Earlier this week, upon learning that Cormac McCarthy died at the age of 89, I posted what I felt was Middle-of-the-Road response to what was already dividing the Internet into Love/Hate categories:
Not even his Texas-ness could overcome my utter bafflement at the level of his success. I tried to read him at several points in his career and was dumbfounded by his ability to sell his one trick as a complete magic show.
For those of you who are grieving, my condolences, sincerely.
Myself, I’m going to head out, as all of the oxygen that has suddenly been freed up in the tent of Texas literature is making me a little dizzy.
You would have thought I’d just called Santa Claus an asshole. Within minutes, I was being chastised, and this took up the rest of the day. And while I wasn’t surprised by the two camps forming, I was a bit surprised by the hostility in kind.
McCarthy has been a divisive literary figure for two or more decades, now, with no one in the middle of the road on the issue—you either think he’s the greatest literary voice of our time, or you think he’s nigh-unreadable and full of shit. I’ve never met anyone who says, “Eh, he’s okay.”
Interestingly, no one in the Plus column can agree on what his best work is; Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Road, No Country for Old Men…there is no clear winner.
I first had this slap-fight in 2005, whilst employed at The Largest Independent Bookstore in Texas, when No Country for Old Men was published. The staff, all with opinions a-plenty, reached no consensus. We resumed the debate the following year when The Road was published. The question remains unsettled to this day, and will remain so down the ages.
As a reader, I didn’t like his writing. At all. I didn’t want to not like him. He loomed very large in the hearts and minds of the Texas Literati, and was admired—nay, revered by many people whose opinions I respect. And so I tried. I read four and a half books from different points in his career before giving up. He just wasn’t for me. I found his little quirk of not using punctuation for dialogue really precious, the kind of thing that, if any first-time author sent into an editor, wouldn’t have made it out of the slush pile. That’s his trick, and I first saw it in the novel Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce, so it wasn’t new, nor very interesting, to me. I don’t mind stylistic tricks, provided they are sparse and don’t get in the way of my reading. Don Robertson used to write people’s ages without a hyphen; so-and-so was “thirtyseven” years old. Yeah, because that’s how you say it. No need to break it up, and it reads as colloquial English. That’s a stylistic trick that only shows up a few times, at best, in a book and doesn’t knock me out of the narrative to try and figure it out.
I also didn’t care for McCarthy’s use of language and the way he constructed his imagery within his narrative. This is huge, because it’s essentially the skeleton upon which one builds their Frankenstein’s monster. McCarthy’s language, its cadence, owed a lot to William Faulkner, an author that I also don’t like. I think that there are better Southern Gothic writers who used language more effectively and more effortlessly. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the things his admirers point to as evidence of his genius.
I’m being technical here because people are taking my criticism personally, and it’s not. And as someone who’s read more McCarthy books than many of the people lauding him at the moment, I get to have my opinion about him without reprisals. There’s not a lot of authors I dislike so much that I don’t finish reading the book. But I didn’t finish Blood Meridian. After the other books, I’d hit the point where I was debating whether or not to power through in the hopes it would get better or pull the ripcord and end my misery. I yanked as hard as I could and have no regrets about it. But after so many books, you can’t say I didn’t give him a fair chance to set a hook.
I’m not going to contrast McCarthy’s style with McMurtry’s style, but I think (and this is not a controversial statement) that Larry McMurtry is far more readable and also enjoyable to read. His prose is more elegant and also less pretentious. He writes about Texas, both romantically and also with unvarnished clarity. He’s also really from Texas, as opposed to a transplant–not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m sure that all of the transplants got here as soon as they could. But as for true Texas, all-caps-underlined-TEXAS authors, you can’t get much more Texan that Archer City. Just sayin’. Larry checks all of the boxes, and the number of people who vitriolically despise his work is a much smaller percentage per capita. Can you think of anyone who read Lonesome Dove that didn’t like it? Can you say that about Blood Meridian?
It’s not entirely impersonal. Here’s my real beef, at the end of the day. All of this would be academic in nature if, within the Ivory Towers and Hallowed Halls of Academia and places like the Texas Institute of Letters, McCarthy (and Larry McMurtry) didn’t take up most of the oxygen in the discussion. There is a high and lofty perch whereupon both authors are placed, and then all the rest of Texas literature are summarily grouped around the obelisk to gaze upwards in rapt awe. Popular fiction authors? They can fuck right off.
This eschewing of genre wouldn’t be so egregious if the two authors being lionized weren’t guilty of, you know, writing in genre—like westerns. Or crime fiction. Or post-apocalyptic. Critics like Don Graham forgive a lot of McCarthy’s mistakes because, alongside McMurtry, they represent the whole of Texas Literature to the world. I find this both off-putting and amusing in equal parts. As someone closely connected to one Texas author in particular, I find this to be narrow-minded thinking in someone I otherwise admire very much for the insights on literature. Tom Pilkington, is, at least, more egalitarian in his admiration of Texas authors BM and AM (before McMurtry and After McCarthy).
It’s been difficult to have a conversation about Texas literature that didn’t devolve into McMurtry and McCarthy, whereupon it would stop entirely, having reached the apex of the topic, or maybe the omega. Larry McMurtry passed away in 2021, and now with the passing of McCarthy, there’s a decided shift in the wind. Academics and lovers of Texas culture everywhere are going to have to start talking about other Texas authors. With no more “life-giving and death-dealing sentences” from McCarthy, they’re going to need another king to put on the throne. Or, maybe, this time, maybe they don’t.
I know that both authors shied away from their laurels, preferring instead to keep on reading, writing, thinking, and so forth. Both men were far less pretentious than the word-salad that hung in their orbit like purple thunderclouds. One of the reasons why I tried so hard to like McCarthy’s books was that every time I read an interview with him, I came away liking him more. And I actually got to meet Larry at Booked Up, many years ago, and we had a brief but interesting conversation about NOT LONESOME DOVE. I don’t like to put words in the mouths of the dead, but I think they would be all right if we turned our collective gaze on the rest of the field of Texas literature and southwestern writing and picked some new people to talk about for a while.