Cormac McCarthy’s work exemplifies every reason to read. His characters reveal
relatable truths. His descriptions map new landscapes within our minds, and his stories teach us
about exotic and distinct realities while revealing the forgotten and remote within ourselves.
And that is all fine and good, but as a writer, I’ve been most impacted by McCarthy’s
prose style and his use of the mythological to inscribe something new, something ahistorical,
onto a landscape that is part of my past, my backyard, and my community’s cultural memory.
McCarthy uses a vocabulary that shifts and slides on a spectrum between antiquated
and contemporary so that he may chart his linguistic landscape without alienating his audience.
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted andAll the Pretty Horses, p. 1
righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat
and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he
stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase.
Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to
him all framed in glass and guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm
wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among
the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not
sleeping. That was not sleeping.
McCarthy’s use of the words pierglass, cutglass, forebears, and guttered candlestub place the
reader at a distance, a historical and contextual remove, while making immanent the scene of a
wake in a nineteenth century ranch house on the western plains. In the first sentence, the
compound subject mirrors its representation, and the clauses mimic the repetitive movement.
The second and third sentences move the action forward clearly, simply, and directly. The
fourth sentence contextualizes the funeral. The fifth sentence extends John Grady Cole’s
ancestors behind him. Cole makes his mark in the sixth and sees his grandfather’s dead face in
the seventh. The final sentence, repeated, brings home the point while posing, implicitly, a
question that the novel serves to answer: what isn’t sleeping, and, in light of death, what is
Cole pursues the American dream, a dream of independence, passion, and wildness
tamed through active, developed skill, and he pursues the dream in the wake of its passing in
his America. Industry and infrastructure tamed the landscape. Cole’s parents live lives grown
out of but dramatically divergent from the lives of Cole’s extended forebears, and Cole is forced
to seek the realization of his values in a foreign land, a land alive with mythical significance,
arbitrariness, contingence, capacity, and probability, in other words, the makings of destiny.
John Grady Cole’s narrative continues a story that reaches backward, down the hallway
of his ancestors, through American history to the bedrock of western civilization and extends
through his thumbprint, along the periphery, if not the core, of every individual’s choices, and
into the future, as long as there are individuals to experience that future. McCarthy mines his
scenes for mythical inheritance and possibility, images of reality that bear significance. In Blood
Meridian, the character of the judge serves paradoxically as both an educated embodiment of
cultural logic and a brutally violent force for chaos. In No Country for Old Men, Chigurh uses his
coin to illustrate chance, and he uses the questions it raises to philosophize about the role of
chance in fate and justice. Suttree and the characters in the border trilogy move through a
mythical yet modern world, stumbling along a picaresque landscape while they struggle with
their limitations, their fates, and attempt to reconcile themselves to their possibilities. Each of
these examples are character driven ideas, fully realized embodiments of representational
meaning, the type of meaning Jung, Joseph Campbell, and numerous other modern and
postmodern philosophers wrote about without ever writing.
McCarthy pushes back against the modernizing project, a project that deconstructs to
find meaning in identity, continuously searching for the very essence modernity denies.
McCarthy, therefore, denies progress, at least to the extent progress erases or minimizes the
past. Instead, he argues for possibility in human action while, simultaneously, admitting that all
human action, no matter how vile or sublime, contains within it a sense of the human story, a
fragment of what it means to be human. That humanity manifests in character and acts,
according to its will, in the context of McCarthy’s language.
The Orchard Keeper (1965)
Outer Dark (1968)
Child of God (1973)
Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (1985)
All the Pretty Horses (1992)
The Crossing (1994)
Cities of the Plain (1998)
No Country for Old Men (2005)
The Road (2006)
The Passenger (forthcoming)