Cormac McCarthy: a powerful writer who beautifully wrote about apocalypse and extinction

Endings, extinctions, last things preoccupied Cormac McCarthy from the start to the recent close of his 60-year career as a writer of fiction and, occasionally, drama for stage or screen.

His first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), ends with the word “dust”. His final novel, Stella Maris (2022), allows only the briefest interval before an equivalent termination, finishing with the central character saying she is “waiting for the end of something”.

It is not only in The Road (2006), where environmental devastation has followed “a shear of light and a series of long concussions”, that McCarthy’s reader finds apocalypse. All of his novels, from the early quartet in southern gothic style, through the mid-career westerns, to the last diptych of The Passenger (2022) and Stella Maris, show a drive towards the ruined and the depleted.

All the Pretty Horses (1992), for example, offers in generous measure the satisfactions of the western: laconic dialogue and male camaraderie, say, or feats of equestrian skill. Yet the novel imagines the US-Mexico borderlands as “cauterized terrain” or “tenantless waste”, inhabited by “the dead standing about in their bones”.

Blood Meridian (1985), McCarthy’s hallucinatory novel about violent American scalp-hunters in Mexico in the 1840s, speaks of “the awful darkness inside the world”. Still more bleakly, The Road proposes “darkness implacable”.

“Darkness implacable” is very adjacent to the “darkness visible” of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The textual echo is unsurprising, for two reasons.

First, though McCarthy was the most materially sensitive of writers (attending minutely to the gait of an injured dog or the splash of a boot in water), he was also one of the most bookish (travelling through the fiction of Herman Melville and William Faulkner, as well as through the landscapes he wrote about). And second, in McCarthy, as in Milton, paradise is lost.

McCarthy’s style

Why are some of us so drawn to McCarthy’s cartography of devastation?

An answer of sorts might begin by expanding on that last moment in Stella Maris, when the mentally unwell protagonist tells her therapist she wants him to hold her hand “because that’s what people do when they’re waiting for the end of something”.

McCarthy’s fiction does not exactly hold out a comforting hand in the face of ruin. His fiction chafes against any expectation that it be consoling or therapeutic. But, nevertheless, reading his work can give an exhilarating sense of counter-forces to offset the deathly. (Like experiencing the fiction and drama of Samuel Beckett, perhaps – but with more horses.)


For the full Article by Dr Andrew Dix visit the Conversation.

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