David Powlison, Russell Moore, and Eugene Peterson are just a few church leaders who have recognized how literature helps us understand relationships, stories, and language. Reading opens us to worlds, experiences, and perspectives that simply can’t be explored any other way.
With that in mind, consider this an invitation to explore the work of one of the 20th (and now 21st) century’s most influential writers: Cormac McCarthy. I extend this invite not as an expert, but as a shameless, googly-eyed fanboy. As C. S. Lewis says in the introduction to his book on the Psalms, “The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met.” In my case, the former is most certainly true, and hopefully the latter is as well.
Spanning the Landscape
McCarthy’s work spans the American landscape, telling stories that take place in Appalachia and the Old West. If there’s a common theme to the settings of McCarthy’s work, it’s that he tends to choose times and places on the precipice of change and decay: the growing lawlessness in the border towns of No Country for Old Men, the end of the cowboy era in The Border Trilogy, and the end of the world as we know it in the scorched earth of The Road.
McCarthy describes himself as “not particularly religious,” even though he grew up Roman Catholic, and his books drip with biblical imagery and language. I’ve often wondered if he isn’t versed in the work of the Puritans, both for his understanding of the depths of sin and also the overarching hand of Providence. If he is, he isn’t saying. Instead, he spends much of his time at The Santa Fe Institute, a strange think tank of elite physicists, mathematicians, biologists, computer scientists, and others who do “complexity research,” a field for interdisciplinary studies and projections. According to an interview with Rolling Stone, McCarthy isn’t just a fly on the wall. He contributes to the conversations and work of some of the world’s leading scientists.
It’s hard to define and describe McCarthy’s writing style. The Road often reads like Hemingway—-stark and lean—-while other books like Suttree (especially its breathtaking gothic opening) are effusive and cinematic, leaving the mind whirling. He famously writes with minimal punctuation, saying, “If you write properly, you don’t have to punctuate.” In McCarthy’s mind, the flow of the work should be apparent, including the dialogue (he doesn’t use quotations), without filling the page with punctuation.
This gives his novels a relentlessness, barreling the reader through his gloomy worlds. If one theme is consistent to McCarthy’s work, it’s depravity and darkness. His stories usually follow characters who venture into desolate places, where humanity is descending into something devious and dark: the brothels of Cities of the Plain, the roving murderers of Blood Meridian, the cannibals who haunt the margins of The Road. Through this frightful landscape, McCarthy’s lead characters do their moral wrestling, wondering if anything good remains in the darkness. His books all answer that question differently, though (I would argue) rarely without some measure of hope.
Fire and Light
Reading McCarthy’s books, you’ll observe a theme of fire and light in his books. “Carrying the fire” is discussed often in The Road, a shorthand way that the father speaks to his son about maintaining dignity, humanity, and courage in the midst of apocalyptic anarchy. That theme appears in No Country for Old Men and The Border Trilogy as well—-the thread of hope for humanity appears as light flickering in the darkness. In Suttree, the lead character is a remarkably decent man, living among a collection of amusing and broken miscreants.
The standout in McCarthy’s work is nature itself. Humanity is dark and prone to great, catastrophic evil, but nature is profoundly beautiful in McCarthy’s. His eloquence comes alive when he talks about rivers and streams, horses and fish. The final few sentences of The Road contain a description of trout that, if you’ve ever caught one and held it in your hand under the summer sun, is absolutely perfect.
Where to Begin
Perhaps the easiest introduction to McCarthy is The Border Trilogy, three books set in the early 1900s, as the American cowboy disappears. The first book, All the Pretty Horses, is a tragic love story starring John Grady Cole, a prototypical heroic cowboy who goes to Mexico in search of work. The description of Cole breaking a whole herd of wild horses in a single day is some of McCarthy’s most beautiful work.
The rest of the trilogy is equally good. The third volume, Cities of the Plain, may be my favorite McCarthy novel, but I wouldn’t suggest reading it apart from the others.
The Road is his most recent novel, and flows out of his relationship with his young son. The dialogue between father and son, journeying through an apocalypse-burnt American South, is stark and authentic. They are running from death, chased at times by cult-like bands of cannibals and slave traders. The black sky rains ash all day. Strangely, this heartbreaking book is one of his most human and hopeful.
McCarthy certainly isn’t for everyone. Some will be utterly disturbed by his violence. Others may be merely irritated by the lack of punctuation or his downward-moving story arcs.
But if you’re like me, McCarthy’s work will sound true. The tragedies of John Grady Cole and Ed Tom Bell will sound like stories we’ve heard a hundred times. The violence of the curse will leave us shaking our heads, and the power of a horse will take our breath away. Loss will sting and leave us feeling empty, and a simple meal like beans and tortillas will taste like manna. Life will sometimes feel like it’s all darkness, death, consequences, and judgment, but a thread of light will flicker through. McCarthy helps us see that, and through his stories, helps us feel it and articulate it in new ways.
John Piper once said on Twitter “Cormac McCarthy is to the American literary canon what Judges is to the the biblical canon.” I couldn’t agree more.