Way out, west: The novelist Cormac McCarthy is the best-kept secret of American letters, but his new book could change all that

Gordon Burn
Saturday 03 April 1993 23:02

IT IS axiomatic that the one sure way to achieve visibility in a celebrity-driven culture is to become (or remain) invisible. J D Salinger and Thomas Pynchon are the commanding absences of American fiction. Don DeLillo, Harold Brodkey and Evan Connell are among those who have similarly aroused the interest of the serious trackers with their zoom lenses by stating a preference for the solitary life.

This curious condition - the paradox of a writer's reputation growing in inverse ratio to his public profile and (often) his productivity - was the subject of DeLillo's last novel, Mao II. Salinger and Salman Rushdie were the names that kept coming up in connection with DeLillo's world-famous, fame-frazzled author when the book was published in 1991. A name on nobody's lips at the time, which was hardly surprising, was Cormac McCarthy. A picture or a taped utterance then from McCarthy would have had almost no market-value.

In so far as he was known at all in America before the publication of his sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses, late last year, Cormac McCarthy was known as 'a writer's writer' (read: not exactly a till-ringer - probably none of his previous books sold more than 5,000 copies in hardback). McCarthy has been writing for 30 years. But you won't find any mention of him in, for example, John Updike's collected, encyclopaedic volumes of criticism, or Malcolm Bradbury's The Modern American Novel.

The reason is McCarthy's temperamental and geographical remoteness, his apparent intractability on all fronts. His principal characters are unhistoried, unanchored - destitute, outcast, loner figures, grubbing a living from garbage pails and slurried rivers, sleeping rough in dirt cabins and shanties, getting wasted on dirty whisky ('small twigs, debris, matter, coiled in the oily liquid') with other low-lifes in poolrooms and murderous bars.

McCarthy wasn't born into this 'fellowship of the doomed'. His father was a successful lawyer in Knoxville, Tennessee. But, at 58, he still lives out of a suitcase, cuts his own hair, eats his meals off a hot-plate or in cafeterias, and washes his clothes at the laundromat. McCarthy has never taught creative writing or written journalism, given readings, granted interviews or done the things now generally regarded as necessary for huckstering a book.

It isn't difficult to see how these apparent deficiencies might be made to play to his advantage by an enterprising publicity department, especially in light of the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called 'genius' grant, he was awarded in 1981. Fortunately, the near- flawless tuning and surpassing, transcendent quality of the sentence-making in his latest novel, already the recipient of the National Book Award in America, stake the necessary claims for him.

Like William Faulkner, who in the Yoknapatawpha County novels tirelessly worked his 'own little postage stamp of native soil' around Oxford, Mississippi, McCarthy circles obsessively round the hill country of Tennessee (in The Orchard Keeper, Child of God and Suttree) and crosses and re-crosses the remote desert wastes either side of the Texas-Mexico border (in Outer Dark, Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses), mythologising, adjectivising, creating a dense painterly build-up of rapturous natural description.

His commitment to rendering 'the uttermost granulation of reality' of these places can sometimes result in the sort of fevered full- blown Southern Gothic that Nabokov easily dismissed in Faulkner as 'quite impossible biblical rantings'. It's a style that reached an apotheosis of a kind in Blood Meridian (1985), McCarthy's last novel, the story of a gang of blood-lusting 19th-century scalp-hunters, told in a sort of hotted-up 19th-century vernacular, and near-fatally freighted with passages such as the following: '. . . and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses' legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying in that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.'

Highfalutin stuff, hardly made more accessible by McCarthy's lifelong habit of dispensing with most of the standard forms of punctuation, including apostrophes, commas and quotation marks. The lushness is counterweighted in all the books by acts of random, frequently unsignalled carnage and violence. Child of God, it hits the reader about half-way through, is about a serial-killing necrophiliac who is hoarding the cadavers of his victims. Images of murdered and mutilated babies crop up in at least three of the novels. Blood Meridian runs red with blood both actual and metaphorical.

Until now, women have tended to loom small in McCarthy's writing, relegated by and large to backroom roles as whores. So this is one of the first things you notice about All the Pretty Horses: there are women in it, and they are allowed to speak. More; when they speak, they say things like 'I knew that as a woman the world would be largely denied me', and allude to careers and sex and history.

The central character is male: John Grady Cole, aged 16. But the moving forces in his life in the period covered - a few months in the late 1940s - are women: his mother, who has abandoned him and his father and the family ranch in west Texas to pursue a career as an actress; Alejandra, the adolescent novia on the Mexican hacienda that he absconds to, who makes all the sexual running; Alfonsa, the duena who acts to stop them seeing one another when she discovers that they are lovers.

After Alejandra - sometimes instead of Alejandra; there is a great deal of sublimation - all John Grady's most meaningful relationships are with horses. The first time he meets Alejandra, his attention is torn between her and the animal she is riding: 'She passed and the horse changed gaits again and she sat the horse more than well, riding erect with her broad shoulders and trotting the horse up the road.' The economy of style - the repetition of 'horse', a word made to carry the mythical weight that 'blood' carried in the earlier novel - suggests Hemingway, in particular the Nick Adams stories about the growing-up of an American boy against a landscape of idyllic Michigan, rather than Melville and Faulkner.

In outline, All the Pretty Horses sounds like a near-relation of the Zane Grey western: boy hits trail with best horse and best buddy; boy falls foul of law; boy meets girl, boy loses girl; boy decides it's the cowboy life for him. Your standard oater. So what happens? How is McCarthy able to take that and turn it into this, a wonderful lyric novel full of adolescent angst and horse lore and what elsewhere he has called 'strobic moments' of emotional complexity and genuine suspense?

The book gets its elegiac tone from being about youth and innocence and a way of life that is headed for extinction. The prose is as clean and hard as pebbles, and no longer holds the world at arm's length or beats it senseless with prolixity. But in truth there is no easy way of explaining how McCarthy achieves his effects. The only thing clear is that, with this novel, he has finally found a way of talking to the reader that is as direct as a horseman talking to his horse: 'The horse had a good natural gait and as he rode he talked to it and told it things about the world that were true in his experience and he told it things he thought could be true to see how they would sound if they were said.'

That's the good news. The great news is that All the Pretty Horses is only part one of a trilogy, and so, conceivably, only a third as good as it's going to get.

Cormac McCarthy's 'All the Pretty Horses' is published by Picador on Thursday at pounds 14.99

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