Cormac McCarthy: America's Greatest Novelist Stumbles Back Into the Arena

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Cormac McCarthy: America's Greatest Novelist Stumbles Back Into the Arena

Cormac McCarthy is one of America’s greatest writers—and with the death of Toni Morrison, probably our best living novelist and best chance at another Nobel Prize in Literature. After writing his five best-known—and, to my mind, best—novels between 1992 and 2006, McCarty published no fiction from 2007 through 2021 (just a screenplay and a philosophical treatise). Now he has reemerged with not one but two novels: The Passenger, published in October, and Stella Maris, published this month.

These volumes are obviously the work of a gifted prose stylist and a major thinker, even if they don’t quite work as novels, as such. I’m glad I read them, but I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone as a place to begin exploring McCarthy or his works. If, on the other hand, you’ve already read the bulk of his fiction, these late-career books offer some fascinating ideas and set pieces to chew on.

One of McCarthy’s great achievements as a writer has been his consistent ability to marry the two dominant strains in American literature. One is the maximalist voice of Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,” of William Faulkner’s dizzying run-on sentences, of the pulpit oratory from preachers black and white, of the florid lyrics of Bob Dylan and Kendrick Lamar. Standing in stark contrast is the minimalist voice of Emily Dickinson’s distilled quatrains, of Ernest Hemingway’s concise sentences, of the terse responses from both cowboys and Indians out West, from farmers and woodsmen back East, of Langston Hughes’ pithy fables and John Prine’s deadpan songs.

McCarthy wove these together by writing his narration in the maximalist voice and his dialogue in the minimalist register. His books were usually set in either Southern Appalachia or America’s Southwest borderlands, and he would bring to life the beauty of those landscapes—and the hard work and violence they contained—with a visionary efflorescence of language. His characters, though, were often hillbillies or cowboys, usually men who preferred action to words, deeds to ideas, and spoke as if words were too expensive to waste.

In my favorite of his books, All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy describes his young cowboy protagonist John Grady taking his hostage across the dry highlands of Mexico. “The water they found was at a stone stocktank,” he writes, “and they dismounted and drank from the standpipe and watered the horses and sat in the bands of shade from the dead and twisted oaks at the tank and watched the open country below them. A few cattle stood perhaps a mile away. They were looking to the east, not grazing. He turned to see what they were watching but there was nothing there. He looked at the captain, a gray and shrunken figure. The heel was missing from one boot. There were streaks of black and streaks of ash on his trouserlegs {cq} from the fire, and his buckled belt hung in a loop from his neck where he’d been using it to sling his arm.”

The author is generous with his language. His protagonist, not so much. The latter simply tells the captain: “I ain’t goin’ to kill you. I’m not like you.” Much of the power of McCarthy’s best fiction comes from this ongoing tension between the grandeur of the description and the austerity of the dialogue.

He largely abandons that approach in these two new books. His protagonists, the siblings Bobby and Alicia, are too well educated to be believable speaking with the pith of the author’s horse thieves and backwoods trackers. These only children of a man who helped create the atomic bomb are more than smart; they’re super-smart, he in physics, she in mathematics. They’re so smart, in fact, that they abandon academia when their intellectual investigations no longer fit the institutional infrastructure. But where can they go? How can they pursue their ideas? How can they explain themselves to the uninitiated?

It’s not only the characters who are stymied by these questions throughout the two books; so is the author. Much of The Passenger is devoted to Bobby trying to explain himself to his drinking buddies in New Orleans and to Alicia explaining herself to The Thalidomide Kid, a recurring hallucination. All of Stella Maris is devoted to Alicia trying to explain herself to a friendly but perplexed therapist at a Wisconsin sanitorium. Most of these conversations devolve into what is best described as banter: that mix of jokes, boasts, and joshing insults that conversation resorts to when there’s not enough common understanding for anything else.

The problem is that banter does not make for very satisfying fiction. It can often be clever, but rarely is it compelling or suspenseful. It can be a useful device for unloading a lot of research, and McCarthy allows his characters to explain what the author has been up to over the past 16 years of research into atomic weapons, cutting-edge math, the unconscious mind, and the nature of reality. It can be stimulating to read what someone as smart as McCarthy has to say on these topics, but it doesn’t provide much narrative momentum.

The potential was there. Buried beneath all the banter is an intriguing variation on the Romeo and Juliet story. In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet takes a potion that enables her to mimic death so she can avoid an arranged marriage. When Romeo discovers her in the family crypt, though, he assumes she really is dead, and in his ensuing despair, commits suicide.

In McCarthy’s second book, Stella Maris, which takes place in 1972, Alicia tells her shrink that her brother is in a coma from a racecar accident in Italy. She assumes he’ll soon be dead and blithely considers her suicide options. In the first book, The Passenger, which takes place eight years later, Bobby has awakened from his coma and is mourning his dead sister, found hanging from a tree in the winter woods all those years ago.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Bobby and Alicia are bound together by a taboo love. For Shakespeare’s couple, the taboo is that they come from different, rival families. For McCarthy’s couple, the taboo is that they come from the same, nuclear family—nuclear in more ways than one. How far the siblings pursue their feelings, I’ll leave to the reader to discover.

This is not the first time that McCarthy has written about incestuous feelings. His second novel, 1968’s Outer Dark, describes a young brother and sister in the Tennessee mountains who have conceived a child together. Consumed by shame, the brother leaves the child out in the woods to die. But, as in Oedipus Rex and Snow White, the young innocent left to die in the wild is rescued by a male loner. In Outer Dark, as in Oedipus Rex, this intervention merely delays and amplifies the tragedy.

In The Passenger and Stella Maris, the sibling bond is treated far more sympathetically. What draws Bobby and Alicia together is the terrifying loneliness of great intelligence. The further one’s ideas advance in any given field, the fewer folks there are who understand what you’re talking about. For Alicia, younger by seven years and even smarter than Bobby, only a handful of people on the planet can comprehend her mathematical concepts. When she tries to explain them to her therapist, the reader gets to eavesdrop, if only to appreciate how opaque the ideas are to normal human beings.

Alicia graduated from her East Tennessee high school at 14 and from the University of Chicago at 16. She was working on her doctorate there when she began to question the very nature of numbers. She dropped out to work as a waitress in Tucson and made plans to run away to Romania with her big brother, one of the few people she could talk to and the one she loved more than all others. Bobby, who had shifted to physics when he couldn’t keep up with his sister in math, also abandoned a promising academic career to become a racecar driver and deep-sea salvage diver. But he wouldn’t join her in Romania.

Both books center on the ways the siblings feel alienated from the world around them—cut off by ideas that haunt them, by romantic feelings that are taboo, and by the knowledge that such cutting-edge science recently resulted in the atomic bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki—with crucial help from their own father. McCarthy evokes a powerful mood of aimless drift, but not much actually happens.

This is not the first time McCarthy has wrestled with nuclear weapons. His previous novel before The Passenger was 2006’s The Road, the story of a father and son walking through the apocalyptic landscape of a North Carolina blasted into primitive barbarism. It is implied, though never stated, that a nuclear war was responsible, but the focus is on the protagonists’ efforts to stay alive and reach the ocean. The prose offers not only a vivid vision of the consequences of atomic weapons but also the narrative drive of a journey through a dangerous land.

If only the new books had that kind of storytelling propulsion. Instead, there’s a lot of hanging out in barrooms, cheap apartments, and hospitals, bantering with drunks, hallucinations, and psychiatrists. There are brilliant set pieces—Bobby’s dive into an airplane full of dead, seat-belted bodies, their hair floating above their heads; the father’s visit to the Hiroshima hellscape soon after the bomb landed; Alicia’s explanation of her incestuous desires—but the tantalizing possibilities they raise are never followed up.

Instead, we get to spend a lot of time with the Thalidomide Kid, often referred to as just The Kid. Thalidomide is another example of science gone amok; in the 1950s widespread use of the new chemical concoction led to thousands of birth defects, sometimes resulting in hairless dwarves with flippers instead of arms, as in the case of Alicia’s hallucination. The Kid appears whenever Alicia stops taking her meds, and he is as annoying to the reader as he is to Alicia, chattering like a carnival huckster whose jokes are as bad as his promises are hollow. But he does seem to keep her distracted by something familiar when suicidal thoughts tempt her.

The Kid is also the name of the teenage protagonist in Blood Meridian, which many critics consider McCarthy’s greatest triumph. The Kid and his older mentor Judge Holden slaughter their way across the U.S./Mexico desert in the mid-19th century, and the book’s electrifying language makes their ruthlessness so riveting that one has to admit its fundamental role in human nature. The problem with the book is that The Kid is too eager to adopt the Judge’s worldview. As a result, there’s no tension between good and evil; it’s just evil compounded by more evil.

McCarthy’s next book, All the Pretty Horses, revisits the same territory 100 years later, and the harshness of the landscape and its human residents hasn’t softened in the interim. But this time, the teenage protagonist, John Grady, struggles to hold onto his ideals, even in the face of the violence and crime he confronts. Sometimes he’s successful; sometimes he’s not, but at least there is a tension between good and evil, and that gives the book—as well as its two sequels in The Border Trilogy—a drama that makes for a more rewarding fiction.

Alicia and Bobby, by contrast, are neither idealistic nor evil. They are alienated intellectuals, too skeptical of idealism and evil to identify with either. So they drift and banter. It’s heartening to see McCarthy, now 89, tackle a different kind of character in a different kind of milieu—and tackle, for the first time, a major female protagonist. One can only hope that the author lives long enough to shape these materials into satisfying drama as he once did with the desert violence of his early work.