CORMAC McCARTHY was little known beyond a circle of admiring writers and intellectuals until the publication of All the Pretty Horses. Then, approaching 60 and with his sixth novel, everything changed. In the US, the book rode high in the bestseller lists, won the National Book Award for fiction, and was acquired by Mike Nichols for a film; in Britain, it was the most recommended title among the Christmas lists last year. You only had to read a few
25pages to see what all the fuss was about; you only had to read a few pages to know that you could not read only a few pages. All the Pretty Horses is up there with Catch-22 and Rabbit at Rest; one of the great American postwar novels.
Its terrain is the American Southwest, the Mexico border. Its tale is simple and appealing: boy runs south with another boy, breaks horses on a hacienda, falls in love, is thrown in jail, learns hard lessons about death, desire and loyalty. It is as if McCarthy had cast off Faulkner (whose influence he long laboured under) and, with a little help from Hemingway, discovered his essential self. Now, hard on the trail of Horses and forming the second part of a trilogy, comes The Crossing. There is no overlap of characters, but the themes and setting are the same. It, too, is a rites-of- passage novel, about a boy with an instinctive understanding of animals who crosses into Mexico.
A writer resistant topublicity, a recluse in the tradition of J D Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, the man behind the work remains little known. When the British journalist Mick Brown tracked him down to a restaurant in El Paso earlier this year, he got a wonderful article out of his quest; but he didn't get an interview: 'I'm sorry, son, but you're asking me to do something I just can't do,' said McCarthy, going back to his coffee and newspaper.
But the basic facts of his life are these. Cormac McCarthy, or Charles as he was christened, was born in 1933, the eldest child of an eminent lawyer. When Cormac was still small, the family moved from Rhode Island to Knoxville, Tennessee. It was a comfortable upbringing, but Cormac did not take to the bourgeois life. He dropped out of university, spent four years in the air force, dropped out of university again. He had not read much as a child, but began to, intensively, at 23. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, appeared nine years later.
In the meantime, he married, had a son and quickly divorced. He married a second time - an English singer called Annie DeLisle. They lived in Europe, then went back to Tennessee. There was a period of heavy drinking. There were three more novels, but very poor sales. There were grants and awards to stave off the poverty, which was considerable. Then the second marriage foundered and McCarthy moved on to Arizona, where he remains.
He is described by friends asclean-cut and genial, not the darkly brooding figure his novels might suggest. He has a wide range of interests: archaeology, ecology, computers, painting, pool, cars; books come low down the list, though he confesses to a love of Moby Dick. The more recent novels suggest a practical man, who writes about dry-walling or setting traps from personal experience. But in the novels up to and including Blood Meridian (1985) he showed his talent for naturalism only sporadically. Saul Bellow, one of the panel that awarded McCarthy the lavish MacArthur 'genius' Fellowship in 1981 (and put an end to his financial burdens), spoke of his 'absolutely overpowering use of language, his life- giving and death-dealing sentences'. Others put it differently, complaining of portentous, 'thesaurus-thumbing' prose and extreme, Peckinpah-ish subject matter - infanticide, incest, necrophilia, blood feuds, a vast body-count. Now the lushness and violence are balanced by sardonic humour, minimalist punctuation, terse dialogue (some of it, untranslated, in Spanish), a marvellous feel for desert landscapes.
Has the vogue for McCarthy sprung from a sudden nostalgia for the machismo of the old west? His Border trilogy is set before and after the Second World War, but it's a world of horses and guns rather than cars and guns, and feels much older than it is. That's part of McCarthy's point: he has said that he finds the notion that the human species can improve 'a dangerous idea'; he wants to tap into ancient, even primitive verities. But there is nothing sentimental about his cowboys and Indians, his loners and outcasts, his vaqueros and caballeros. His fiction is carefully researched but, as one of the characters in The Crossing puts it, 'does not owe its allegiance to the truths of history but to the truths of men.' These are rather bleak and brutal truths, though not without a pithy humour caught by these two brawlers in Blood Meridian:
'Is my neck broke . .?'
'I never meant to break your neck.'
'I meant to kill ye.'
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