Cormac McCarthy died at age 89 on June 13. He was a master of the modern western and a unique prose stylist. His novels featured scant punctuation. No quotation marks. No showy semi-colons and nearly never colons. His stories were structured with only capital letters and periods. Oh, and the occasional comma. (Like the prior sentence.) But only once a page or so.
McCarthy drew inspiration for his undeniably muscular prose from James Joyce (See this interview for more on that.) The result were clear deceptively simple language that belied the nuanced themes just underneath the surface. In a postmodern literature class at Rosemont College we discussed McCarthy’s personal views. No one could quite decide whether he was conservative or liberal. Did the novels lionize the stoic characters or lament them? Or both? We decided the answer depended upon the reader’s point-of-view.
Most will remember McCarthy for the Cohen brothers film No Country For Old Men, adapted from his novel and winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. Picture an everyman who happens upon the scene of a crime in the desert and must spend the remainder of the story untangling himself from the dangers unleashed.
Rather, I suggest starting with McCarthy’s The Road. It is a punishing story set in a ashen post-apocalyptic world. A father and son cling to one another in the slim hope of surviving for a little longer. I had the pleasure of reading it after someone donated it to the local library. My favorite margin note (AKA marginalia) of all time was on page 58 of this copy of The Road. It read simply, “Oh my goodness. I hate this book.”
The book was appreciated in its own time and has grown in critical esteem in the seventeen years since publication.
Follow that up with the classic western Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West. The style and story are more subdued than The Road. The nameless characters experience a dash more of hope against the unforgiving world.
Whether you enjoy it or think, I hate this book, I hope readers will respect his bleak vision and contemporary yet timeless voice.
Selected Library Holdings:
McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. Knopf ; Distributed by Random House, 1992.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West. 1st Vintage International ed. Vintage Books, 1992.
McCarthy, Cormac. No Country for Old Men. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
McCarthy, Cormac. Suttree. 1st Vintage International ed. Vintage International, Vintage Books, 1992.
Shawn Proctor, MFA, is Communication and Marketing Program Manager at Falvey Library.
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