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Rash Undertakings

From Brick 27

I discovered Cormac McCarthy in 1970 in Victoria when I stumbled into a bookshop, Poor Richard’s this was, began browsing among the rear shelves and pulled down a hardback called The Orchard Keeper. It was a first novel, I saw, sent five years earlier for review purposes to the Victoria newspaper. It wouldn’t have been reviewed, of course, because in those days the only books reviewed were those having to do with military history. So many books about military history, four or five each week. Week after week, year after year, this and that campaign, this and that war, the autobiography and biography and notebooks of this and that General or Admiral. The mind boggled, but the mind accepted with delicious malignity what the book page maintained: that fiction worthy of notice hadn’t been written in this country or elsewhere in 137 years. “If ever anything of note is written,” wrote the book editor, “we shall review it.” But at least back then the paper had a certain ludicrous character; now the reviews come to us from U.S. syndicates.

It interests me to pursue this gratuitous insult, since McCarthy’s newest novel, published last year by Random House, has not been reviewed either, though war is one of its principal topics of discussion. Blood Meridian has a pre-Civil War setting and might therefore be called an historical novel; it opens as the American west is being claimed and therefore might be called a western. But it is most assuredly not the west we have inherited through books and movies dealing with the subject and all prior works will seem tame beside it. No one leads a charmed life here. No one is safe, no one stands tall or rides into the sunset, and few are seen as even making the effort. A cut-throat gang, matchless in their depravity, some among them borrowed from historical truth, contracts with a Mexican governor to take Apache scalps at a payment of $100 each, and these men-—who are the embodiment of evil, evil endemic now incarnate, juvenescent and rapacious of spirit—swarm through the pages like Armageddon’s ardent and armipotent servants, opposed by no visible moral force nor slowed by any of the expected civilized restraints. Inevitably, they soon observe that the scalps of their contractors are not unlike those they have been hired to confiscate.

The terrain we may take to be not unlike that of hell. McCarthy finds no glory in war, no nobility in its endeavours or the west’s expansion, precious little even in its victims, and only a stumbling, minute grace for one character at the end; in this book his is a projection of the earth as an expanse of unremitting nightmare, a nightmare ever with us, ever on the meridian. He has offered no more escape for the reader than is granted his characters, both the doers and the done-to—none except language. But he has penned these horrors with the ink of an angel.

Every man is tabemacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world.

Notions of chance and fate are the preoccupations of men engaged in rash undertakings.

The bodies of the dead were stripped and their uniforms and weapons burned along with the saddles and other gear and the Americans dug a pit in the road and buried them in a common grave, the naked bodies with their wounds like the victims of surgical experimentation lying in the pit gaping sightlessly at the desert sky as the dirt was pushed over them. They trampled the spot with their horses until it looked like the road again and the smoking gunlocks and sabreblades and girthrings were dragged from the ashes of the fire and carried away and buried in a separate place and the riderless horses hazed off into the desert and in the evening the wind carried away the ashes and the wind blew in the night and fanned the last smoldering billets and drove forth the last fragile race of sparks fugitive as flintstrikings in the unanimous dark of the world.

They entered the city haggard and filthy and reeking with the blood of the citizenry for whose protection they had contracted.

Save for their guns and buckles and a few pieces of metal in the harness of the animals there was nothing about these arrivals to suggest even the discovery of the wheel.

Who is Cormac McCarthy and is his work always so gloomy? No, his work is often wildly funny—there is, in his novel Suttree, for instance, a lovable character who fornicates with an entire field of watermelons–though his novels diligently probe the nature of good and evil. McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933, and at the age of four moved to a rural appendage of Knoxville, Tennessee, where he grew up. That’s hill country, land of your Great Smokies, your Appalachian chain, homeplace at one time to your Cherokee, Shawnee, Chicasaw and Creek. An area rich in southern yore and lore, famous for Robert Mitchum illicit booze-running movies, next door to your Waltons of TV fame, your Ma and Pa Kettle and other immortals of that stripe. He attended the University of Tennessee and served in the air force. He now lives in Texas, where he guards his privacy, I’m told—though it did not seem so to me—with somewhat the tenacity of Salinger.


McCarthy has published five novels: The Orchard Keeper in 1965, Outer Dark in 1968, Child of God in 1973, Suttree in 1979 and Blood Meridian last year. His editor for twenty years has been the distinguished Albert Erskine, who was Faulkner’s final editor, as well as editor for John O’Hara, Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty and Malcolm Lowry. I asked Erskine how he ranks McCarthy among this literary enfilade. “Of those I’ve read,” he said, “and I haven’t read all, of course . . . he is the best of his generation . . . .Let me say this,” he went on. “Lowry’s Under the Volcano, in 1944, was the first novel I sent out advance bound galleys of to booksellers, reviewers and critics. I believed in it that strongly. The Orchard Keeper, twenty-one years later, was the second.”

Here is the opening page of that novel:

The tree was down and cut to lengths, the sections spread and jumbled over the grass. There was a stocky man with three fingers bound up in a dirty bandage with a splint. With him were a Negro and a young man, the three of them gathered about the butt of the tree. The stocky man laid aside the saw and he and the Negro took hold of the piece of fence and strained and grunted until they got the log turned over. The man got to one knee and peered into the cut. We best come in this way, he said. The Negro picked up the crosscut and he and the man began sawing again. They sawed for a time and then the man said, Hold it. Goddamn, that’s it again.

They stopped and lifted the blade from the cut and peered down into the tree. Uh-huh, said the Negro. It sho is now, ain’t it?

The young man came over to see . Here, said the man, look sideways here. See? He looked. All the way up here? he said. Yep, the man said. He took hold of the twisted wrought-iron, the mangled fragment of the fence, and shook it. It didn’t shake. It’s growed all thue the tree, the man said. We cain’t cut no more on it. Damned old elum’s bad enough on a saw.

The Negro was nodding his head. Yessa, he said. It most sholy was. Growed all up in that tree.

The Orchard Keeper, though violence is much a part of its tapestry, is the warm and compelling and beautifully wrought story of three linked individuals in remote mountains during the Depression—a young boy, a young man, and a very old man, the orchard keeper of the title, and one of McCarthy’s remarkable achievements is that each of these three is perfectly and movingly observed, their story, to my mind, being one of heroic survival, say victory, in an impoverished world.

I’m not going to speak of McCarthy’s fourth and longest novel, Suttree, except to say that many, Erskine among them, hold it to be his finest. And except to say that its setting is Dreg’s Row in Knoxville in the early fifties, and its protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, renounces his “safe” family to take up life and find his transformation among 

thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spaspeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots, and archsots, lobcots, smellsmocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.

And to say that this novel contains more sustained comedy than his others, thanks largely to a fellow named Gene Harrogate, your watermelon man, a Duddy Kravitztype turned upside down and emptied of three-quarters of the sense he never had in the first place, Gene being truly one of the most astonishingly madcap, zany and somehow touching creations in all of twentieth-century fiction.

Let’s dip into Child of God, his third novel, a chronicle of the lurid life and hard times of Lester Ballard, backwoods murderer and necrophile, a man of mean spirit and stubborn resourcefulness we come eventually to understand fully, and finally even, incredibly, to identify with.

Here is the tail end of one of that novel’s many vivid scenes:

One cold morning on the Frog Mountain turnaround he found a lady sleeping under the trees in a white gown. He watched her for a while to see if she were dead. He threw a rock or two, one touched her leg. She stirred heavily, her hair all caught with leaves. He went closer. He could see her heavy breasts sprawled under the thin stuff of her nightdress and he could see the dark thatch of hair under her belly. He knelt and touched her. Her slack mouth twisted. Her eyes opened. They seemed to open downward by the underlids like a bird’s and her eyeballs were gorged with blood. She sat up suddenly, a sweet ferment of whiskey and rot coming off her. Her lip drew back in a eat’s snarl. What do you want, you son of a bitch? she said.

Ain’t you cold? 

What the hell is it to you?

It ain’t a damn thing to me.

Ballard had risen and stood above her with the rifle.

Where’s your clothes at?

She rose up and staggered backwards and sat down hard in the leaves. Then she got up again. She stood there weaving and glaring at him with her puffed and heavylidded eyes. Son of a bitch, she said. Her eyes were casting about. Spying a rock, she lunged and scrabbled it up and stood him off with it.

Ballard’s eyes narrowed. You better put down that rock, he said.

You make me.

I said to put it down.

She drew the rock back menacingly. He took a step forward. She heaved the rock and hit him in the chest with it and then covered her face with her hands. He slapped her so hard it spun her back around facing him. She said: I knowed you’d do me thisaway.

Ballard touched his hand to his chest and glanced down quickly to check for blood but there was none . She had her face buried in her hands. He took hold of the strap of her gown and gave it a good yank. The thin material parted to the waist. She turned loose of her face and grabbed at the gown. Her nipples were hard and bluelooking with the cold. Quit, she said.

Ballard seized a fistful of the wispy rayon and snatched it. Her feet came from under her and she sat in the trampled frozen weeds. He folded the garment under his arm and stepped back. Then he turned and went on down the road. She sat stark naked on the ground and watched him go, calling various names after him, none his.

I have a special fondness for Outer Dark, McCarthy’s second novel, because of its compactness, its conciseness, a dramatic intensity that is practically stereophonic, and because it has a structural form clean as a Concorde jet. The story develops from an incestuous brother-sister relationship, terrain again taking on mythic properties as brother looks to find sister, sister looks to find her stolen baby, and three ghostly murders stalk the countryside like grim Magi, all journeys eventually converging in horrendous spectacle, emptying finally into these apocalyptic notes:

Before him stretched a spectral waste out of which reared only the naked trees in attitudes of agony and dimly hominoid like figures in a landscape of the damned. A faintly smoking garden of the dead that tended away to the earth’s curve. He tried his foot in the mire before him and it rose in a vulvate welt claggy and sucking. He stepped back. A stale wind blew from this desolation and the marsh reeds and black ferns among which he stood clashed softly like things chained. He wondered why a road should come to such a place.

Going back the way by which he came he met again the blind man tapping through the dusk. He waited very still by the side of the road, but the blind man passing turned his head and smiled upon him his blind smile. Holme watched him out of sight. He wondered where the blind man was going and did he know how the road ended. Someone should tell a blind man before setting him out that way.

I reached McCarthy by phone in Texas and put it to him that perhaps the public found his tales a mite bleak. “Jolly tales,” he said, “are not what it is all about. My feeling is that all good literature is bleak. When a work gets a certain gloss on it with age and the current reality of it is dulled, then we can say what has and what does not have the true tragic face. I’m guided by the sweep and grandeur of classical tragedy. Mine are the conditions common to people everywhere and finally the work has little to do with any personal aberration of the characters.”

I suggested that perhaps one reason his work has not secured its deserved audience was that his characters were indeed cast adrift in some “unanimous dark of the world,” within a “lethal environment” which offered neither relief nor instruction, pre-wheel times, time without mercy, time presided over by the implacable face of Nothingness, with a will to survive, fortitude, as the only and last testament. Whereas today’s reader wanted events explained, lamented, accounted for: Lester is the way he is because he comes from a broken home, his parents whipped him, he had no shoes until he was ten years old.

“I don’t doubt it,” McCarthy said. “Modem readers are a lot more familiar with Freud than with Sophocles.”

I asked him how difficult he finds it to write these amazing novels. “I work on each for several years,” he said, “and am brought to the brink of innumerable suicides. I want, even for the worst of the characters, grace under pressure, some slinking nobility.”

I asked him what he had been reading lately. “I’ve just finished Shakespeare and the Common Understanding,” he said. “And one of your guys, Michael On–? How do you say it?”


“That’s right. Ondaatje. Wonderful stuff.”

So the circle, in this nicest of ways, came round.

Read the rest of Brick 27 and access the Brick Digital Archive here.

Leon Rooke’s new short story collection, Wide World in Celebration and Sorrow, was published this October.

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