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.

July 1998By Comments

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; they divorced several years later.

He Came to Texas and Reinvented the Western

IN EL PASO—“ONE OF THE LAST REAL CITIES LEFT IN AMERICA,” McCarthy told a friend—he found a deeper, surer voice. He finished Suttree, a book he had been working on for twenty years, and it was published in 1979. The dark, surreal, and hilarious story of Cornelius Suttree, a drunken existentialist dropout who lives among the lowlifes on the Tennessee River in Knoxville, is considered by some die-hard fans to be his best—a multilayered narrative of dreams, putrid reality (rendered in a stunning accretion of disturbing, colorful detail and elaborate diction), and aimless wandering through the underworld. Others prefer 1985’s Blood Meridian, a pitiless hallucination of savage violence in mid-nineteenth-century Texas and Mexico in which McCarthy continued his stylistic evolutions, painting the blighted desert terrain and relentless killings and brutalities in stark, protracted, almost biblical language; his resistance to the use of commas and apostrophes makes the words on the page seem even harsher. There are no white hats in Blood Meridian. Everyone is evil, yet everyone is all too human.

In 1992, after years of obscurity (none of his first five novels sold more than 2,500 hardcover copies), McCarthy changed his writer’s voice, switched publishers—to Alfred A. Knopf—and became a star. All the Pretty Horses, the story of John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, two teenagers fleeing the dying ranches of Texas in 1949 and journeying to Mexico, is a subtle, modern western with less violence and more adolescent yearning, unsentimental visions of the natural world, and sublime dreams of horses. In one of them John Grady dreams how “. . . 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 and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.” The book was a best-seller, hailed twice by the New York Times, which had persuaded McCarthy to do an interview; afterward he said he would never do another.

Two years later came The Crossing, which again featured teenage boys—Billy and Boyd Parham—seeking adventure, justice, and deliverance south of the border. Less focused than All the Pretty Horses, with sometimes ponderous minor characters, it nonetheless received excellent reviews (a “miracle in prose,” said the Times) and was also a best-seller. At the start of the nineties McCarthy had been a great unknown; by the middle he was simply great.

He Wrote Cities of the Plain Years Ago

CONCEIVED AS A SCREENPLAY (most likely written in the late seventies), the basic story survives in the 1998 novel: John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are cowboys on a New Mexico ranch in 1951. They go to whorehouses in Juárez with other ranch hands. On one such trip John Grady falls for Magdalena, a young prostitute. He goes back and forth over the border, courting her under the suspicious eye of her pimp, who is also in love with her. John Grady makes plans to marry her, but the pimp has other ideas.

Written before he would revolutionize the genre in Blood Meridian, Cities of the Plain reads like a first attempt at a western, and a facile movie western at that. The cowboys chum around like bunkhouse boys, often tossing off self-conscious adolescent banter. John Grady and Magdalena fumble nervously like teenage screen lovers, and his stubborn passion leads to the inevitable showdown in the street. McCarthy has never been much on plot, letting his prose—muscular with the poetry of detail—and his characters—observed, heard, but never psychoanalyzed—tell the real story. But while the first two books of the trilogy also feature doomed and hackneyed teen romances, they are subplots; in Cities of the Plain John Grady and Magdalena get most of the attention. Add to this the fact that McCarthy has never been much on female characters—the women in the Border Trilogy are generally either inscrutable old sages or inscrutable young beauties with some world-destroying charisma—and the result is a silly love story, a pulp western Romeo and Juliet.

McCarthy readers will especially miss the imagistic risk-taking of his descriptions of nature. The souls of animals ran through the first two books, vessels for John Grady and Billy to cross over into another world. All the Pretty Horses was suffused with, well, horses. The first section of The Crossing followed Billy’s heroic journey south with a wounded wolf. The only animal story in Cities of the Plain features a wild, bloody hunt for a pack of marauding dogs; it and the knife fight between John Grady and the pimp—a horrific ballet of death—are the best things about the new book.

Fans of the first two volumes will enjoy the development of the friendship (beefed up from the screenplay) between John Grady and Billy, one ruled by the heart and the other with—literally and figuratively—a heart defect. They have the easy familiarity of Gus and Call in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Like those two and other great literary duos, John Grady and Billy are searchers—rushing to and fleeing from cities of iniquity, looking for a place each might belong, a country of his own. The one who finds it here dies young; the other, like the rest of us, keeps living, keeps looking.

Don’t Call Him a Texas Writer

TEXAS READERS ARE ALWAYS WILLING to claim someone as a Texas writer, especially a great writer who lives in the state and writes so well about it. Rhode Island’s claiming McCarthy as a Rhode Island writer would be (almost) as dopey. The fact is, he is a writer, period. He writes through obscurity, and he writes through fame. His influences run from Melville (his favorite book is Moby Dick) to Faulkner (whose editor, Albert Erskine, was McCarthy’s at Random House), from Flannery O’Connor (who was also raised Catholic in the Protestant South) to Hemingway, Joyce, Dickens, and Homer. When he lived in Tennessee, he wrote about dispossessed mountain loonies like Lester Ballard and lost river cynics like Cornelius Suttree; when he got to Texas, he wrote about stoic, unsatisfied cowboys like John Grady Cole and Billy Parham.

McCarthy may not be a native Texan, but he set out to learn as much as he could about the state when he arrived in El Paso 22 years ago. He researched Blood Meridian exhaustively, visiting every location he wrote about and learning Spanish, which shows up extensively and untranslated in all four of his westerns. He doesn’t write about Texas so much as he explores the borderlands between Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico. His characters are always crossing between two worlds: the normal one and the underworld, the violent natural one and the violent man-made one, the seen and the unknown.

In Fact, Just Don’t Call Him

CONTRARY TO POPULAR WISDOM, McCarthy is not a recluse. But he is and always has been an intensely private man and a reluctant public one. Annie DeLisle recalled in 1992 how when they lived in the converted barn in the seventies, “Someone would call up and offer him two thousand dollars to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.”

In El Paso McCarthy has a circle of friends, goes to parties (though he quit drinking alcohol when he moved there), and is, according to one local, “very congenial.” Richard B. Woodward, who conducted the 1992 Times interview, found him to be “an engaging figure, a world-class talker, funny, opinionated, quick to laugh.” Betty Ligon, who was a columnist for the now-defunct El Paso Herald-Post, says he’s “cordial, even if he’s wary of the press.” But not everyone is taken in by the McCarthy mystique. El Paso writer Debbie Nathan scoffs at how he won’t read at local literary festivals and won’t sign one of his books for a fan out in public, yet the Ecco Press will sell autographed copies of The Gardener’s Son for $175 (unsigned copies go for $22). “He won’t take the most minimal role in the community,” she complains.

He’s Eligible for Medicare

MCCARTHY TURNS 65 THIS MONTH. He is an avid golfer and pool player, likes to restore old pickups, and loves science. Ligon says that when she sees him out at a restaurant, he “always has a pile of reading material with him: research books, how-to manuals, books about mechanics, and always a New York Times.

And this spring he got married again, to Jennifer Winkley, who has a degree in English and American literature from the University of Texas at El Paso; she turned 33 this summer. They work out together at Gold’s Gym. Gossips say she’s pregnant. Other recent rumors had McCarthy leaving his little stone house on Coffin Avenue and moving to Alpine, or Albuquerque, or Spain. But he just bought a new home in the upscale Coronado Country Club area, high up on Franklin Mountain, overlooking the lights of El Paso and Juárez.

Desperately Seeking Cormac

RICK WALLACH IS LIKE MANY MCCARTHY fans whose lives were changed by the writer’s books. He discovered them by accident one night in 1991 when he happened upon a copy of Blood Meridian and didn’t put it down until he had finished it the next day. Wallach began proselytizing and pushing McCarthy’s books on friends, and he helped organize the first national conference on McCarthy in October 1993 at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Cormac McCarthy Society was formed in 1995 to help organize the fall gathering (which has been moved to UT—El Paso) along with spring and summer conferences on other campuses. “The range and variety of people who show up are stunning,” Wallach says. “We get a bunch of fans, not just academics.” With the release of Cities of the Plain, the number of papers and attendees for “Cormac McCarthy: An International Colloquy,” which comes off October 15 to 18, has shot up. “This year,” says Wallach, “we’re expecting people from Australia, Europe, and Asia.”

Many members of the Cormac McCarthy Society met through an Internet site put up in 1995 by Marty Priola. The site ( is elaborate, with pages titled “The Textual McCarthy,” “The Intertextual McCarthy,” and “The Audiovisual McCarthy.” Scholars and fans parse his books and his past and argue about whether McCarthy is “a mystic” and whether Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden could be based on Holden Caulfield (the character created by the reclusive J. D. Salinger) or maybe actor William Holden (who led the gang in The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s legendarily violent western).

Accompanying this year’s conference will be an exhibit of fifty paintings of McCarthy’s house on Coffin Avenue. New York writer and painter Peter Josyph was struck by the house a couple of years ago when he was in town for the conference. He drew sketches, took photos, flew back to Long Island, and got busy. By the time he was finished, he had completed nearly one hundred renderings of McCarthy’s home on handmade Mexican paper. “His house became an image for how I feel about him, his work, the West, and writing in general,” Josyph says. “Ultimately, it’s about any writer who takes his work as seriously as he does.”

The Trash Aesthetic

IN EL PASO MCCARTHY HAS BECOME A GHOST CELEBRITY, an urban legend. Last year Rafe Greenlee, a political consultant and McCarthy fan who was then living there with his wife, filmmaker Mylène Moreno, shot footage for a movie about McCarthy, including some of him taking out his trash. What does an artist owe a community, they wondered, and what does a community owe an artist? They interviewed McCarthyites with varying levels of obsessiveness: Ligon, Wallach and other members of the society in town for the conference, Robert McGregor (the son of McCarthy’s friend, El Paso lawyer Malcolm McGregor), and Nathan, who spent a couple of months in 1996 going through McCarthy’s trash and cataloging it (The West Texas Auto Trader, The New Yorker, two tickets for Il Postino) to prove that he was not some mythic desert hermit but just as urban as everyone else in the city of more than half a million. Greenlee’s conclusion? “He affects people very deeply,” he says with a laugh. The couple hopes to finish editing the movie, tentatively titled Cormac’s Trash, this summer.

The Clucks of Execration

IN THE TRADITION OF THE BAD HEMINGWAY and Faux Faulkner writing contests, the El Paso Public Library hosts an annual Not-Cormac Writing Contest. A fundraiser for the library, it was started by Nathan, who says she wanted to both parody and honor McCarthy’s style as well as “turn this guy into a resource by proxy.” Last year’s winning entry, by Californian Christian Kiefer, was called “Free Range” and began: “It moved to come out of its own dark and manifold despair. For what crazed, chickenly beast lopes around this same mineral waste towards the reef of grey clouds in the west?”

“He Makes You Feel, Which Is an Awesome Gift”

SO SAYS MCCARTHY’S FRIEND BILL WITTLIFF. I remember when a friend pushed All the Pretty Horses on me—the way the words warred in his mouth as he tried to convey what was in this book, and how after I had read it, I pushed it onto someone else, stuttering and flailing my hands in the air. It wasn’t just the words or the gorgeous, simple style. It was the vision of another world—our world—and the possibilities that lay in crossing over into it with eyes wide open and the terrible, impossible price to be paid for following your heart. Like the survivor in Cities of the Plain, we’ve all got defects of the heart that limit our vision and dim our desires, but we don’t want to die like him—old and alone and among strangers. Too bad, Cormac McCarthy might say. You should have died for love when you had the chance, your guts weeping out of your belly onto the streets of Sodom.

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