Until very recently, no one had heard of novelist Cormac McCarthy, other than the hundred or so people who regarded him as the nation’s greatest living writer of prose. Even his handful of admirers enjoyed only the most tenuous of bonds with their hero. Many were academicians, a species McCarthy has never thought much of. The rest were literary zealots who seemed bent on tracking down the author and prodding him with questions about his writing. That was problematic for two reasons: McCarthy didn’t like the outside world to know where he was, and he didn’t like to discuss his work.
Since 1976, the Rhode Island–born and Tennessee-bred McCarthy has lived in El Paso, where he completed his fourth and fifth novels, Suttree and Blood Meridian —both critically heralded (“invites comparisons with Faulkner’s best,” “without parallel in American writing today”), both commercial flops. Now and again a visitor from some distant city would show up at the El Paso office of attorney Bobby Perel, McCarthy’s friend and conduit to the outside world, and ask for a chance to meet the author. Every year or so, a literary journal would issue an analysis of the darkly baroque McCarthy Style; an organization would throw a ceremony in his honor; a reporter would come to El Paso with a list of questions. What few attempts the world made to embrace Cormac McCarthy were politely rebuffed, and onward he passed his days as that rarest of beasts: a writer content with obscurity.
McCarthy remains elusive, but as of this past spring, he is no longer obscure. In May the first installment of his Western trilogy, All the Pretty Horses, was published by Knopf. His sixth novel lacks the elaborate perversities of a typical McCarthy plot, including the erosion of primitive lives in the Tennessee hills seen in his 1965 debut novel, The Orchard Keeper, incest in Outer Dark, mass murder in Child of God, alcoholic decrepitude in Suttree, and the violent descent of the Old West in Blood Meridian. Instead, he relies on a surprisingly ordinary story line: In 1949 a sixteen-year-old West Texas cowboy responds to the sudden loss of his family’s ranch by journeying on horseback with his best friend to Mexico in search of honest ranching work, thus encountering love and death on the other side of the Rio Grande. It is by far McCarthy’s most accessible novel, and as an achievement of storytelling, it happens to be his best. The author’s penchant for hallucinatory images and never-ending sentences is as gloriously unrestrained as before. But in All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy’s characters aren’t dead-hearted monsters. Every one of them—not just the protagonist, John Grady Cole, but also his acquaintances, nemeses, jailers, and potential murderers—is presented with such sympathetic force that not one of them is easy to forget.
Where McCarthy once spent pages describing the desecration of human bodies and the scalping escapades of Comanches, he now presents evocative depictions of horses—elevated to the stature of immortal beings. While languishing in a Mexican jail cell awaiting murder charges, John Grady Cole dreams of horses running through a field of flowers:
and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world.
With the release of All the Pretty Horses, the entire publishing industry seemed to fall at Cormac McCarthy’s feet as if by celestial ordinance. Esquire published a long excerpt of the novel, introducing it as “an epic in the old style” by “a heretofore unheralded master.” As usual, McCarthy garnered delirious praise from the critics, including two gushy reviews in the New York Times; this time, however, middlebrow publications such as Entertainment Weekly and Mirabella joined in. At the urging of McCarthy’s agent, the powerful Amanda Urban—who regarded her client as “a radically undersold great American writer”—the novelist reluctantly consented to a single interview (“The last you’ll have to do for a very long time,” Urban assured him), and so the Times published a third article, in which McCarthy revealed himself to be charming, funny, and thoroughly evasive. Partly because of all of the sudden attention—and partly because it is simply Cormac McCarthy’s time to emerge—All the Pretty Horses is already in its sixth printing, its movie rights have been optioned by director Mike Nichols, and Texas’ least celebrated literary eminence is in danger of being celebrated to death.
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