Why you should be reading Cormac McCarthy

What does the future hold?

Next Friday, I’ll be featuring a guest post in the form of an interview between Gingernuts of Horror Jim McLeod and Christopher Golden, author of the Borderkind trilogy as well as a series of tie-in books to Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television series.  I haven’t met Christopher, however, my instructor at one of the Maui Writer’s Retreats was Nancy Holder, who collaborated with Christopher Golden on several of the Buffy tie-ins.  And don’t try pretending you’re not a fan of the Buffy series.  At least not until you’ve watched more than one or two episodes (but more on that next week).

But without further ado…

Cormac McCarthy

I was originally going to write this post simply as a discussion/review of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (and this post will still end up there), but then I started thinking about the other books of his that I’ve read.  I have to be honest here, “with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality,” I’ve developed something of a writer’s man-crush on Cormac McCarthy (my wife is pretty impressed with him as well, but I’m not jealous.  I promise.)

As with many recent McCarthy fans, I started by reading The Road.  As a high school English teacher, I wasn’t sure I’d make it past the first few pages with his sparse (and I mean sparse) use of punctuation.  If you haven’t read a Cormac McCarthy book, you’ll be very surprised by the lack of  A- any punctuation marks around dialogue, and B- very few dialogue attributes/tags (he said, she said, etc…).  In the case of The Road, except for the rare moments when the father and son run into a third party, you might go pages without any dialogue attributes.

Keeping in mind that The Road was the first McCarthy book I’d read, at first I thought he was using it as a device to represent the sparse, cut-to-the-bone feel of the whole story.  Then I read No Country for Old Men.


And everything else I’ve read by him.  Same lack of punctuation and dialogue attributes.

Here’s why Cormac McCarthy (and others…  Hemingway comes to mind) can do this.  And this is probably one of the biggest reasons I think you should be reading Cormac McCarthy (funny that it’s wrapped in what is the antithesis of my day job).  His voice is so strong and well-crafted that you don’t need to be given the normal visual clues that the writer is switching from narration to dialogue (well, okay, there are still a few moments where I get a little lost.  But those are few and far between).

You get to know the characters so intimately, and he speaks so clearly in their individual voices that you just know who’s speaking without having to be told.  I will admit that I haven’t read that much Hemingway (much to the chagrin of my good friend and memoirist Brandon R. Schrand), but I remember many similar passages of dialogue in The Sun Also Rises.

If you’re a writer, you know this is something towards which we aspire.  If you’re not a writer, now you know that this something towards which we writers aspire.

Before I go on, a word about The Road.  Besides being bleak, one common complaint that I’ve heard about The Road from many genre readers is that it didn’t hold their attention, and I think this applies to the post-apocalyptic setting.

I have to admit that the horror writer in me really wanted to know all the details of the apocalypse that brought the world to the desolate point where we find the father and son (oh, and these are their character names, by the way.  Again, can you say “sparse”?).  However, I quickly realized it wasn’t a story about that.  It was a story about the father and son, just as The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet wasn’t really a story about the feud between the Montagues and Capulets (which is never really explained either).  It was about Romeo and Juliet, who just happened to find themselves in those circumstances.

And I challenge you to find another story besides The Road with so little dialogue but such an amazingly powerful relationship between two of its characters (seriously, this will be part of the “What do I want from you?”)

I recognize that I’ve said much of this already in my post “My own Works Cited list: 10 books that have inspired me,” so I’ll move on.

In addition to No Country for Old Men and The Road, I’ve also read the first two books of the Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing) with plans to read the third book as well as Blood Meridian.  I’m not sure what else to say about him except that he just has an amazing way to weave a story… or to spin a yarn, as the ol’ timers might say.  These are characters you believe in and care about.  And there are settings that are as alive as the characters, even in their desolation.

And there’s something for every type of reader.  When I think of All the Pretty Horses (which I was hesitant to read after hearing they made a movie with Matt Damon, but which I loved) has history, travel (at least into Mexico…*- see below), Western,  romance, and action.

*- A caveat for readers.  Several of McCarthy’s books will often have snippets of conversation  (or sometimes long passages) in Spanish without much explanation of what is being said.  While I speak what I like to call “getting around Spanish,” this aspect of his books was frustrating for my wife who tells me that she reads every word, even though she’s not sure what they’re saying.  At certain points it seems like they must be saying something important.

Why you should read No Country for Old Men even if you didn’t love the movie.

From Amazon.com:

In 1980 southwest Texas, Llewelyn Moss … stumbles across several dead men, a bunch of heroin and $2.4 million in cash. The bulk of the novel is a gripping man-on-the-run sequence relayed in terse, masterful prose as Moss, who’s taken the money, tries to evade … Chigurh, an icy psychopathic murderer armed with a cattle gun and a dangerous philosophy of justice. Also concerned about Moss’s whereabouts is Sheriff Bell, an aging lawman struggling with his sense that there’s a new breed of man (embodied in Chigurh) whose destructive power he simply cannot match.- Publisher’s Weekly

First, let me say that I love the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed the movie version of No Country for Old Men.  They did a great job of capturing in a limited time many of the scenes from the book, but in my opinion, they didn’t adequately capture the essence.

Before I go into my spoiler alert, I’ll just say that the book has a great mix of third person point of view and first person point of view from the perspective of Sheriff Bell.  And when you finish the book, you realize that McCarthy has done an amazing job of giving you the ending (or at least a major aspect of it) almost from the beginning of the book via these first person chapters.  And Sheriff Bell is a character you won’t forget anytime soon (and you definitely won’t forget Anton Chigurh, the “bad guy,” either).

This is a skill I try to put into my writing.  In my opinion a good story can be read multiple times with each new read revealing new information or contributing more significant meaning to certain things which were seemingly insignificant the first time around.  As a writer, you don’t want to give away the ending, but you want to plant little clues that a reader will either remember at the end or catch the next time through.

SPOILER ALERT:  The following section discusses the end of the No Country for Old Men

I need to start by saying that I saw the movie before reading the book.  Usually this makes reading the book a task for me, but such was far from the case with No Country for Old Men.

Not the Tommy Lee Jones we’re used to

As I mentioned, in my opinion, I didn’t think the movie adequately covered the essence of the story, but rather focused more on the pursuit of Llewelyn Moss by Anton Chigurh.  In the book, with so much more information directly from Sheriff Bell, the pursuit seems almost subplot to what the story is really about, which is Sheriff Bell’s coming to terms with the fact that he no longer fits in today’s law enforcement world.  Or maybe even today’s world in general.  And this is the better story of the two.

So while the second time through the movie after having read the book, I definitely caught some of those little hints (Tommy Lee Jones’s brief voiceover at the beginning, his tired expressions as opposed to the normal steely Tommy Lee Jones looks), I felt like it was an almost unjustified (and I emphasize “almost”) ending when Sheriff Bell gives up searching for Chigurh.  And this after watching Chigurh getting away basically scot-free.  It was just an overall surprising ending, and while I could come to grips with the more familiar latter surprise, I had a harder time with Sheriff Bell’s decision.

Seriously?  That’s the ending? I remember thinking after finishing the movie.  I mean, great movie.  But seriously?

Then I read the book.  And then it all made sense, and made the story so much better.  So again, even if you only kind of liked the movie (and especially if you loved it), it’s a short book and a quick read, and you should definitely pick it up.

What do I want from you?

Have you read any Cormac McCarthy? What were your thoughts?  And as I challenged earlier, I would love any recommendations you have with this kind of depth of character shown in so few words.  Or if you are also a McCarthy fan, recommendations of other authors I might like along his vein.

And don’t forget to check back next Friday for Jim McLeod’s interview with Christopher Golden.

21 thoughts on “Why you should be reading Cormac McCarthy

  1. I have to admit that I haven’t read any of his books but I should! I have read quite a few blogs advocating for leaving the he said she said bits out. Says it’s unneeded words and in most cases obvious who the speaker is. It’s hard to leave it off though!

    I am a big Buffy fan too!


    1. Erik, even though most readers read the “he said/she said” almost like punctuation, I tell my students frequently that they don’t need the dialogue attributes every time someone is speaking, especially if it’s only two people. If you have solid voices for your characters, your reader will get into the flow of the conversation and won’t need to be told. Also, physical action can often replace the tags. They can also replace the nasty tendency we have as writers to put adverbs with our tags.

      “I don’t understand why you’re so angry.” Paul shook his head, then looked away. “Especially when I didn’t do anything wrong.”

      As to McCarthy, my first recommendation would be either No Country for Old Men (again, even if you’ve seen the movie). It’s a super quick read and you get a good taste for his writing style. And The Road is another good one. If you like those, even if you’re not a fan of his other topics, I guarantee his writing style will make you just want to read whatever he’s writing (even if it’s a cereal box description).

      Thanks again for stopping by and reading my somewhat lengthy post.

  2. Wanda Hughes 08/12/2011 — 8:59 am

    Hi Paul,
    I’m new to Cormac McCarthy as well. I read The Road, (thank you Oprah) and really loved it. You’re so right, it’s what every author should aspire to, that ability to convey a story in so few words, whatever your style. I admit it does take some getting used to, his style.

    I next read Blood Meridian, who knew it was the third in a trilogy? It totally sucked me in, even those Spanish phrases of which I caught about every fifth word with my Freshman Spanish. It felt like a compulsion, I HAD to keep reading even though much of it was like a hallucination brought on by some horrible feverish disease. Now you tell me it’s part of a trilogy so back I go to take in the other two.

    I’m a writer or so I fancy myself.Not published as yet but a writer nonetheless. But stacked up against McCarthy, I scribble notes in crayon and leave them beside the road, hoping for a reader.

    1. Wanda, great analogy with the crayons. I like it. Sometimes it’s hard to keep writing when I read someone who so clearly above my level. But then I tell myself that he’s had many more years of practice… and that we don’t write the same types of stories anyway. And then, even though we don’t write in the same genre, I try to incorporate the skills he uses in his writing into my own.

      I’m looking forward to reading Blood Meridian, however, there might’ve been some confusion in my wording. It isn’t actually the third book in the Border trilogy (Cities of the Plain is the third). It was just another of his that I wanted to read.

      Thanks for stopping by. Write on!

  3. Paul, I’m going to be breif here because I am busy as hell today. I haven’t read any Cormack McCarthy, but now I really want to. So many people have praised his prose. I am going to start with No Country…
    BTW, I LOVED The Coen Brothers film.


    1. E,
      I’m just happy you had the time to sit and read through my rather lengthy review. Thanks for commenting. Hope “busy as hell”= good stuff. I know for me it’s about 50-50 🙂 Have a good weekend.

  4. I’ve had some serious dissent on my opinions about McCarthy at one of the other places I’ve posted this link.

    AND I LOVE IT! Please don’t feel like you have to agree with me. I love a good lively discussion. As the old adage goes, “Different strokes for different folks,” right? So don’t refrain from leaving a comment just because you think I’m completely wrong.

    Even though I’m not 🙂 ha ha.

  5. Cormac can be a tough read for the casual reader, but the payoff is always immense. Quick side story: I was on Maine a few years ago and the town where we stay has a litle blues club. I see on the marquee that Cormac McCarthy will be there one night and I almost left my shoes! What are the odds he would do a reading in a small town? Well, I waited in line, only to learn from the bouncer that it was a jazz musician that share the same name. Some things are too good to be true.

    1. That would’ve been awesome. Was he at least a good jazz player? Because some good jazz or blues aren’t too far down on the list for me to enjoy as well.

  6. A few things: there is an interview with Cormac out there by none other than Oprah(check it out on Youtube). In it, he discusses a great many things, but most importantly he discusses the lack of commas and quotes. His influence? James frackin Joyce. His novel Suttree is both autobiographical and strongly similar to Ulysses.
    Also: I’ll you a few things about Blood Meridian. It is the finest horror novel ever written, bar none. It’s my favourite novel, bar none. Nothing else comes close. It features the most frightening villain ever; the antagonist makes Chigur look like a bunny rabbit. I finished the book and for several nights lay awake in bed thinking the bad guy was out there, planning to come after my family. He seems to step out off the page.
    Also: more than a few people have thought of making it a movie. Ridley Scott has already bowed out, along with others. It’s considered unfilmable.
    PS. I’ve notified your site to let me know about new posts. You’re not on blogspot, so I don’t know how to follow you otherwise. Eat your wheaties, enjoy Blood Meridian, and try to survive the ride.

    1. Mac, great comments. I’ve looked forward to reading Blood Meridian for some time now, and even more now with your recommendation. Much thanks. And I’ll have to check out that interview. Thanks again.

  7. hey Paul… loved the article. I am a huge fan of McCarthy, although to be fair I have only started. reading the road, and just finished child of god, blood meridian on my desk as I type this. i was looking for more about him on line when I came across your post. I look forward to read more of your posts.

    1. Much thanks for the comment and stopping by. Yeah, I’m obviously a big fan as well, although I haven’t read Child of God. And with limited time to read (about 20 minutes before falling asleep), I still haven’t made it to Blood Meridian, but I’m looking forward to it. Apparently it’s something of a horror novel itself, somewhat surprising from this author… unless you started out with The Road like you and I did 🙂

      Glad you found the site. It’s not all as literary as McCarthy, but hope you find something else of interest.

      1. Child of God is a quickish read. I think in that early work you can see horror a la Richard Matheson. Actually I see many parallels in The Road, and in I am Legend. I look forward to spend more time on your pages.

  8. Paul – You will find Blood Meridian to be so violent on a primal level that it scares you. You’ll turn your nightlight off glad you weren’t living in this story. One of McCarthy’s gifts is to make you truly feel the depravity of the character’s lives. Suttree was so damn depressing I had to put it down for a few days before finishing it. He is without question our greatest living writer.

    1. Joe, thanks for stopping by and commenting. My brother has Blood Meridian, and I think he has finished it, so it’s time I get it from him and check it out.

      Wow, that sounds strange after your caveat. But even with the darkness and the depravity, I appreciate a talented author, and I have yet to come across something by McCarthy that I didn’t respect (“enjoy” doesn’t feel like the right word to use here :))

      Thanks again, and I hope you have a good weekend.

  9. I’ve seen No Country several times but never read it. Thinking that McCarthy had a knack for spinning a great tale I read Blood Meridian. Reading that book was a chore from start to finish and I felt like I was running out of breath as I read his long and laborious sentences, all devoid of punctuation. The story was vague except for McCarthy’s focused descriptions of gore but I guess he gives the reader what he has. There’s certainly no accounting for taste but I’ll never touch his “work” again.

    As an alternative to Cormack Demonic Gore, allow me to suggest that you read James Carlos Blake. He has it all over McCarthy.

    1. John, thanks for the comment. Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve approved and replied. I’ve been on a short sabbatical. Anyway, as I mentioned in the post, I would highly recommend reading the book version of No Country. Not nearly so laborious as Blood Meridian sounds (I haven’t read that one, but my wife did and she had a hard time getting through it). And again, I was very pleased with All the Pretty Horses. As to The Crossing, having traveled in Mexico, I really enjoyed this (although the ending just kind of leaves you hanging), but my wife while reading it just felt like she wanted to get out of Mexico.

      But I appreciate the recommendation of Blake. I will check him out. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  10. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment
    didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing
    all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful

Leave a Reply to Paul D. Dail Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close