but like most clichés, despite its kernel of truth, it oversimplifies and therefore distorts our view. McCarthy’s novels—from his first book, The Orchard Keeper, to his final duology, The Passenger and Stella Maris—have centered on the problem of evil. It is this focus that makes the novels so dark and bloody, but also what gives them the moral and spiritual gravity that is their primary appeal. McCarthy’s meditations on the darkness in the world give rise to reflections on the light within the human heart.
Charles McCarthy was born in Rhode Island on July 20, 1933. When he was four, his family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. Like Hemingway, one of his literary influences, he developed a love for the outdoors that would later enrich the verbal landscapes of his novels. He attended a Catholic high school and did two stints as a desultory college student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, but he took little interest in schooling. In-between his periods at college, he served four years in the Air Force, some of them in Alaska.
By his own account, Alaska was the point in his life when he began to explore literature. He began writing during his second stint at UT, where he published two short stories in the university literary magazine, The Phoenix. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Edited by Random House’s legendary Albert Erskine, with whom McCarthy developed a fruitful relationship throughout the first half of his career, the debut novel established a pattern of high critical acclaim and poor sales that would hold until the bestseller All the Pretty Horses—the first installment in “The Border Trilogy”—was published in 1992.
Many readers regard McCarthy’s 1985 masterpiece, the violent Western Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, as his magnum opus, though it vies for that award with his last Southern novel, Suttree. McCarthy’s shift in genre from Southern Gothic to Western corresponded with his geographical move from Tennessee to the Southwest, where most of his later novels are set. Before settling in Santa Fe, McCarthy lived in El Paso, Texas, a border town that provided the publicity-shy McCarthy a home out of the literary limelight—which became harder to evade after the success of All the Pretty Horses. The second two volumes of “The Border Trilogy” cemented McCarthy’s popularity. So did No Country for Old Men, adapted by the Coen brothers into an Oscar-winning film, and the post-apocalyptic nightmare The Road, which became an Oprah’s Book Club selection, as well as the occasion for one of the most awkward television interviews ever filmed. McCarthy’s final publications, The Passenger and Stella Maris, appeared in the fall of 2022 and round out his career in impressive fashion.
Centered on the heartbroken love between siblings Bobby and Alicia Western, whose father was one of the creators of the atom bomb, the two books are a sorrowful cri de coeur over the metastasizing of evil in what McCarthy takes to be our rapidly dying civilization.
Several frightening embodiments of evil appear throughout McCarthy’s work. Readers of Blood Meridian will not soon forget The Judge, the Satanic ringleader of a group of American scalp hunters marauding through the American and Mexican Southwest in the 1850s. Critic Guy Davenport, a friend of McCarthy’s, wrote that he is “unashamedly an allegorist. His responsibility as a storyteller includes believing with his characters in the devil, or at least in the absolute destructiveness of evil.” McCarthy’s novels face that evil in an unflinching fashion, which is why he is so often mischaracterized as nihilistic. He took the view that there is something morally salutary in boldly and truthfully grappling with reality. Like Flannery O’Connor, a writer McCarthy admired, he draws large and startling figures that both disturb and instruct.
But McCarthy’s depictions of darkness are never devoid of light, however tragic or precarious its place in the narratives. In The Crossing, the most theological of McCarthy’s novels, a character tells the wandering pilgrim Billy Parham that “It is God’s grace alone that we are bound by this thread of life.” There is much talk of God in “The Border Trilogy,” and in McCarthy’s plays The Stonemason and The Sunset Limited. Readers would be hard-pressed to find a creed in these works, and the comforts of religion do not appear to be part of the agenda. But one concludes that for McCarthy, living in the light of truth, goodness, and beauty is a responsibility.
In what may be McCarthy’s most beloved novel, The Road, a father and son are trying to survive the aftermath of nuclear Armageddon. They remind each other, with something like liturgical repetition, that they are the good guys and that they are carrying the fire. They counterpoise love, self-sacrifice, and mercy against the feral viciousness of the degraded men and women they encounter on their journey. The fire they carry is present throughout McCarthy’s fiction. Any assessment of his work that misses that light has missed everything.
Michael Crews is an associate professor of English at Regent University. He is the author of Books Are Made Out of Books: A Guide to Cormac McCarthy's Literary Influences, published by the University of Texas Press.
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