Top 5 and Why: Cormac McCarthy’s Best
It’s a tough choice, but here are five that stand the test of time.
The precise ordering is always subjective, isn’t it? Or are there laws of selection we don’t even yet understand?
“They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.”
Among Time’s list of 100 best English-language books published between 1923 and 2005 and placed joint runner-up in a poll taken in 2006 by The New York Times of the best American fiction published in the last 25 years. Literary critic Harold Bloom called Blood Meridian “the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.” Which is a compliment.
Brutal and horrifying and historically-based, the book is an epic journey and a face first dive into the depths of McCarthy’s imagery, rhythms, and prose style. For some weird reason, the book has been referred to as a spiritual descendent of Moby Dick, and there are passages that echo Melville (or are Melvillian), but it seems an odd comparison.
The themes of fate and moral rectitude are as compelling and uncompromisingly outlined here as ever. Interestingly, McCarthy’s complete unwillingness to do interviews or engage in discourse over this book has done a lot for its gradual uplifting from overlooked to masterpiece. Not a book for everyone, and it could be said parts are overwritten. Its violence is unrelenting and merciless, but also uncompromising and rich. The Judge is an unforgettable antagonist, and probably his best.
“How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?”
Choosing this over The Road was not an easy call. One could probably call the The Road more thematically significant, and that could be a dividing line. I think The Road is just so bleak from beginning to end. Plus, if I’m still looking for powerful antagonists in all of 20th- century literature, Chigurh has to rank right up there in the Top 2 of all-time Cormac McCarthy books. Another unforgettable character. As Annie Proulx writes:
“The dialogue is perfect. No one has McCarthy’s ear for regional talk, nor eye for details of place. The writing transforms a standard western good-guy-bad-guy plot into serious literature.”
The malevolent, psychotic sociopath Chigurh, is the embodiment of the emerging drug world and the new kind of killer that is reshaping not only the small Texas border community, but the whole nation. Also, for as fast as the book reads it’s far richer and more complex than meets the eye. Every page contains McCarthy’s signature pitch-perfect vocabulary, not just “big words,” but evocative, rhythmic, and by that measure, poetic.
Speaking of powerful themes, it’s not just our protagonist Moss that’s on the run with his stolen drug money, the Sheriff Bell is a good man following on the heels of all the violence, and later we discover he suffers from “John Wayne syndrome,” an idealised model of soldierly staunchness impossible to achieve.
3. The Road
“Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave.”
The backstory of McCarthy’s novel is deeply personal, springing from his relationship with his 11-year-old son, John, whom he had with his third wife, Jennifer. As death bears down in The Road, the main character obsessively protects his son and prepares him to carry on alone: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”
The Road is oppressively dark, and for what it’s worth, the movie is well done but not on the same register as what the Coen brothers did with No Country. There is but one glimmer of light in this all-too-possible apocalyptic thriller, and you’ll have to read it to find out (no spoilers allowed here).
“Shrouded in the black thunderheads the distant lightning glowed mutely like welding seen through foundry smoke. As if repairs were under way at some flawed place in the iron dark of the world.”
Many cop out and just say “The Border Trilogy” but that’s three considerable novels. While similar, each has its own flavor, and I found All the Pretty Horses, the first, to be the most complete. I liked The Crossing the least among the three, full of too much philosophizing and overwrought metaphors. ‘Pretty Horses’ is also the book that began to get McCarthy the popularity and fame he continued to grow into — and happened to also win the National Book Award in 1992.
5. Child of God
“He had resolved himself to ride on for he could not turn back and the world that day was as lovely as any day ever was and he was riding to his death.”
In 1969, in a barn in Louisville, Tennessee, McCarthy wrote his third book, Child of God, based on actual events. Like The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark before it, the story is set in southern Appalachia. Read chronologically, the books can blur together if not for their stylistic unity, then for their thematic similarity and capacity for mythological analyis. I found Child of God the most memorable for the sheer depravity of Lester Ballard, who is both a victim and a victimizer, and nevertheless a “child of God,” that is, a part of all of us, made in the image of God.
The novel resists any attempts to justify or moralize Ballard’s behavior, though. Toward the very end, when he winds up back at the state hospital, he says, “I’m supposed to be here,” achieving an ironic inclusion within the community that had compounded his parents’ abandonment. He becomes a ward and possession of the community’s institutions, incarcerated in an asylum until he dies. His body is dissected by medical students. The novel’s end juxtaposes the bagging and disposal of Lester Ballard’s mortal flesh with that of his victims, raised from their cave to be interred by the state.