Cormac McCarthy – Crossing the Border (1992-2012)

After deciding on the next topic for Moon Under water, i.e. the wonderful literary style of American author Cormac McCarthy, I decided to do a little research on the ambiguous public character of and found a piece online on The New Yorker’s webpage by writer James Wood. It’s an interesting criticism and a great introductory piece for any who are unfamiliar with the author. The subtitle for the article is “The sanguinary sublime of Cormac McCarthy”. I thought this far to apt a subtitle to pass up on quoting, as in assonance, double-meaning and literary style this is the perfect starting point for a critical reading of McCarthy’s later works. All I can say is damn him for thinking of it first…

McCarthy began his writing career with The Orchard Keeper in 1965. Since then he has published nine full novels, a screenplay and two plays. In the last twenty years McCarthy’s writing has taken a paradigm shift from an earlier, more typically American prose to the more recent offerings of this millennium.

McCarthy published three works in the 1990s, collectively The Border Trilogy (individually All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain) and two works in the early 2000s, No Country For Old Men and The Road. These novels are the focal point of this analysis. [the links are to blurbs of the novels on cormacmccarthy.com, a page run by the Cormac McCarthy Society. More detailed synopsis are available on wikipedia]

To begin with a little back-story, McCarthy’s earliest works were dogged in their descriptive overtures – the beauty of some of the landscapes described in 1979’s Suttree are as rich and detailed as Frederick Edwin Church paintings. Entire sections of the book drift into dreamlike wonderings at valleys and vistas that are breathtaking in their verbose magnitude. The shift that I am referring to came in this use of descriptive style, and it began to creep in in 1992’s All The Pretty Horses, the first novel of The Border Trilogy.

All The Pretty Horses is based between Texas and Mexico in 1949. It documents the adventures of sixteen-year-old cowboy John Grady Cole, a collected character who travels from his home in Texas to Mexico in search of work as the day of the cowboy seems numbered in the United States. The concept and context of this story are not unfamiliar territory for McCarthy, however the style does take a small step in a new direction. The vast, descriptive landscapes and scenes are somewhat whittled down and replaced by a more interactive character with more details of thoughts and ideas from the young protagonist, and more emphasis on the dialogue as a story-telling feature.

This trend continued and was even further emphasised in The Crossing. The second of the trilogy, published in 1994, tells the story of Billy Parham and his brother Boyd as they adventure into a similar central American wilderness. This story splits into several parts, with the opening extended section documenting Billy’s tracking of a wolf which has crossed the border into America from Mexico, which he is obliged to kill before it devastates his father’s livestock. This section for me is the core of the shift in McCarthy’s storytelling.

The hunt and capture of this lone wolf gradually digresses into a soul-searching of Parham as he learns to respect and admire the guile of the animal. When he finally traps her, young Billy is loathe to kill the predator who he has gained such an admiration for. Cue his quest into Mexico to return the wolf who, as Parham muses philosophically, could have known no better about borders.

This tale, and more that occurs further in The Crossing (I’ll resist any more plot-spoilers) adopts a feeling almost like campfire storytelling. This storytelling, although present in early McCarthy works, is not as prevalent until The Crossing, when it feels as if McCarthy himself is crossing a threshold into something new and exciting, and as a reader and a fan it is hard not to admire this novel as one which is particularly exceptional in the author’s sublime collection.

Without needing to diverge into Cities of the Plain, I’ll move on to the 2000s, and to McCarthy’s “Blockbuster” period. Two novels were published in this decade – No Country For Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006). Both were critically acclaimed (even more so than his earlier work), both are best-sellers, and both have been made into successful Hollywood flicks.

More importantly (for this post, anyway), both featured a changed writing style by McCarthy. Although never a big fan of punctuation, both No Country For Old Men and The Road went further into this territory, almost abandoning punctuation entirely unless completely necessary. Dialogue is the sole driving force, particularly in No Country. The plots both hold an opaque sense of mystery to the eventual outcome (this is exacerbated to the point of un-put-down-ability in The Road), and both feature climaxes that are basically unwritten – leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the essentials as you are given only the broadest picture.

The first of the two stories, No Country For Old Men spirals around three individuals – Llewelyn Moss, a caravan-dweller and efficient man-of-the-land who stumbles across a horde of cash from a drug-deal gone sour; Anton Chigurh, a ruthless and emotionless bounty-hunter and ex-soldier who is tracking Moss; and Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff tracking both who offers a more philosophical insight into the chase. The story is told at breathtaking pace and the paths of all three twist and weave around observations of societal change due to drug culture in America. The characters gain breadth only as the story is being told, and all is punctuated by a mysterious narrator’s musings on America gone sour.

The Road is the story of a man and his young son adventuring on foot across a post-apocalyptic America in search of some form of better life. The back-story to the scarred and ash-coated landscape is given in vague drips and drabs, and is relatively unimportant to the reader as more emphasis is placed on the character of the father, a survivor determined to keep his young boy alive and safe, and his son, a kind-hearted and innocent victim of the devastation of the world around them. It is one of the best novels I have read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Incredible as it is, the breaking-down of what was a tremendous descriptive talent only serves to strengthen McCarthy’s storytelling in these two novels. The process that began for me particularly in the early pages of The Crossing is in full swing in both books. The protagonists are the key, and their actions and interactions tell the story, with the set discarded to a minimum. The process could be compared to Lars von Trier’s resounding film Dogville in which the actors are alone in a sound-stage with very few props to aid them in the creation of a whole picture.

Less is more is the message. It may be worth highlighting that McCarthy changed publisher from Random House to Alfred A. Knopf prior to releasing The Border Trilogy. Whether a change in editorial input or a change in the writer’s preference was to blame for McCarthy’s new system of storytelling is unknown, but a shift certainly happened in this period, and it has only improved the writing of what was already a fantastic author.

2012 is a new year, and with a new novel, The Passenger due at some vague point in the future, perhaps the next one will finally break down the wall and give McCarthy the Nobel Prize for Literature that has been suggested should go his way. Either way, whether sanguine or sultry, Cormac McCarthy certainly crosses into the sublime.

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