Desperately Seeking Cormac

With the release of his latest novel, Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy’s fans are back in the business of parsing his sentences, probing his personal life, even looking in his garbageÑwhatever it takes to understand the fiercely private El Pasoan. Here’s what they’ve found.

HE CAME ALL THE WAY FROM MIAMI, Florida, to recite dialogue about a goat. And to claim that Cormac McCarthy is the best American writer of the past fifty years. Rick Wallach stood in the middle of the small crowd at an El Paso bookstore and talked animatedly. He compared McCarthy with Dostoevski and Faulkner, made arcane connections between his eight novels, and spoke of his curious sense of humor. He recited a few lines from Blood Meridian,  McCarthy’s Gothic western classic, in which Judge Holden levels a calumnious accusation at a revival preacher: “Not three weeks before this he was run out of Fort Smith Arkansas for having congress with a goat. Yes lady, that is what I said. Goat.” Wallach was grinning as he spoke, as pleased by the act of recalling his idol’s words from memory as by their substance. The rapt listeners—writers, college kids, retirees, at least one rancher—grinned too. They also have memorized Cormac McCarthy.

The judge in Blood Meridian is one of the great characters of modern literature: a hairless, seven-foot-tall killer, pederast, and nihilist philosopher—a Captain Ahab of the desert. Rick Wallach is a burly, Jewish doctoral student and former insurance executive—and a pilgrim who, as the secretary-treasurer of the Cormac McCarthy Society, makes the journey to El Paso several times a year. On this warm May evening he was talking at a release party for Cities of the Plain, McCarthy’s latest novel. The title refers to Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities incinerated—along with the people in them—by an angry God. There are no massacres (at least of people) in the new book, unlike the aptly titled Blood Meridian. For all its hints of biblical vengeance and divine bloodshed, Cities of the Plain is restrained in its horror, even mild, at least until the end. This will disappoint some of his fans and relieve others. Cities of the Plain was as anticipated as any book in recent years, the final installment in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, his elegy for the West. First came All the Pretty Horses—soon to be a movie directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring heartthrob Matt Damon—which won the National Book Award in 1992; the second volume, The Crossing, followed in 1994. Cities of the Plain brings together the teenage protagonists of those books, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, and puts them on a New Mexico ranch in the mountains above the plain of El Paso and its sister city across the border, Juárez. One dies on the streets of Sodom, horribly; the other survives for another fifty years, lonely and out of time.

A peerless modern American literary stylist—“The only true genius I know,” says Austin writer-producer Bill Wittliff—McCarthy has lived in El Paso since 1976. He doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t give lectures, and doesn’t do book signings. He doesn’t like to talk about writing or his life, which, of course, makes other writers, his fans, and even non-fans more curious. A cult has grown up around McCarthy, a busy little world of academics like Wallach, literary groupies, and hard-core readers like me. They travel to El Paso to seek him out and go through his garbage; they get on the Internet and make impassioned semiotic arguments; they sit at home with his books, in awe of the language and the promises it makes and the sad, bloody stories it tells. They imagine the life he must have lived to be able to write like this. They mythologize him as a cynical recluse. They know him only in bits and pieces, yet they want more. They think that if they could just know him, they could know his world and get the answer to the question all his characters ask, in one way or another: How the hell am I supposed to live?

McCarthy would say that it’s all on the page.

He Is a Yankee

HE WAS BORN CHARLES JOSEPH MCCARTHY, JR., on july 20, 1933, into a Catholic family in Providence, Rhode Island, the third of six children. Sometime later, he or his family—no one seems to know which—changed his name to Cormac after Cormac MacCarthy, the Irish chieftain who built Blarney Castle. In 1937 his family moved to Knoxville, where his father was a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

In 1951 and 1952 McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee and enrolled in the schools of engineering, business, and finally liberal arts. In 1953 he joined the Air Force and served for four years, two in Alaska, where he was a deejay. He reenrolled at Tennessee in 1957 and, as C. J. McCarthy, Jr., published two short stories, “Wake for Susan” and “A Drowning Incident,” in the student literary magazine. He dropped out in 1960 without a degree.

He Lived on a Pig Farm

IN 1961 HE MARRIED A STUDENT, LEE HOLLEMAN; they had a son, Cullen, the next year. They lived for a while in Chicago, where McCarthy worked in an auto-parts warehouse and finished his first novel, but they soon returned to Tennessee and divorced.

In 1965 McCarthy’s debut, The Orchard Keeper, was published by Random House to good reviews. On a trip across the Atlantic he met Annie DeLisle, an English singer and dancer. They traveled together, married, and lived for a time on the island of Ibiza, in the Mediterranean. There McCarthy wrote Outer Dark, which came out in 1968. By then the couple had returned to Tennessee, to a little house on a pig farm in Rockford. Later they moved to Louisville, Tennessee, where they lived in a barn that McCarthy renovated. In 1973 he published Child of God, the tale of Lester Ballard, a crazed killer and necrophiliac; it got mixed reviews (one critic called it “an affront to decency on every level”). He wrote the screenplay for The Gardener’s Son, a post—Civil War drama that aired on PBS (a version of the script was published by the Ecco Press in 1996). In 1976 McCarthy moved to El Paso, leaving Annie behind;

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