If literature were sport, the Nobel Prize would be the Olympic gold medal, Super Bowl, and World Series all rolled up into one. Which explains why the odds-makers at Ladbrokes.com, in the run-up to the announcement this morning of the 2010 Nobel prizewinner, Mario Vargas Llosa, were taking bets on who would be the next writer to achieve the mantle of world-historical literary immortality.
Until this week, U.S. writers have been largely left out of the conversation. After a century in which ten U.S. authors were awarded the prize (twelve if we are permitted to claim Joseph Brodsky and Isaac Bashevis Singer), the U.S. has been shut out by the Swedes since 1993, when Toni Morrison reached the golden ring. According to a longtime member of the literature prize jury, our literature is now “too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world.” So, naturally, it came as a shock to learn on October 5 that Ladbrokes was giving three-to-one odds that Knoxville native Cormac McCarthy would be the next recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first U.S. citizen to be so awarded in the twenty-first century.
Since 1993, conversations about who will be the next U.S. Nobel literary laureate have centered on a shortlist that did not often include McCarthy. More often mentioned were Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon—all of whom lagged far behind McCarthy on Ladbrokes.com (at eighteen-to-one, Oates had the next best odds) this year.
McCarthy’s sudden rise in stature—at least in the minds of those prone to bet on literary prizes—merits reflection both on the extraordinary career of one of Tennessee’s most idiosyncratic and uncompromising literary artists and on the thematic and aesthetic concerns that have earned him the esteem of the global literary community.
The idea of gambling on something so patently speculative and unpredictable as the taste of the Swedish Academy is an absurdity worthy of Anton Chigurh, the coin-tossing, cattle-gun-wielding philosopher-assassin of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. But McCarthy’s sudden rise in stature—at least in the minds of those prone to bet on literary prizes—merits reflection both on the extraordinary career of one of Tennessee’s most idiosyncratic and uncompromising literary artists and on the thematic and aesthetic concerns that have earned him the esteem of the global literary community. McCarthy has gained his greatest fame and notoriety for his so-called “revisionist western” novels and, more recently, for the success of both the Coen Brothers’ Academy Award-winning film adaptation of No Country for Old Men and The Road, the dystopian journey novel that in 2007 earned McCarthy a Pulitzer Prize and the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey, a pop-cultural tri-fecta beyond the wildest dreams of the most ambitious self-promoter.
Ironically, these spoils came to McCarthy in spite of having never given a public reading or taken a book tour. He gave his first interview to The New York Times in 1990—twenty-five years after the publication of his first novel—and his next to Oprah Winfrey in 2006. Though his work has been consistently awarded and honored, none of his books prior to the National Book Award-winning All the Pretty Horses (1990) even cracked the bottom of the bestseller lists.
Before the fame and the bestsellers, McCarthy had earned mythical cult status, mostly among young male literary aficionados drawn in by the machismo of his stoic characters, the prevalence of graphic violence in his fiction, and his legendary reclusiveness and near-monastic refusal to take advantage of the burgeoning culture of conferences and MFA programs that enabled so many of his lessers to enjoy the comforts of steady wages, health insurance, and captive audiences of students. (According to McCarthy, “Teaching writing is a hustle.”) The absence in his novels of feminine perspectives and believable women—or any women at all—has limited his audience considerably. Prior to All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy seemed destined to be yet another “writer’s writer” whose influence would always exceed his readership.
McCarthy began his career with a series of novels set either identifiably in East Tennessee or in nonspecific Appalachian locales. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), established the themes that have continued to permeate a body of work spanning the subsequent five decades: bloodshed as both destructive and regenerative; the subjectivity and primacy of the natural world; the cruelty and inevitability of fate. A Tennessee bootlegger bludgeons to death a hitchhiker attempting to steal his car and its cargo of contraband; months later, the bootlegger unwittingly becomes a mentor to the dead man’s son. Their lives become intertwined with that of an aging hermit who embodies McCarthy’s persistent reverence for rugged individualism and resistance to the encroachment of a careless, destructive civilization upon the unspoiled Eden of the wilderness.
His second effort, Outer Dark (1968), more overtly exposes McCarthy’s fascination with archetypal narrative and symbolism, as well as a Gothic imagination drawn to perverse, profane violence. A spectral Appalachian Gothic horror story instigated by an act of incest and populated by a cast of ghoulish characters that anticipate the roving cannibals of The Road, Outer Dark also marks the evolution of the neo-Biblical style that reaches its apotheosis in his revisionist western masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985). McCarthy’s obsession with relating the depths of human depravity to universal human experience reaches its nadir in Child of God (1974), a novel about a serial-killing necrophiliac cave dweller in Tennessee’s Sevier County whom, the narration insists, “is a child of God much like yourself, perhaps.”
Since Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s work has become leaner and sparer, his themes less relentlessly dark.
McCarthy concluded his cycle of Appalachian novels with the semi-autobiographical Suttree, a sprawling, formally complex novel set largely along the banks of the Tennessee River in Knoxville. The story of a wayward son who rejects his privileged upbringing for the company of day-laborers and alcoholic lowlifes, Suttree is most striking for its tragicomic tone and its apparent revelation of the genesis of its author’s own peculiar obsessions. Many of its characters are based on real-life friends from McCarthy’s Knoxville years, and the novel has taken a place alongside James Agee’s A Death in the Family as a monument to Knoxville. (The connection was likely intentional: McCarthy once salvaged bricks from Agee’s former home to build a fireplace in a renovated barn he occupied when he was living in Louisville in the early 1970s.)
McCarthy’s Appalachian novels are as rich and varied a body of work as any Southern writer since Faulkner but are very clearly derived from an established tradition that, despite ample praise from critics and other writers, apparently left McCarthy feeling stifled. His extraordinary prose style had yet to outgrow its influences, and his grotesque, Gothic imagery is alternately too indebted to those same influences or too sordid to escape the accusation of gratuitousness.
In 1976, McCarthy left Tennessee for the Southwest, where he completed Suttree and, upon receiving a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1981, began work on Blood Meridian (1985), an utterly stunning, deeply disturbing transformation of the conventions of Western genre fiction into a veritable Bible of bloodshed. In Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s sentences shake off the dust of Dixie and become transcendent, blending the linguistic dexterity of Faulkner with the rhetorical excess of the young Melville, the grandeur of Milton, and the gravity of the Yahwist. In the deserts of the West, McCarthy found a landscape that evokes and embodies his sense of the indifference of the universe to either suffering or joy. Based on historical research—primarily on Samuel Chamberlain’s memoir My Confession, which was posthumously discovered and published in 1965—Blood Meridian documents the exploits of the murderous Glanton gang, a group of mercenary scalp hunters who marauded the borderlands between Sonora and New Mexico and Arizona in the mid-nineteenth century.
The narrative revolves around an unnamed protagonist—known first as “the Kid” and later as “the Man”—but the novel’s central character is Judge Holden, a figure so sublimely evil as to merit comparisons to Shakespeare’s Iago, Milton’s Satan, or even a notoriously elusive white whale: “The Judge is, short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature,” Harold Bloom has said. “The Judge is violence incarnate.” In the Judge, McCarthy invents a Satanic archon whose erudition, monstrosity, and possibly supernatural intellectual and physical powers render his very nature beyond description. He dances and feints through Blood Meridian like the devil himself, and his cruelty’s only expressed purpose is the celebration of war.
The horror is not the end itself, but the crucible through which something pure and good is finally extracted.
Though initially not well received, Blood Meridian has since become the novel upon which McCarthy’s reputation primarily stands. In its 2006 list of the best novels of the last twenty-five years, The New York Times ranked it just below Toni Morrisson’s Beloved and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. But, however celebrated, the genius of the novel is doubtlessly undermined by its unremitting violence and its remorselessly pessimistic view of humanity. Regardless of its literary qualities, no case can be made for Blood Meridian as an example of Alfred Nobel’s required “idealistic tendency.”
Since Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s work has become leaner and sparer, his themes less relentlessly dark. The Border Trilogy—All the Pretty Horses (1990), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998)—offer a more idyllic, traditional view of the disappearance of the Wild West in the twentieth century. No Country for Old Men (2005)—despite the dueling philosophical digressions of its villain, Anton Chigurh, and the closest thing it has to a hero, the aging Sheriff Bell—is as near as McCarthy has ever come to what Graham Greene called an “entertainment”: a fast-paced thriller with violence that is both thrilling and blackly comic and a plot and cast of characters ready-made for Hollywood.
Why then would McCarthy now merit consideration for the Nobel Prize? The greatness of his work is undisputed, but greatness is not the primary consideration in these awards (as has been amply demonstrated by many of the jury’s selections). The answer can be found in The Road (2006), a novel that reinvents the blasted landscapes of Blood Meridian and the many depraved, bloodthirsty villains that have populated McCarthy’s novels from Outer Dark to No Country for Old Men in the shape of an apocalyptic future that, for many readers, seems all too possible. It would be easy to conceive of this harrowing novel as a cautionary tale—a sort of literary The Day After. In The Road, however, the horror is not the end itself, but the crucible through which something pure and good is finally extracted: the love of a father for his son and that father’s willingness to persevere against all odds, to persist in hope against all hope; a boy’s desire to be one of “the good ones”; to “carry the fire.”
As we progress toward whatever awaits us, with human depravity showing no sign of ebbing, the love between parent and child seems a solution to the question of what, if anything, can give humanity the strength to persevere in the face of its own wanton, ravenous recklessness. No doubt, this love, as beautiful as it is sublime, undiminished by tragedy, if not impervious to it, constitutes the “idealistic quality” Alfred Nobel had in mind. Never mind that McCarthy did not win the Nobel Prize (yet), his body of work, from The Orchard Keeper to The Road, has become something like a postmodern Divine Comedy, in which we rise from our journey through hell to be given the promise that at the end of all things, even if only in our imaginations, there is still promise in the future.