Friday, January 11, 2008

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac MacCarthy has been described as the brilliant successor to William Faulkner. He has also been called a literate huckster. The second major motion picture based on his work has brought this avowedly private and literary author to great popular attention.

Let me begin by admitting that I fall clearly on the side of the divide that considers his work brilliant. I first picked up All the Pretty Horses expecting a bit of literary pretension grafted onto a Zane Grey plot. What I found was language so dense and beautiful that I re-read every page several times. And I didn't re-read just to get the meaning--even after seeing the movie several times, I'm still not exactly sure what happened in the story. While McCarthy's story is bleak and violent, the writing is wonderfully poetic and rich. My son tells me the movie does follow the book quite closely, but I'm still not sure.

For me, the three volumes of the Border Trilogy remain McCarthy's best work, leaving behind some of the darkness of his previous books while building rich images of place and character. McCarthy's newest, No Country for Old Men, uses more stripped-down language. Some critics have described it as no more than a toss-off thriller. The book combines the bleak border country with a strong moral tale as merciless as the dessert sun. The language here is cleaner and the violent story progresses inexorably through torture and death.

If you have not yet approached McCarthy, No Country... is an easier starting point--in terms of language. But remember that McCarthy's stories are violent, bleak and emotionally wrenching. While McCarthy sees the possibility of redemption, he presents this world as a very dark and fallen place. But his language and imagery and, finally, his moral compass are worth the effort.

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