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 McCarthy. It was, as he told a friend, “one of the last real cities left in America,” with its own unvanquished eccentricities and the added feature of geographical remoteness. A man could move freely in El Paso. He could get lost there.
Eventually his friends began to buy his books and read them, yet they soon noticed that this was not only not a requirement but seemingly a matter of complete irrelevance to him. Nowadays McCarthy is close to a few other local writers, notably University of Texas at El Paso writer in residence Rick DeMarinis, McCarthy’s neighbor. But far from resembling the denizens who slouch around tables at Elaine’s in New York, his circle of friends is indicative of El Paso’s oddball jet set. They include attorney and airplane collector Malcolm McGregor; clothing industry heir Jim Farah and his photographer wife, Cynthia; U.S. magistrate Janet Ruesch; sculptor James Drake; rancher Ralph “Punko” Lowenfield; and local rare-book dealer Irving Brown of HI Books.
Most of Cormac McCarthy’s friends are unaffected but colorful, which suits the author’s tastes. Few living novelists can equal McCarthy’s gift for creating characters of mythological proportions, ranging from the comical (Gene Harrogate, the hapless bumpkin in Suttree who exhibits a fondness for having sex with watermelons) to the grotesque (Lester Ballard, the murderous protagonist in Child of God who wears the clothes of his victims), the sublime (the regal duenna Alfonsa who stands between her willful grandniece and the cowboy protagonist in All the Pretty Horses) to the purely outrageous (Blood Meridian’s hairless seven-foot-tall Judge Holden, a well-spoken linguist, astronomer, and child molester). But McCarthy has his own unique dimensions. He lives alone in a quiet neighborhood, in a stone house filled with almost nothing but books. Prior to this he lived in a motel, where he began the practice of having his mail delivered to attorney Bobby Perel’s office—a habit he continues, presumably to avoid solicitors. He takes his meals at the neighborhood Luby’s and the Village Inn Pancake House, occasionally splurging at the Westin Hotel or at a favored Juárez restaurant. He reads books while he eats; when disturbed by a visitor, McCarthy will smile politely—“But he never asks you to sit down,” says El Paso Herald-Post columnist Betty Ligon, an admirer of the author despite his unwillingness to be interviewed by her.
Though friends speak of his slavish commitment to his work, McCarthy is not a bona fide recluse. Like Thomas Pynchon in New York, McCarthy socializes freely, with the knowledge that his close friends won’t blow his cover. His friends who pick him up and drop him off at his house (McCarthy seldom drives, though Rick DeMarinis has given him access to a truck) insist that it’s not so odd that he never invites them inside. “He says his place is a mess,” says Irving Brown with a shrug. He enjoys canoeing in Utah and has recently become a decent golfer; Perel describes McCarthy as “one hell of a pool player.” During an earlier stage of his life, he was also one hell of a drinker, but he hasn’t touched alcohol since shortly after his arrival in El Paso. “I think drinking posed a distraction to his writing,” says Perel, “just as the publicity trail is a distraction to his writing.”
McCarthy does not give lectures, do readings, or show any interest in the goings-on of the publishing world. “Cormac has staked out a life completely outside the literary system,” says Amanda Urban. He is indifferent to current fiction, including that of the many contemporary writers who deeply admire McCarthy’s work. Instead he belongs to a science book club and devours everything he can on quantum physics, North Mexican fauna, and the behavior of whales. When a friend expressed her interest in civil rights issues, McCarthy immediately recommended an African American oral history titled Dry Long So. If to many writers the “literary life” means endless fraternizing and grandstanding, to Cormac McCarthy it means learning everything he can about the world that he and his characters inhabit.
His friends “have an unspoken conspiracy to keep his privacy,” claims Betty Ligon, and perhaps this is so. But soon McCarthy’s friends may not have much to say about it. He joked to a friend one day that, considering the attention All the Pretty Horses was receiving, “I’m going to need a staff and a nurse.” One day Irving Brown received a letter from a well-known movie producer who wanted to purchase the film rights to all of McCarthy’s six novels and wanted the book dealer to deliver this message to the novelist right away. Brown phoned McCarthy, who told him he couldn’t be bothered with it. Still, more and more requests are likely to come from people who don’t care much about McCarthy’s desire for privacy—people who want things yesterday, who don’t take no for an answer. Some of his friends worry about the rumor that McCarthy will eventually relocate to Spain, where his son is getting married this summer. They haven’t seen evidence yet that he is set on leaving El Paso. On the other hand, none of them seems to know exactly why he left Knoxville to come here sixteen years ago.
While in El Paso one morning, I drove to the address I had determined to be the residence of Cormac McCarthy. The neighborhood, though sunny and well scrubbed, seemed suddenly evacuated: no pedestrians, no traffic, no dogs, not a single noise. I felt a little unsettled. Had McCarthy discovered a ghost town within a city? Or was this silent precinct peopled only by brilliant loners?
I pulled up next to his house, a distinctly Andalusian structure of whitewashed stone with black iron grilles over the windows, slightly soot-stained in appearance but otherwise neatly kept. On the porch stood Cormac McCarthy. He wore loose-fitting khakis and a crewneck sweater despite the early onset of an El Paso summer. His hands were at his sides; one of them held a book. He focused upon me with those piercing, seen-it-all eyes. I stared back at him with eyes far less knowing. McCarthy was aware that I was in town, of course. He had refused an interview, refused a dinner invitation. Nothing personal, his friends assured me; he just doesn’t like to answer questions.
So be it. I stayed in the car, and after a few seconds McCarthy turned toward his door. The moment he did so, the shadows on the porch seemed to swallow him up, like a storybook character receding at the turning of the page. Now the porch was empty, but I had not imagined him. Cormac McCarthy had simply gone inside, where his work awaited him.