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Words of Others: Cormac McCarthy

Image taken from cormacmccarthy.com

I read No Country for Old Men three years ago and loved it, hard as it was to get used to. I’d unfortunately seen the movie prior to reading the novel so the images in my mind were fairly unoriginal. Ever since then, though, I told myself I would read another McCarthy. I made a mental note and I left it somewhere on my bookshelves…

Then, three months ago I moved to Los Angeles. I don’t own a whole lot, but I did wind up bringing five or six boxes of books with me. The boxes sat in my living room for weeks, as tends to be my style. When I finally got to pulling them out and setting them up I found McCarthy’s The Roadwhich a friend picked up for me the last time he was visiting from Portland. He said he liked the idea of investing into young writers. He said it would all pay off one day. Okay, B.D., thanks, I said. I’ll try not to let you down, but I think you’re dropping bills into the wrong industry stream.

Inspired by the allure of being in a new place, I blew the imaginary dust off the cover, sat against my wall, books strewn about my legs, and started in.

And… I quickly re-learned how tough McCarthy’s style can be to get used to. He sort of invents his own genre. In The Road he borders between minimalist and stream-of-conscious, which at the very least means his dialogue can be challenging to decipher from his character’s internal thoughts. His punctuation is light, comprised of mostly periods and a few commas, but he never uses quotation marks nor semi-colons. He is a rogue, but all the greatest were weren’t they?

I bring McCarthy to the table today simply to point out the uniqueness of his literary voice. He is fearless, and even in a TV interview with Oprah he admits that, as he begins his novels, he almost never knows where they are leading nor how they will end.

In reading up on his life I’ve begun to get the impression that he may know everything there is to know about writing (quickly: he’s been writing for over four decades and has won a slough of prestigious awards) but doesn’t believe the rules are the only thing he must follow in his craft.

I’m no expert on writing, in fact I’m a far cry. But I get that. I get what it feels like to start in on something and have no idea where it is going to lead. I don’t know if McCarthy is a God-fearing man, but from reading him I’ve woken to the thought of how critical trusting my God-inspired gut ought to be. Not in a “crap man, I’m a basket-case. I suck. I don’t trust God enough” kind of moralistic way. Honestly, I think to have that perception of the self as a Christian is completely misinformed. It is bullshit, really. Instead, I believe trusting my gut looks more like being amazed and invigorated by mysteries. I think that if I step out in my writing career to try something new there is a chance I could fall deep into a hole. But I might not. I might just keep walking forward, believing that whether chasm or cleared-path, something believes in me too.

I’ve typed out one of my favorite passages from The Road below. Hope you love it.

He had to drag the cart while the boy steered from behind and they build a fire for the old man to warm himself though he didn’t much like that either. They ate and the old man sat wrapped in his solitary quilt and gripped his spoon like a child. They had only two cups and he drank his coffee from the bowl he’d eaten from, his thumbs hooked over the rim. Sitting like a starved and threadbare buddha, staring into the coals.

You can’t go with us, you know, the man said.

He nodded.

How long have you been on the road?

I was always on the road. You cant stay in one place.

How do you live?

I just keep going. I knew this was coming.

You knew it was coming?

Yeah. This or something like it. I always believed in it.

Did you try to get ready for it?

No. What would you do?

I don’t know.

People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there.

I guess not.

Even if you knew what to do you wouldnt know what to do. You wouldnt know if you wanted to do it or not. Suppose you were the last one left? Suppose you did that to yourself?

Do you wish you would die?

No. But I might wish I had died. When you’re alive you’ve always got that ahead of you.

Or you might wish you’d never been born.

Well. Beggars cant be choosers.

You think that would be asking too much.

What’s done is done. Anyway, it’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.

I guess so.

Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave. He lifted his head and looked across the fire at the boy. Then he looked at the man. The man could see his small eyes watching him in the firelight. God knows what those eyes saw.

3 thoughts on “Words of Others: Cormac McCarthy”

  1. MIchelle says:

    I saw the movie and it was so powerful, and in a weird way it taught Tyler and I a lot about each other and marriage.

    I do the same thing with my books too. They sit building up dust until some random day comes along and it feels like a new book again and I’m ready to pick it up : )

  2. Drew says:

    I’ve always thought Cormac McCarthy could be the postmodern Ernest Hemmingway. Their sentences are short and abrupt, without the scenic imagery and metaphor. And especially in The Road, it ads to the bleakness of the landscape. These characters have no time or inclination to be anything other than direct. When I finished that book several years ago I thought to myself, “there’s a great book that’ll never be a good movie.” I haven’t seen the movie and have no interest in it either. The writing style, which can’t be represented in the movie, contributed so much to the story. I’ve come to really love reading Cormac McCarthy, and the more you read him the easier it becomes. You pick up on his style and all that lack of punctuation. And I think it does contribute to the story, because it seems to me that the kind of people he writes about probably don’t use a lot of punctuation in their speech either.

    By the way, Aaron, I admittedly don’t read your blog all the time, but I can tell all your hard work in practicing your craft is paying off. Keep up the good work.

    1. Aaron says:

      Hey Drew, I was just thinking of you. I actually just got done writing a bit about some of my time in Vermont (this time last year, when it was 0 and I almost lost a few toes). Thanks for commenting!

      I watched an interview around the time that I posted this and McCarthy admits his inspiration for The Road came out of a short trip he took with his son to Arizona or New Mexico (can’t recall which). He had his son much later into his life and so reflected that he probably didn’t have normal “dad” thoughts that he may have had as a younger man.

      I loved how you said this:

      When I finished that book several years ago I thought to myself, “there’s a great book that’ll never be a good movie.”

      I laughed aloud to it, but I admit I agree with you, though also having not seen the movie and in having friends who have and say it was great intrigues me a little. I too fear that his dialogue, being short and snappy, is just too important and seemingly hard to replicate on screen. Im open to being wrong about that though.

      Hope you, Brittany, and the baby are well!

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