The great literary chronicler of the American South and West was born Charles McCarthy in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1933. He adopted the family nickname Cormac for his writing to avoid confusion with an infamous ventriloquist dummy named Charlie McCarthy. A ventriloquist and his dummy belong to the warped vaudeville troupe that obstructs the visions of the deranged but brilliant heroine of his last two novels, The passenger And Stella Maris, which appeared in quick succession last year. McCarthy — who died Tuesday at his home in Santa Fe at age 89 — was the last magician of a now vanished America.
McCarthy’s prose style combined Hemingway’s declarative directness, often avoiding conventional punctuation, with Faulkner’s baroque inflections, with allusions ranging from Beowulf and Shakespeare, through Melville and Hawthorne, to Robert Frost and Allen Ginsberg. His themes were ancient and elemental: the cruelty of nature, man’s propensity for fratricide, Promethean temptations, incest. “If it’s not a matter of life and death,” he told an interviewer in 2007, “it’s not interesting.” He rarely allowed interviews and was deceptively postmodern, drawing on the intellectual sources of ancient Greek philosophy and the Bible, as well as systems theory and the writings of Michel Foucault.
When he was four years old, McCarthy’s family moved to Knoxville, where his father worked as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. During the Depression, they were surrounded by poverty, but relatively prosperous, with their own home and six children. McCarthy was a Catholic altar boy and non-studious student, with esoteric hobbies including writing. He was a lifelong collector of stories of violence, whether committed by animals or humans. These became the material of his novels.
He became studious in Alaska, where he was stationed after enlisting in the Air Force in the 1950s, in between periods at the University of Tennessee. He said his phase of military service was the first time he read books avidly. He later told an interviewer that there were only four novels he loved: Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, UlyssesAnd The noise and the anger.
Before leaving college in 1959, McCarthy published two award-winning stories in a campus literary magazine. He married Lee Holleman in 1961 and they had a son, Cullen, the following year while living in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains. McCarthy’s dedication to writing strained the marriage; his wife moved to Wyoming with their son and divorced McCarthy. Two subsequent marriages also ended in divorce. McCarthy fathered a second son, John, with his third wife Jennifer Winkley, in 1999, when he was 66. He told Oprah Winfrey that the inspiration for his 2006 apocalyptic novel The route came from staying with John at a hotel in El Paso and imagining the city on fire a century from now. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
The road to Oprah was long. McCarthy’s first five novels, beginning with The orchard keeper in 1965, attracted few readers. His first masterpiece, Suttree (1979), a picaresque epic about drunkards and Knoxville thugs, was his most autobiographical work. The city’s evocations were lyrical and ominous: “Downstairs pavement torn by ruin, the slow catastrophe of neglect, the wires that hung belly pole to pole over the constellations with kite string, with bolos made up of bumpy bottles or smaller children’s toys. Camp of the damned.
Gradually gaining the attention of a cult audience, McCarthy received a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1981; among the admiring judges was Nobel laureate Saul Bellow. His years of poverty and wandering life were over.
His next novel, Blood meridian (1985), marked a turn from south to west, to an area he believed was the site of America’s mysteries. He writes of his teenage hero’s similar progression from Tennessee to Texas in the 1800s: “In all the world’s changes, there will never again be terrains so wild and barbaric as to attempt whether the stuff of creation can be molded into the will of man or that his own heart is no other kind of clay.” Following orgies of frontier violence against Native Americans and Mexicans perpetrated by the novel’s satanic, scalp-hungry villain, Judge Holden, the novel ends with an oblique scene of fence posts being dug on the prairie. The will of man has conquered the territory and the border is closed.
At age 58, McCarthy finally achieved the literary fame his admirers had long believed he deserved. The Border Trilogy, published in the 1990s, starting with All beautiful horses (1992), made him a bestseller and a Hollywood product. The last pages of the second part, The crossing (1994), show the hero of the novel unknowingly witnessing the 1945 Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico, another turning point for the American West. McCarthy went on to publish a few minimalist thrillers, No country for old men (2005) and The routepopular hits among readers and moviegoers alike.
From drunkards, cowboys, bandits and wanderers in the wasteland, he moved in his last years to the contemplation of scientists and mathematicians in The passenger And Stella Maris, to which he has been composing for decades. The story of a pair of incestuous siblings, Alicia and Bobby Western, children of one of the Manhattan Project’s physicists, those final novels saw McCarthy view scientific modernity as a continuation of original human development and self-destruction. As Alicia tells her therapist, “Anyone who doesn’t understand that the Manhattan Project is one of the most important events in human history hasn’t been paying attention. It’s up there with fire and language. It is at least number three and it could be number one.”