Cormac McCarthy, author of eight novels and two dramas, spent his childhood in Knoxville, where he graduated from Catholic High School in 1951 and attended the University of Tennessee. Although he never received a degree, he left the university with two novels in progress. The Orchard Keeper (1965), his first published novel, received the William Faulkner Foundation Award for that year. Following the publication of his fourth novel, Suttree (1979), McCarthy moved to El Paso, Texas, where he researched and wrote Blood Meridian (1985) and the first two volumes of the Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses (1992) and The Crossing (1994). McCarthy has avoided the literary limelight, refusing to do interviews, book signings, readings, or lectures. In an age fascinated by artistic personalities, McCarthy’s privacy has cost him some readers, but it has served also as a reminder of the primacy of the writer’s work. The third volume in his Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain, appeared in 1998.
McCarthy’s first four novels are set in East Tennessee. No writer, not even William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, to whom he is often compared, has written better dialogue or realized more vividly the character of the plain folk of his region. Without sentimentality or condescension, McCarthy’s evocative prose brings mountain people to life, rendering their cautious reserve, their dignity and resignation flawlessly. The Orchard Keeper is a novel about murder and friendship in a remote rural community, and Outer Dark (1968) unfolds a horrifying tale of incest and apocalyptic violence. Child of God (1973) tells the story of Lester Ballard, a homicidal necrophiliac who stashes corpses in caves. Suttree, set mostly in Knoxville, is a darkly humorous chronicle of the adventures of Cornelius Suttree, an intelligent dropout living among the failures and rejects of modern society. With Blood Meridian McCarthy turned to the border country of the Southwest. This story of a band of scalphunters led by John Glanton has been compared to the Iliad in terms of bloodiness. His latest novels are both about young men coming of age through harrowing experiences in Mexico. All the Pretty Horses, which won the National Book Award for Fiction, is less pessimistic and violent than the earlier novels, but The Crossing ends bleakly.
McCarthy is unquestionably a major American novelist whose work is just beginning to get the critical attention it deserves. All of his work takes a dim view of human nature and of the projects of modernity. Abstract optimism and easy confidence in human perfectibility cannot endure in the face of the grim particulars of human wickedness and perversity which fill his tales, acts beyond psychological explanation or cure. McCarthy’s fiction is a direct assault on the bloodless naiveté of modern secular imagination, and he writes as if trying to shock his readers out of their willful innocence by the details of gory violence. His suspicion of schemes and social programs is deep, and the violence and brutality to which man reverts in a state of nature is convincing and unforgettable because the language is both exact and beautiful.