Prose Conjuration: The Art of Reading Cormac McCarthy

by M. Allen Cunningham

Copyright 2014 by M. Allen Cunningham

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As a novelist, Cormac McCarthy is many things: heir to the Southern gothic tradition, reviver of Celtic lyricism, metaphysical speculator, master comic, eschewer of punctuation, and reinventor of the iconic American West, to name a few. He has been writing and publishing novels since 1965, but most readers have plunged only recently into McCarthy’s darkly baroque work. His latest book, The Road (Knopf, 2006), has earned the shy septuagenarian author the widest readership of his forty-two-year career. In a single month, McCarthy’s tenth novel, an apocalyptic tale of a harrowing journey through scorched America, received the Midas touch of Oprah Winfrey and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The recent film adaptation of his novel No Country for Old Men (Knopf, 2005) by Joel and Ethan Coen hasn’t hurt either.

To the author’s avid admirers, the mainstream adulation now being heaped upon McCarthy is bittersweet, for they are painfully aware that this attention is long overdue. Consider the almost total silence with which McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West (Random House, 1985) was received when it first appeared. That book, now rightfully recognized as a masterpiece, is a brutal and uncompromising depiction of nineteenth century bloodlust along the Texas-Mexico border, and deploys the author’s stylistic maximalism and paradoxical philosophy to devastating effect. Harold Bloom has cited Blood Meridian as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. In a list compiled by the New York Times, the book ranked among the top five novels published between 1980 and 2005. It also appears on Time magazine’s roster of the top hundred books of all time. But only the privileged remove of years could put the achievement of Blood Meridian into perspective: McCarthy’s magnum opus sold fewer than three thousand copies in hardcover.

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