I know exactly when and how I discovered McCarthy. In the early 1990s, I was volunteering, and later teaching, at a New York City youth centre called The Door. Another teacher there was reading All The Pretty Horses, which had just been published. The teacher, who was also an artist, named McCarthy as his favourite writer. It was a rave review, and I picked up the book.
The beauty of the language stunned me. In those days I read mostly fiction, and I hadn't come across any contempotary fiction that sounded like this -- spare, rhythmic, majestic, dark, brutal, unstinting in both violence and beauty. I heard echoes of Faulkner, but brought into a new world: Faulkner as McCarthy's literary grandfather.
Saul Bellow, another of my touchstones at the time, wrote of McCarthy's "absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences". Reading McCarthy, I found myself re-reading certain sentences, saying them aloud, turning over the words, savoring and marveling at the beauty -- as I do when I read Shakespeare.
I went back to McCarthy's earlier work, and read Blood Meridian, Child of God, and Suttree, then bought and read The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998) as soon as they came out. Along with All The Pretty Horses, this is the Border Trilogy, a masterpiece of American fiction.
There are a few scenes in The Crossing, and one scene in particular, that I have never forgotten -- although I wish I could. Reading it hurt physically, a pain my chest like a heartbreak. To this day, it hurts to think about. I loved these books, but I hated the terrible pictures they put in my head. It's through McCarthy that I discovered that violence against animals is the one thing I cannot read about.
Then McCarthy stopped publishing for a while, and I forgot that he used to be one of my favourite writers.
Then came the two books that are said to be his masterpieces: No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006). I tried them both and could. not. read. them. The writing seemed like self-parody, the creepy darkness an overdone gimmick. It was if McCarthy decided to write a McCarthyesque novel. You want dark? I'll give you dark. You want gothic? I'll out gothic the gothic. I'll push all the Cormac McCarthy buttons, string them all together, and vomit the results onto the page. The critical raves baffle me.
I'm sad that these are his most famous works, and also mystified that they are considered his best. I may re-read the Border Trilogy to recall the tremendous beauty of his writing. It can't hurt any more than it already does.