When Cormac McCarthy died, the American literary establishment groaned. What will we do without our undertaker-in-chief, our national crogue-mort? Off the main stage, small-arms fanatics were just as concerned. They would be without their master gunsmith. McCarthy had been assembling corpses and polishing weapons since 1965 and his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. Its shotgun blast and father-son coquetry announced McCarthy’s arrival, a Twelve-gauge talking biblical language. A half-century later, at the other end of his homeland which has more guns than people, he was still at it. In his No Country for Old Men, good-guy sheriff, Ed Tom Bell is puzzled by the new way the author has found to shoot holes in foreheads. Bell, fatherly, visits a condemned man on death row whose innocence he tried to prove. He gets this spoiled-son welcome:
“Where do they find somebody like you? Have they got you in diapers yet? I shot that son of a bitch right between the eyes and drug him back to his car by the hair of the head and set the car on fire and burned him to grease.”
So why all the fuss about McCarthy? America has never wanted for crime fiction with examples of humanity at its vilest, and the stories have been all too often set in cowboy scenery. The point is McCarthy rides the well-worn trail all the way to another level of myth and violence. A closer look at his 1985 Blood Meridian—acknowledged his masterpiece— might explain his resonance.
It starts by being about the Kid whose mother died at his birth in 1833. At fourteen he runs away from his drink-sodden father and Tennessee home. He goes west, making his own way. Three-hundred pages later, having seen the Pacific Ocean, without much interest, he’s camped alone in a vast field of buffalo bones in north Texas. It’s 1878 and the Kid is forty-eight, as if spent. A group of boys question him. The youngest, a fifteen-year-old, insults him and is gruffly put in his place.
These are post Civil-War days. “This country was filled with violent children orphaned by war,” says McCarthy. The boy comes back at night to kill the sleeping man. But the Kid, schooled by a career of murder, gets the better of the boy, killing him. The Kid tells the sassy corpse, “You wouldn’t have lived anyway.” It’s the closest to a moral principle that we have heard from his mouth. If the novel is his story, we have to admit to knowing almost nothing of his feelings.
The Kid bears faint traces of the familiar American hero. He has all the practical skills and boundless handyman ingenuity. His marksman’s aim is deadly. In his years as a regular with the cutthroat band, he’s been as ruthless as any of them. But he isn’t sadistic and kills only out of him-or-me logic. He even shows a shade of loyalty unknown in the gang. Like detective fiction’s likeable Private Eye or Tainted Cop, he has a flaw. It’s not the usual moment of cowardice as a soldier, or thoughtless crime in youth. The Kid’s flaw is total, engulfing all of him. McCarthy is silent on its origin and we are left to gather that it follows from the boy’s orphanhood, motherless from birth, father-negating afterward.
The Kid, in consequence, is distrustful of all, detached, spiky and defensive with approaches, an island adrift. Because self-sufficiency is impossible, he leaves an impression, despite adventure galore, of a life never lived.
Enter McCarthy’s soul-icing creation, the monster figure of the Judge, in a sense the author’s spokesman.
“An enormous man….He. was bald as a stone and he had no trace of beard and he had no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them. He was close to seven feet in height and he stood smoking a cigar….”
“He shone like the moon….The immense and gleaming dome of his naked skull looked like a cap for bathing pulled down to the otherwise darkened skin of his face and neck.”
The Judge is a master criminal who boasts an education in all fields and the accompanying skepticism. There’s a hint of the supernatural in his physical and mental power, a touch of Satan. His language is a bookshelf away from the speech of the killers he directs. He passes through the novel botanising, collecting fossils, supervising scalping, sketching and dropping the occasional dark pearl of black pessimism. McCarthy makes no effort to play down the Judge’s implausibility, his being out-of-place in a ‘realist’ novel. The hairless giant fails till the final ambiguous pages to have the Kid accept him as father. All his life the younger man has determined to remain an orphan. It’s what has left him barren.
The Judge makes his world picture clear, smiling at his troop’s superstitions:
“Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.”
“Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.”
However, the Kid’s paternity conundrum is only theme music, constant but faint, and shouldn’t keep us from a rumbustious adventure story that one thinks twice before calling full-blooded. We are on the shifting US-Mexican borders in the 1840s. US expansion is gearing up. The American Southwest—Texas and California—isn’t American just yet. The Kid, drifting, had tied up with a dissident officer who was for waging war again with Mexico straightaway. He took fifty men into the country, and they were decimated in no time by a Comanche onslaught, of which McCarthy’s account is an anthology piece.
The Kid, imprisoned by the Mexicans, finds freedom by joining a band led by the Judge who has a contract with the Mexican governor to fight off the Indians. The men are paid for each scalp turned in and won’t care from whose head it comes. The novel is the story of the band’s successes and final dissolution, which is as brutal as their own operations have been. The Kid manages to survive and, once more, escape, flee.
McCarthy’s account, in careful, often exalted language, is consistently dramatic. It’s a death- punctuated epic that says little in favour of the human race. Landscape fills it. A repeated “They rode on” or “He trod forward“ prepare the reader to be thrust again into open country, black or moonlit, rain splashed or sun-scorched, that he would rather read about than tread. Traces of the massacred or of failed tentatives of civil life lie about.
The author’s Americans are predators and, needless to say, racists. His Mexicans can be vicious, but only when roused. They are mainly at grips with their poverty and making out in dilapidated villages and cities that date from better times. About the Indians, McCarthy is enlightening. He will have nothing to do with the sharp distinction between Bad Injuns and Noble Savages dear to Hollywood. His Native Americans are as diverse as other humans. The Comanches, for whatever reason, are fierce and frightful. If not tormented, the Apaches can be tamed by whiskey. Their cousins, the Chiricahua, though minding their own business, have their pueblos decimated and scalps taken. The Delaware are faithful lieutenants to the white bounty hunters. The Yuma kept the peace till tricked by white bandits. The Tiguas, chased by the Spanish since the 17th Century, have their settlement surprised and ravaged in the search for heads to trade for gold.
Cormac McCarthy missed the Nobel but he deserves a prize for being the troubadour of the America romance with guns. His modest beginning in 1965 has been noted. In The Orchard Keeper, caressing words were used to describe the venerable shotgun of a man we were formerly permitted to call a ‘hillbilly’. The unheroic character, made a fool of, can only express his resentment by shooting his faithful hound dog. Bullets acquired have to be fired.
“Mr Eller stood at the counter and watched….young boys with shotguns and rifles buying shells not by the box but by fours and sixes and lending to the bustle a purposeful and even military air. He rang the money up in the cash register or marked it in his credit books.”
By 1985, in Blood Meridian, McCarthy gives us a dozen aesthetic and technical descriptions of firearms.
“In his hand he held a longbarreled six shot Colt’s patent revolver. It was a huge sidearm meant for dragoons and it carried in its long cylinders a rifle’s charge and weighed close to five pounds loaded. These pistols would drive the half-ounce conical ball through six inches of hardwood….”
In twenty years that old Tennessee shotgun had been spruced up:
“There was a raised center rib between the barrels and inlaid in gold the maker’s name, London. There were two platinum bands in the patent breech and the locks and the hammers were chased with scrollwork cut deeply in the steel and there were partridges engraved at either end of the maker’s name there. The purple barrels were welded up from triple skelps and the hammered iron and steel bore a watered figure like the markings of some alien and antique serpent, rare and beautiful and lethal, and the wood was figured with a deep red feather grain at the butt and held a small spring loaded silver cap box in the toe.”
Did ever a beloved person earn such a rhapsody? When Cormac McCarthy died on June 13, 2023, the US Gun Violence Archive was logging one mass shooting each day and promised to break last year’s record.
The Comanche Attack, pages 53-4, Blood Meridian
“Oh my god, said the sergeant.
A rattling drove of arrows passed through the company and men tottered and dropped from their mounts. Horses were rearing and plunging and the mongol hordes swung up along their flanks and turned and rode full upon them with lances.
The company was now come to a halt and the first shots were fired and the gray riflesmoke rolled through the dust as the lancers breached their ranks. The kid's horse sank beneath him with a long pneumatic sigh. He had already fired his rifle and now he sat on the ground and fumbled with his shotpouch. A man near him sat with an arrow hanging out of his neck. He was bent slightly as if in prayer. The kid would have reached for the bloody hoop-iron point but then he saw that the man wore another arrow in his breast to the fletching an he was dead. Everywhere there were horses down and men scrambling and he saw a man who sat charging his rifle while blood ran from his ears and he saw men with their revolvers disassembled trying to fit the spare loaded cylinders they carried and he saw men kneeling who tilted and clasped their shadows on the ground and he saw men lanced and caught up by the hair and scalped standing and he saw horses of war trample down the fallen and a little whitefaced pony with one clouded eye leaned out of the murk and snapped at him like a dog and was gone. Among the wounded some seemed dumb and without understanding and some were pale through the masks of dust and some had fouled themselves or tottered brokenly onto the spears of the savages. Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses with eyes walled and teeth cropped and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws and their shields winking in the dust and up the far side of the ruined ranks in a piping of boneflutes and dropping down off the sides of their mounts with one heel hung in the withers strap and their short bows flexing beneath the outstretched necks of the ponies until they had circled the company and cut their ranks in two and then rising up again like funhouse figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows. And now the horses of the dead came pounding out of the smoke and dust and circled with flapping leather and wild manes and eyes whited with fear like the eyes of the blind and some were feathered with arrows and some lanced through and stumbling and vomiting blood as they wheeled across the killing ground and clattered from sight again. Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.”