Cormac McCarthy: Judges in the American Canon

David Powlison, Russell Moore, and Eugene Peterson are just a few church leaders who have recognized how literature helps us understand relationships, stories, and language. Reading opens us to worlds, experiences, and perspectives that simply can’t be explored any other way.

With that in mind, consider this an invitation to explore the work of one of the 20th (and now 21st) century’s most influential writers: Cormac McCarthy. I extend this invite not as an expert, but as a shameless, googly-eyed fanboy. As C. S. Lewis says in the introduction to his book on the Psalms, “The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met.” In my case, the former is most certainly true, and hopefully the latter is as well.

Spanning the Landscape

McCarthy has written ten novels, several of which have been turned into major motion pictures. The Road won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award in 1992.

McCarthy’s work spans the American landscape, telling stories that take place in Appalachia and the Old West. If there’s a common theme to the settings of McCarthy’s work, it’s that he tends to choose times and places on the precipice of change and decay: the growing lawlessness in the border towns of No Country for Old Men, the end of the cowboy era in The Border Trilogy, and the end of the world as we know it in the scorched earth of The Road.

McCarthy describes himself as “not particularly religious,” even though he grew up Roman Catholic, and his books drip with biblical imagery and language. I’ve often wondered if he isn’t versed in the work of the Puritans, both for his understanding of the depths of sin and also the overarching hand of Providence. If he is, he isn’t saying. Instead, he spends much of his time at The Santa Fe Institute, a strange think tank of elite physicists, mathematicians, biologists, computer scientists, and others who do “complexity research,” a field for interdisciplinary studies and projections. According to an interview with Rolling Stone, McCarthy isn’t just a fly on the wall. He contributes to the conversations and work of some of the world’s leading scientists.

Distinct Style

It’s hard to define and describe McCarthy’s writing style. The Road often reads like Hemingway—stark and lean—while other books like Suttree (especially its breathtaking gothic opening) are effusive and cinematic, leaving the mind whirling. He famously writes with minimal punctuation, saying, “If you write properly, you don’t have to punctuate.” In McCarthy’s mind, the flow of the work should be apparent, including the dialogue (he doesn’t use quotations), without filling the page with punctuation.

This gives his novels a relentlessness, barreling the reader through his gloomy worlds. If one theme is consistent to McCarthy’s work, it’s depravity and darkness. His stories usually follow characters who venture into desolate places, where humanity is descending into something devious and dark: the brothels of Cities of the Plain, the roving murderers of Blood Meridian, the cannibals who haunt the margins of The Road. Through this frightful landscape, McCarthy’s lead characters do their moral wrestling, wondering if anything good remains in the darkness. His books all answer that question differently, though (I would argue) rarely without some measure of hope.

Fire and Light

Reading McCarthy’s books, you’ll observe a theme of fire and light in his books. “Carrying the fire” is discussed often in The Road, a shorthand way that the father speaks to his son about maintaining dignity, humanity, and courage in the midst of apocalyptic anarchy. That theme appears in No Country for Old Men and The Border Trilogy as well—the thread of hope for humanity appears as light flickering in the darkness. In Suttree, the lead character is a remarkably decent man, living among a collection of amusing and broken miscreants.

The standout in McCarthy’s work is nature itself. Humanity is dark and prone to great, catastrophic evil, but nature is profoundly beautiful in McCarthy’s. His eloquence comes alive when he talks about rivers and streams, horses and fish. The final few sentences of The Road contain a description of trout that, if you’ve ever caught one and held it in your hand under the summer sun, is absolutely perfect.

Where to Begin

Perhaps the easiest introduction to McCarthy is The Border Trilogy, three books set in the early 1900s, as the American cowboy disappears. The first book, All the Pretty Horses, is a tragic love story starring John Grady Cole, a prototypical heroic cowboy who goes to Mexico in search of work. The description of Cole breaking a whole herd of wild horses in a single day is some of McCarthy’s most beautiful work.

The rest of the trilogy is equally good. The third volume, Cities of the Plain, may be my favorite McCarthy novel, but I wouldn’t suggest reading it apart from the others.

The Road is his most recent novel, and flows out of his relationship with his young son. The dialogue between father and son, journeying through an apocalypse-burnt American South, is stark and authentic. They are running from death, chased at times by cult-like bands of cannibals and slave traders. The black sky rains ash all day. Strangely, this heartbreaking book is one of his most human and hopeful.

True Sound

McCarthy certainly isn’t for everyone. Some will be utterly disturbed by his violence. Others may be merely irritated by the lack of punctuation or his downward-moving story arcs.

But if you’re like me, McCarthy’s work will sound true. The tragedies of John Grady Cole and Ed Tom Bell will sound like stories we’ve heard a hundred times. The violence of the curse will leave us shaking our heads, and the power of a horse will take our breath away. Loss will sting and leave us feeling empty, and a simple meal like beans and tortillas will taste like manna. Life will sometimes feel like it’s all darkness, death, consequences, and judgment, but a thread of light will flicker through. McCarthy helps us see that, and through his stories, helps us feel it and articulate it in new ways.

John Piper once said on Twitter “Cormac McCarthy is to the American literary canon what Judges is to the the biblical canon.” I couldn’t agree more.

  • Wade Thomas

    I would’ve thought more like Ecclesiastes.

  • Mark

    “Some will be utterly disturbed by his violence.” I can’t argue with McCarthy’s excellence as a writer, but unfortunately the more brutal images in his work are what stick with me. Honestly, when someone mentions Cormac McCarthy these images are what immediately come to mind – not the beautiful prose or the carefully-crafted storytelling. I have read All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and The Road. In retrospect I wish I hadn’t read the last one.

  • Matt Beatty

    I’ve been talking with parents of my students (Jr. HS and HS) recently about the “Hunger Games” phenomena (admittedly different from the “beautiful prose” and “carefully-crafted storytelling” of McCarthy) and what strikes me as odd – really odd – is how people (kids) whose lives are so safe, insulated, and “good” are drawn to such anti-Kingdom violence and moral compromise as the Hunger Games. Perhaps the same could be said for Mr. McCarthy, literary skill notwithstanding.

    Judges, I think, should serve to horrify, warm, and dissemble us, not make “draw us in and make us hopeful for another story like that one.” God’s grace is on display in Judges (what about McCarthy?), but the overwhelming message is that you and I – left to our own – make an indescribable mess of things.

    Perhaps if more of us lived where “total depravity” with a real force, we’d tire of the men and women whose stories tell us, again and again, just how perverted and broken we really are without a hint of how to be free from the perversion and brokenness – now and forevermore.

    • David

      Well said Matt. A dog looks an awful lot like a horse, but it’s not a horse and never will be. So to demand from a dog what one would demand from a horse is unwise … even if logical. We can observe their similarities, and in the observing we can come to some unified conclusion (i.e., These were made by the same Creator). But to then imply that in light of their similarities men should now attempt to ride dogs as horses is, as C.S. Lewis said, attempting to see through something to such an extent that you end up seeing nothing at all.

      Mike is a good writer. A simple review would have been interesting enough, but it feels like because this is The Gospel Coalition, there needed to be forced into the review an obligatory “gospel silver lining”, which there is… but only because McCarthy is a part of creation.

      Excuse my purist sentiment, but the gospel is the power to save, not pieces of redemption pulled out of permissible but non-beneficial secularism. Of course the gospel is there somewhere, it is everywhere, but do we really need to pull it out of secular culture to this extent? I don’t think so.

      • David

        I’ve been thinking more about this type of cultural exegesis over the last few days. The pitfall of cultural exegesis, as in Biblical exegesis, is a faulty hermeneutic … in this case, a faulty “cultural hermeneutic”.

        A huge temptation in OT interpretation is to pull typology from every text with even a hint of redemptive themes/symbols. The stretched typology is usually creative and logical, but the problem with every logical instance being a Type is that the impact of the true Types diminish.

        Taking this to the level of “cultural exegesis”, we have to be careful to avoid pointing out secular, “Cultural Christophanies” where there is actually only an angel of light that pales in comparison to the true “brightness of His glory” found in the gospel.

        If this sort of “cultural exegesis” was used to take us to an emphatic gospel then that is nothing different than what Paul did in Acts 17 with the “Unknown god”, but when the subtext of our “exegesis” is a lauding and condoning of the crafters of idols themselves and their work, then our own stretched Biblical interpretation of their work is dismantled as we build them up as autonomous purveyors of truth. They have nothing truly worthwhile to say, unless they are saying it fully; religions are too similar for this sort of unspecific “truth” (e.g., the golden rule withheld from a Christ-spoken context).

        Again, I’m not saying that this form of analogy is wrong, I just think it’s unwise to bring it out with such excruciating emphasis. It can seem that all one is looking for is a justifiable reason to read such material. I know from making the same mistake that this sort of cultural-mandate-justification can actually be an issue with conscience rather than a culture-conscious issue. The more we attempt to pull from the culture, the more it is pulling us in and the line between freedom and license can quickly become blurred.

        To be clear: I am not accusing Mike of licentiousness, but only pointing out the dangers in this sort of embracing and condoning of culture. We can draw the gospel out without putting our endorsement on the cover; and in the end, do we really NEED to read material like this, no matter how good? No. So I’m simply saying, let’s make our analysis an emphasis of “permissible” rather than “beneficial”.

  • Scott

    Well done, Mike. I would suggest starting with his first novel and moving forward from there. “The Orchard Keeper” has all the themes, characters, and settings that are more fully developed later. It also contains a great abundance of McCarthy’s great un-commented upon strength – humor.

    For those disturbed by the violence, “The Orchard Keeper” is a great introduction because what violence that is present is minor in comparison to what we find in “Blood Meridian” or “No Country for Old Men” or on “CSI Whatever” for that matter.

    McCarthy is a great writer for Christians to read for many reasons – the beautiful writing, the intellectual rigor, etc. But perhaps his great service to the Christian reader is that, like in AMC’s “Mad Men”, he doesn’t make evil into a grotesque that is inhuman and unrecognizable to me – and thus, easy to discount. Rather, in his shrewd characterizations, he confronts me with my own capacity for evil – that is, he makes me squirm with self recognition. How easy would it be for me to fall in with Glanton and the Judge; how easy to become Lester Ballard in “Child of God” – seriously. McCarthy removes the excuses, the rationalizing, and denial and exposes the true nature of man – us, me – apart from Jesus. Reading McCarthy should drive us to our knees – especially when the beauty and Grace of God leaks in as it so often does.

    McCarthy is not a Christian writer, thank God, but he has much to say to the Christian reader.

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  • Michael

    I agree, Scott. If McCarthy’s violent depictions rattle us, it’s because he holds the mirror up to us. Unlike much modern fiction, his stories aren’t godless ascents into human triumph, they are agnostic descents into the truth of human existence: utter depravity. And, In Blood Meridian, McCarthy has penned one of my favorite lines ever. In discussing the voice of God, one character remarks that he ‘ain’t never heard nothing.’ Another (an ex-priest, no less) replies something to the effect of ‘when it stops, you’ll realize you’ve heard it all along.’

    As with all things, reading McCarthy is a matter of conscience and it may not be fruitful for some to read his works. But, if you don’t read McCarthy in a vacuum and you consider it with a Biblical worldview, then I think McCarthy can be astoundingly missional reading. From an eternal, spiritual perspective, the world is no less bleak than The Road, and even on a temproal, physical level, people can be no less cruel to one another than the roving murderers of Blood Meridian. How might a Christian live and engage his or her surrounding world if they had such a full, visceral understanding of how crushing a Christ-less existence truly is?

  • https://facebook.com/starbuck61 Jeff Baldwin

    I have read Cormac McCarthy’s writing, and found it very compelling. His sparse writing style is refreshing, and he does expose a visceral core that we are often insulated from in our modern life. As to the spiritual aspects of it, I would say that I got no message in particular from “All the Pretty Horses”, other than that I saw an era lost, where young men could still go off and carve their path on their own, and even despite their trials, life was nowhere near as threatening as it is today. I wish I’d had that latitude that the young men had in the story, and hadn’t been quite so insulated from a “toughening” experience that would’ve have done me a world of good. I guess that is why I am in Afghanistan now…..

    Since we are on the subject of American contemporary literature, and having read some of Cormac McCarthy, I would like to recommend in the balance Kent Haruf. I have read both “Plainsong” and “Eventide”. Both novels take place in a small town, and focus on the interaction of a number of characters, and how lives intertwine and affect one another – even though the characters don’t know it. It is written in a spares, lean prose, which flows easily. There are both good (mainly) and a few bad people, as the protagonists work their way through the unexpected turbulence of life. In the end, they both deliver a message of tempered hope and redemption in hard times. He, and several other authors, Cormac McCarthy included, introduced me to the joys of contemporary American literature, and I would recommend him, especially after a “satisfying” read of Mr. McCarthy, to refresh the soul.

  • https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/ Joshua

    ‘Glanton spat.’

    One of the most brilliant writers alive today. His older works truly are horrifying, though. I just finished ‘Outer Dark,’ not too long ago. Yikes.

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  • http://chickadeescout.blogspot.com chickadeescout

    I’ve been a big Cormac McCarthy fan since reading “The Crossing” in my freshman year of college — it determined my whole course of study in college and remains one of my favorite novels, ever.

    “Cities of the Plain” is wonderful, too — but for me, it’s the last thirty pages that make the book. Otherwise it feels a little thin to me compared to the first two parts of the trilogy.

    I would strongly recommend the criticism of Edwin T. Arnold — while some authors find bottomless nihilism in McCarthy’s work (and you certainly don’t have to look to hard), Arnold has written many, many articles on the Christian symbolism and deeper Christian meaning in Cormac McCarthy’s books (“Blood and Grace” comes to mind).

    I’ve read all of McCarthy’s western novels, most of his plays, and “The Orchard Keeper” — but “Blood Meridian” was by far my least favorite. I had to force myself to finish it — and while it’s admirable, I don’t think I ever want to read it again. The sheer horror and volume of the violence and depravity in the book, with seemingly every avenue for redemption squelched, was just too much for me.

    I liked “No Country” and “The Road,” but the one I keep coming back to again and again is “The Crossing” (and not just because I can’t read the first part aloud without bawling) — diving into that book armed with Ecclesiastes and Cain and Abel, you could write volumes just on Billy and Boyd.

    “The Stonemason” is probably my second favorite of his works — haunting and powerful.

    • https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/ Joshua

      The former priests monologue in ‘The Crossing,’ might be some of the best literature of the last hundred years.

  • Keith Pavlischek

    Beautiful review. Thank you.

  • http://www.creekside.com Steven G.

    Thanks for the reminder of how powerful well down literature can be. I read “The Road in one sitting on a flight back from Eastern Europe. I was profoundly missing my wife and 4 kids after a month on a missions trip. His writing though sparse are times, is amazingly evocative. He can bring the most powerful images to mind with the fewest words you could image. In “the Road”, it was if he produced a world in which the spirit of God had been removed, a world without God’s common grace. In that terrible place, the man trying to find somewhere for him and his son to live.
    I read in an interview he wanted to strip down what to meant to be a parent, a father to the bare essentials, of protection, providing food and shelter as well as the question of what legacy will I leave this child. His books are not for the faint fo heart or the easily offended, but it is his unblinking look at the evil of the human heart, which is always a mirror worth looking into.
    And while he is probably most noticed for his portrayals of evil, I am still moved by the depiction of the love of the father for the son in the Road. It always makes me hold my kids a little tighter and to be a little more grateful. It seems to me he might be someone who once had faith but time and life has drained it away. And yet, for the sake fo his son whom he loves so dearly, he wishes his early ideas of faith were true.

  • Scott Myers

    Thanks for this article – McCarthy’s following has increased in the last few year, mostly I suspect from those who have read The Road and No Country for Old Men.

    I will say, I find that McCarthy is oracular in nature for many of the reasons listed, but that he is also very anti-Christian and anti-American in his message, specifically in how he interprets the impact of the former on the latter.

    McCarthy must be read, not listened to. His decision to abandon formal punctuation etc. is intrinsically linked to his own method of story telling – for him the narrative is where faith is to be placed, not in the analysis. In this way he echo’s Robert Penn Warren when he states “All is telling. Do not doubt it.” (The Crossing)

    Whatever might be said about McCarthy’s work, we ought to remember that it is not for everyone. I get frustrated by those who seek to encourage the reading of McCarthy based on a superficial reading of his more popular works. For me the key text to understanding McCarthy is to read Blood Meridian – I suspect that for those of who have truly read it, there is a shared remembrance of the nausea and nightmares which accompanies the reading of it.

  • http://www.cliftondalecc.blogspot.com Rev Dr Robert Leroe

    I recommend the audiobook versions of his books, otherwise the lack of punctuation will drive you crazy. The Road is perhaps one of the best dystopian novels. I’m reluctant to see the movie; the book was dark enough.

  • Marc S. Brown

    I don’t know… I saw “No Country…” but have never read any of the author’s works. His style may very well be beautiful and profound, but I don’t need to read anything to know of the brokenness of the world; I simply need to turn on the nightly news. Perhaps I’m a simpleton, however what I crave is to see some genuine goodness that is left in God’s creation.

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