The name Cormac McCarthy has become almost completely household by 2012. Perhaps only Graham Greene had similarly seen so much of his work sought out by the film industry. I began reading McCarthy late into the new craze, after the critical reception of the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men, though the first book of his I read was The Road. Soon I found myself, like Hollywood, devouring everything I could get my hands on. I read everything he published, watched everything related to him, went to Texas State to do research on his early manuscripts housed there (I am going back there soon). I found myself in an uncontrollable love affair. My other relationships suffered. After a few years, my love has matured, but it is no less reverential.
McCarthy’s world is often a dangerous place with little hand-holding, but sometimes that’s exactly what the reader needs. Where should you start, what’s so great about book X, where should you go next, etc? In this post I will to hopefully answer some of those kinds of questions by taking you on a tour of Cormac McCarthy’s work. I will do so in the form of a personal ranking. At some level this is arbitrary, since, depending on the day, certain works jump around in ranking, but I will make an honest attempt. For fun, I will include tiers. I will also include descriptions and personal thoughts on each work:
Tier 1: The Masterpieces
McCarthy depicts the violence of westward expansion along the Texas-Mexico border fearlessly. You’ll never have read anything quite like Blood Meridian and likely never will afterward. The book is seemingly impenetrable and you will likely get queasy (I had to try two or three times before I could manage reading it). But if you can break the language barrier and accept the violence, you will find a “wicked book” in the same vein as Moby-Dick in scope. Like Melville, McCarthy should “feel as spotless as the lamb”. Blood Meridian is almost beyond criticism.
Often described as a mixture of between a dark Huckleberry Finn and the Oddysey, Suttree follows the life of a self-made homeless man with the title’s name and his friends through Tennesse in the 1950s. Unlike Blood Meridian, Suttree is very easy to read, it’s just lengthy. It is also to me McCarthy’s funniest book. Beware though, the feminist critique is very telling: every female character in this book does seem to be portrayed in a negative light, but this is still a masterpiece. Some days I think this is his best work.
3) The Road:
Probably McCarthy’s most well-known novel, definitely one of his best, and most accessible. Here a father and son fight for survival in a world almost completely destroyed by men. The Road is single-mindedly haunting and effective. This is perhaps McCarthy’s greatest depiction of love. If you are interested in reading him, this is probably the best place to start. It was the first of his books that I read. It started my obsession.
Tier 2: The Phenomenal
This is the second in McCarthy’s border trilogy, and to me it is the best of the three. Fortunately, the first two could be read in any order you like. This second novel begins with teenaged Billy Parnam in the 1930s capturing a troublesome she-wolf and taking her back to Mexico. The opening of this novel alone trumps anything in the entire border trilogy. It is one of my favorite bits by McCarthy, period.
5) Outer Dark:
McCarthy’s second novel is a slight improvement over his first. This story follows a brother and sister who give birth to a child that the older brother tries to get rid of in shame. When the sister finds out what happened, two separate journeys begin that test the limits of human love, perseverance, and depravity. Many of McCarthy’s most well-known themes and techniques are solidified here.
Tier 3: The “Can’t Touch This”
A play about an African American family of stonemasons. I’ll leave my plot description there. Read it for yourself. The Stonemason combines everything that McCarthy is great at and puts it in play form. McCarthy’s ear for dialogue finds a perfect place to flex. You would never believe that this was his first play. This is an outstanding work that reminds me of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in theme, emotional invocation, and quality.
An amazing first novel from McCarthy. At once haunting, provocative, and beautiful. The Orchard Keeper follows three unlikely linked characters between two world wars. With each sentence, you can see McCarthy forming into the writer he will ultimately become. While a little less cohesive than his later efforts, it is not lacking in emotional power or inventive imagery. This is ultimately a reverential “tip of the hat” to a type of rural life lost in time.
Lester Ballard has some problems. He loses his house, his mind, and shortly after his humanity in one of McCarthy’s most terrifying and vivid novels of human depravity. Blood Meridian may have more cringing scenes, but nothing compares to the horror of Ballard’s violence. Because of its extremely personal nature, this is to my taste McCarthy’s darkest work. In any case this is definitely McCarthy’s most controversial book.
This “Novel in dramatic form” is very deceptive. It only contains two characters, a white suicidal professor and an African American religious ex-con who saved the professor from getting hit by a train. The entire piece takes place in an apartment. The conversation is essentially an extended debate on religion. If anyone else tried this, they would fail miserably. McCarthy makes great writing look easy. Don’t be decieved.
Tier 4: The Great
You’ve likely seen the movie, but if not, No Country follows Sheriff Ed Tom Bell as he tries to solve the brutal killings in his small west-Texas town and protect Llewelyn Moss, a common man who’s gotten himself in a bit of trouble after stealing a briefcase full of money. This maybe McCarthy’s most accessible novel to read, and probably his most fun. The humor in this book gives you the idea that McCarthy is having a blast while writing this.
The first novel in the border trilogy, follows teenager John Grady Cole as he takes his friend and another kid on a journey into Mexico. What keeps this from being the run-of-the-mill western is McCarthy’s lyricism, which transforms everything it touches into something that no one has likely ever experienced before. It also contains McCarthy’s most fascinating female character, Alejandra, the daughter of a powerful Mexican landowner.
Tier 5: The Good
A remarkable novel in it’s own right and the third book in the border trilogy. This final act of the trilogy involves a meeting of an older Billy Parnam and John Grady, their friendship, and of course a romance along the Texas-Mexico border. Outside of the pairing of the two characters, Cities of the Plain is also memorable for its inclusion of another interesting female character. Unfortunately, it does not quite reach the heights of either of the two previous entries in the trilogy.
Embittered Robert McEvoy returns to his home town after hearing that his mother has a terminal illness. He comes home to find her grave already being prepared and his father working in the factory. Robert’s rage ignites violence into an unspoken family fued. McCarthy was approached to write a screenplay. He accepted not having written one before. He succeeds in many ways, but this is without question McCarthy’s most minor work.
The Orchard Keeper (1965)
Outer Dark (1968)
Child of God (1973)
The Gardener’s Son (1976)
Blood Meridian (1985)
All the Pretty Horses (1992)
The Crossing (1994)
The Stonemason (1995)
Cities of the Plain (1998)
No Country for Old Men (2005)
The Sunset Limited (2006)
The Road (2006)