With today’s news of Cormac McCarthy’s death at age 89, American literature has lost another giant. As with so many giants, McCarthy inspired a journalistic cottage industry of sorts; his stylistic and creative influence touched countless other writers, many of whom felt moved to acknowledge that influence in their own writing. What follows is a quintet of such pieces that Longreads editors have read and enjoyed over the years.
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Robert Draper | Texas Monthly | July 1992 | 2,116 words
Cormac McCarthy showed up in El Paso around January 1976, his move from Knoxville unannounced and his arrival completely unnoticed. He was a 43-year-old writer of three out-of-print novels, a man twice divorced, living exclusively off of literary fellowships. He began to be seen in pool halls and bowling alleys on the south side of town, as well as in various Mexican restaurants, always with some esoteric book under his arm. The friends he slowly accumulated had no idea who Cormac McCarthy was in literary terms. They knew him as a short, handsome man who wore simple clothes, who seemed to live comfortably with little income, and who enjoyed talking about almost any imaginable topic—except, as it happens, contemporary literature. He did allow as to how El Paso was a proper setting to research his latest project: the spectacular Blood Meridian, perhaps the most unyieldingly savage vision of the Old West ever committed to print, in which cowboys and Indians scalp each other and their own kind without a moment’s hesitation or remorse. But something else about El Paso appealed to McCarthy. It was, as he told a friend, “one of the last real cities left in America,” with its own unvanquished eccentricities and the added feature of geographical remoteness. A man could move freely in El Paso. He could get lost there.
David Kushner | Rolling Stone | December 1, 2007 | 4,196 words
But among this rarefied gathering of leading intellects, none is more respected than the spry old cowboy dipping his tortillas in beans at the lunch table. Dressed in a crisp blue shirt and jeans, he sits comfortably with his weathered boots crossed and listens intently as a theoretical biologist who has flown in from Berlin discusses something called evolutionary economics – the relationship between animal behavior and marketlike forces. This is quintessential Santa Fe stuff, examining one phenomenon (biology) in the light and lexicon of another (economics).
The discussion soon turns to the topic of suicide. As a slide of a West African tribe flickers on the biologist’s computer screen, the researchers dig into the idea that suicide attempts can be evaluated as a kind of expression of market forces – a threat to remove oneself as a source of benefits to others. The neuroscientist in the corner raises her hand and poses a question to the group: “Does anyone know another animal besides humans who commit suicide?”
Brains churn. Air conditioning whirs. For once, though, the scientists are stumped.
Then the cowboy chimes in, as he often does, with the answer.
“Dolphins,” he says softly. “Dolphins do.”
Tom Chiarella | Esquire | June 28, 2009 | 5,900 words
Cormac McCarthy fathered a son as an old man, and this story is an ode to a ticking clock, to the diminishment of time, to last chances. Last chance to parent. Last chance to warn, to train, to prepare. The father fights to teach. And the father teaches the boy to fight. In the movie’s first teaching moment, the father shows his son where to shoot himself in the head should it come to that. With the gun loaded. It is perhaps the movie’s only lurid turn, a moment that, like almost every moment in the movie, appears in the book as well. By the time it occurs, it is understood to be a gesture of necessity. There they are, citizens of a kind of now, bad teeth and all, pallid, filthy, damp to the bone, at their end, and whether you’ve read the book or not, the sight of it makes you seize.
Jim White | Radio Silence | June 12, 2012 | 4,987 words
In my left coat pocket is a dog-eared copy of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, which happens to be set here in Knoxville way back in the ’50s. I’m not much of a planner, so to some extent or another (depending on your take on the mechanics of serendipity) it’s sheer coincidence that it ended up in my suitcase as I packed for this tour. Likewise I’m no great bibliophile, certainly not one of those types who might find it exhilarating to locate and use, say, the exact toilet that Jack Kerouac took a shit in while writing On the Road. That said, I’m happy it ended up with me here in Knoxville, as the city itself is practically a character in the novel. Gay and Central Streets, where Walter’s barbershop is, are mentioned frequently, so it’s interesting to be in the physical locale where the action takes place. I’m about halfway through Suttree this time around. I’ve read it front to back many times, usually when events in my life have gone spiraling out of control and that black cloud of depression that’s dogged me off and on for much of my adult years descends.
Noah Gallagher Shannon | Oxford American | September 5, 2017 | 6,836 words
If it’s not so uncommon for a writer to traverse literary landscapes, McCarthy does seem unique in being claimed by the native intelligentsia of two separate regions. In the late sixties, Guy Davenport wrote that in McCarthy, Appalachia “has found a new storyteller to depict the darkness of its heart and its futile defiance of its luck.” So too in the West, where he is considered the reviver of an aesthetic long cheapened. A poll taken a few years back by High Country News named the Border Trilogy, which comprises All the Pretty Horses and its sequels, as among readers’ favorite books about their home, alongside canonical texts by Lewis and Clark and Wallace Stegner.
All this critical sorting and swerving tells us a few things about McCarthy: that no one quite fathoms him enough to name his place in the culture; and that his absence has shifted the responsibility of this naming over to his obsessives, many of whom have become fixated on figuring out the best method to secure his legacy, a task which, the closer you get to it, feels less and less like scholarship and more like a Rorschach test. To many, he has become a ghost, a figment of study—which is strange since, of course, he’s alive, and writing. His existence today, at eighty-four years old, feels already posthumous.