Cormac McCarthy, perhaps the greatest American novelist since Faulkner, passed away on Tuesday. His fiction adeptly pinpoints the most profound aspects of American culture and identity, arguably outperforming the work of many sociologists.
McCarthy was interested in the hardest questions about human existence, which produced in his work the depth common to all fiction widely considered “great.” This is certainly not the first time I have been struck by the richness of his work.
Many critics understand his books to be bleak and hopeless, characterized by a dark and loveless worldview. But I find in his novels an abiding love for his characters. Even as these fictional individuals struggle with their lives and with one another, they nonetheless affirm the themes of basic moral commitment, strong values, and decency.
A full exploration of this topic would require a lengthy treatise. But perhaps the best evidence for the case can be more efficiently illustrated with examples from his prose. Here, McCarthy so carefully and lovingly documented the language — along with the homespun wisdom and humor within it — of what we used to be able to call without objection “the common man.”
The outstanding characters in his novels — John Grady Cole, Billy Parham, Llewelyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, and many others — speak the endearing popular idiom of a southern American dialect and display a related moral sensibility that is widely disparaged by our contemporary cultural elite.
“Rednecks” and “hillbillies” talk like this, the elites chuckle to one another privately, and sometimes publicly. Yes, they do, and McCarthy renders the dialect in such elaborate detail and with such humorously rock-bottom good sense that the reader cannot fail to understand the novelist’s endeavor to tell more than just a story.
McCarthy uses language to tell us that people who talk like this have important insights into the world — insights that perhaps those who talk differently fail to achieve. This “common man,” speaking his colorful common language, is without question the hero of McCarthy’s fiction.
As Rawlins and John Grady Cole are breaking horses in “All the Pretty Horses” at a Mexican ranch they’ve just joined after crossing the border, Rawlins delivers this beautifully gritty descriptive line in their repartee: “Them old hot maggie ropes have eat my hands about up.”
Later, as the novel takes a darker turn, the men encounter a lost friend in a Mexican jail, and he tells them — in a way both bluntly ominous and hilarious — “What a man wont see when he aint got a gun.”
As another example, in “Cities of the Plain,” Cole and Billy Parham establish a great friendship. Their exchanges are full of this rich and witty, populist language:
‘Are you a tracker?’ said John Grady.
‘I’m a trackin fool. I can track lowflyin birds.’
“No Country for Old Men” contains some of the best-known lines in such a style — some of them even made it into the screenplay for the widely admired film. For example, Llewelyn Moss returns home after discovering a huge haul of abandoned drug money from a deal gone wrong. His wife asks him about the gun he took from one of the dead men at the crime scene. His response makes me laugh every time I read it:
‘Where’d you git that pistol?’ she called.
‘At the gittin place.’
Later, Moss returns to the scene and is nearly killed by partners of the dead men — he barely makes it home. His wife is concerned, but his country calm remains unperturbed:
‘I thought you was dead,’ she said.
‘Well I aint so dont go to slobberin.’
In this same book, Sheriff Bell’s reaction to one of the gory scenes — left by the novel’s emissary of stark evil — is the epitome of this seasoned and stoic working-class spirit:
‘It’s a mess aint it Sheriff?’
‘If it aint it’ll do till a mess gets here.’
There are even more examples of this “common man” language in McCarthy’s final two novels. However, one of the two central characters, Alicia, speaks differently in these books. This contrast illustrates how McCarthy uses Alicia as a stand-in for some of his own wrestling with the nature of reality, especially as he faced the imminent arrival of his own end.
“Stella Maris” is entirely made up of Alicia’s conversations with a psychiatrist in a mental hospital to which she admitted herself. These conversations are highly stylized, and it seems unlikely that someone still in her 20s, as Alicia is, could expound so expertly on so many topics.
Clearly, Alicia does not speak the language of the “common man.” She is a savant, a genius in mathematics, and she has acquired pompous speech from institutions of higher education. She talks about the meaning of the world — if there is one — our ability to know reality, the nature of violence, the human penchant for self-destruction, and, most importantly, mortality and life after death. She is McCarthy’s way of using language to explore his own topics of interest, which also happen to fascinate Alicia.
Yet even Alicia remains attached to the world of the “common man” — specifically through her love and admiration of her grandmother, “Granellen,” who connects the entire family back to the pragmatic and hardscrabble roots of the American countryside.
“Stella Maris,” the final novel in McCarthy’s oeuvre, is not about the nihilistic affirmation of the moral meaninglessness of the universe (though many critics seem to have read it that way). Rather, in this book, Alicia ponders — with the simple culture and origins of her grandmother in mind — the failure of reason to master reality.
Even the purity of mathematics is not enough to exhaust the world’s plenitude. Something more, she realizes, is required to make the whole thing run. Despite her youthful attraction to cynicism, she knows that the love and faith of people like her grandmother are the real substance of the world.
In my reading, even Alicia’s death by suicide is not an affirmation of despair so much as the failure of a highly educated young person to fully understand the wisdom of her simpler forebears, even as she had gleaned the outlines of the truth.
On the somber occasion of his passing, then, I will not send our friend Cormac McCarthy off across the bar without invoking as a farewell one final example of his language from the “common man.”
In “The Crossing,” Billy Parham meets another New Mexican man who shares his innate competitive scorn for Texans. The man tells Billy Parham a hilarious joke about a Texas lion and a New Mexico lion. The Texas lion has had a hard time eating in Texas. He explains his method to the other lion — he waits in trees, then roars and drops on human victims passing beneath. The New Mexico lion shares his explanation in gorgeously popular southern poetry:
Well the old New Mexico lion looked at him and he said it’s a wonder you aint dead. Said that’s all wrong for your Texans and I dont see how you got through the winter atall. Said look here. First of all when you holler thataway it scares the sh-t out of em. Then when you jump on top of em thataway it knocks the wind out of em. Hell, son. You aint got nothin left but buckles and boots.