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One of the literary giants of the 20th century and beyond, Cormac McCarthy lived something of a hermetic existence while writing dense, but sparsely populated prose that was often compared to William Faulkner, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Posing a nightmarish vision steeped in biblical violence, McCarthy wrote bleak novels of life and death populated by social outcasts and unrelenting misfits that existed on surreal plains of America's mythical Southwest. Using little in the way of punctuation and never using quotation marks to separate dialogue, McCarthy earned high praise for novels like Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), and Suttree (1979), though very few copies were initially sold upon release. While hailed within literary circles as a reclusive genius who paradoxically possessed an outwardly gregarious nature, McCarthy had little in the way of readership. In 1985, he released his most acclaimed novel, Blood Meridian, to little fanfare, though later in his career it was held up as a literary classic on par with Moby Dick. McCarthy's fortunes changed with his bestseller All the Pretty Horses, which won several awards and was turned into a 2000 film starring Matt Damon. His most...
One of the literary giants of the 20th century and beyond, Cormac McCarthy lived something of a hermetic existence while writing dense, but sparsely populated prose that was often compared to William Faulkner, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Posing a nightmarish vision steeped in biblical violence, McCarthy wrote bleak novels of life and death populated by social outcasts and unrelenting misfits that existed on surreal plains of America's mythical Southwest. Using little in the way of punctuation and never using quotation marks to separate dialogue, McCarthy earned high praise for novels like Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), and Suttree (1979), though very few copies were initially sold upon release. While hailed within literary circles as a reclusive genius who paradoxically possessed an outwardly gregarious nature, McCarthy had little in the way of readership. In 1985, he released his most acclaimed novel, Blood Meridian, to little fanfare, though later in his career it was held up as a literary classic on par with Moby Dick. McCarthy's fortunes changed with his bestseller All the Pretty Horses, which won several awards and was turned into a 2000 film starring Matt Damon. His most high-profile book-to-film, "No Country for Old Men" (2007), earned four Academy Awards, while "The Road" (2009), starring Viggo Mortensen, only enhanced his reputation as one of the greatest literary talents of the past 50 years.
Born on July 20, 1933 in Providence, RI, McCarthy moved to Knoxville, TN when he was four years old, where his father, Charles, was a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and his mother, Gladys, raised a family of six. During his youth, McCarthy attended parochial schools, but was a relatively inattentive student. In fact, he grew bored with his studies almost from the start and never expressed much interest in formal education. McCarthy later entered the University of Tennessee in 1951, but dropped out a year later and joined the Air Force for the next four years. Stationed largely in Alaska, he alleviated the boredom by developing a taste for literature, reading a large amount of books in a short time. Upon his discharge, McCarthy returned to the University of Tennessee and managed to stay for two years before dropping out once again. During his second collegiate stint, however, he discovered writing and left in 1959 to become a novelist. Having already begun a novel in school, McCarthy went to Chicago to finish it while marrying college sweetheart, Lee Holleman, in 1961.
After the two had son, Cullen, the couple divorced because of McCarthy's lack of desire to find steady work and the author went on to live in Ashville, N.C., and later New Orleans. He continued writing while subsisting on little money - he was evicted from a room in the French Quarter for being unable to pay the $40-per-month rent - and eventually produced his first manuscript, The Orchard Keeper, a Faulknerian tale about a young boy and his relationship with an outlaw and bootlegger who, unbeknownst to him, killed his father. Though published by Random House in 1965, McCarthy's debut novel sold few copies, but won him the Faulkner prize and the Traveling Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which allowed him to subsist financially. The money also afforded McCarthy the opportunity to travel abroad so he boarded a steamship bound for his ancestral Ireland. While in England, he met and quickly married British pop singer, Annie DeLisle, in 1966. That same year, McCarthy received the Rockefeller Foundation Grant and traveled Europe with DeLisle until settling on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza off the coast of Spain, where he finished his second novel, Outer Dark.
A twisted take on the Nativity story, Outer Dark shocked readers with its unrelenting violence while telling a tale about a young girl who goes in search of her newborn baby which was the product of an incestuous relationship with her brother. In 1967, McCarthy returned to the United States and settled in Rockford, TN, where he used his grant money to live on a pig farm. At this time, he started earning notice for being something of a recluse despite being outwardly gregarious and fond of company. McCarthy turned down lucrative offers to speak about his works at various universities, decisions that wore on DeLisle and kept them in abject poverty. Meanwhile, he published his third novel, Child of God (1973), an unapologetic look at a serial killer who grows increasingly withdrawn and dispossessed while engaging in horrible acts of necrophilia and other sexually deviant behavior. The bleak novel earned praise for its literary prowess from some corners and condemnation over its content from others. From there, McCarthy made his first foray into filmed entertainment by writing a screenplay for "The Gardener's Son," which was aired as an episode of the anthology series "Visions" in 1977.
In 1976, DeLisle finally had enough with her Spartan lifestyle and left McCarthy, divorcing him a few years later. He moved on El Paso, TX, where he lived for many years and moved on to his next novel, Suttree (1979), a semi-autobiographical account of a sensitive man trying to make a living on a houseboat by fishing the polluted Tennessee River. Parts James Joyce's Ulysses by way of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the novel was widely praised by critics and viewed favorably by Knoxville residents, many of whom appeared as caricatures. It would be another six years before McCarthy wrote his next novel, Blood Meridian (1985), his most accomplished novel to date. A nightmarish exploration on the nature of evil, it was based on historical events in the American Southwest in 1849-1850 and recounted the notorious Glanton gang, a group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans along the U.S.-Mexico border. Relentlessly violent and bloody as the title suggested, the novel featured two of McCarthy's most enduring characters, The Kid, the book's anti-hero with a thirst for bloodshed, and Judge Holden, a bald, pale and almost mythical murderer who antagonizes The Kid. Blood Meridian was hailed by critics as one of the finest works of literature created in the 20th century and was often seen as a worthy successor to Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
In a complete about-face, McCarthy eschewed the violence of his previous novels to write the romanticized Western All the Pretty Horses (1992), which marked the first book in his popular "Border Trilogy" while becoming a bestseller that won both the U.S. National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The story focused on a 16-year-old from West Texas who convinces a girl to take off for Mexico after the death of his grandparents and divorce of his parents. Not only did All the Pretty Horses garner a wider readership that had previously eluded him, but it also opened up the doors to Hollywood, though it was doubtful the typically reclusively McCarthy wanted such attention. Still, the book was turned into a negatively reviewed movie directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz. Meanwhile, McCarthy rounded out his "Border Trilogy" with The Crossing (1994), a bleaker coming-of-age tale that resisted delving back into the darkness of his other novels, and Cities of the Plain (1998), a biblically-themed Western that united the protagonists of the first two books in the trilogy.
After several years without a novel, McCarthy finally emerged in 2005 with No Country for Old Men, certainly one of his most widely recognized titles. Set in the West Texas desert in the early 1980s, the novel focused on a Vietnam veteran named Llewelyn Moss, who happens upon a cache of money after a drug deal gone bad. He takes the money only to attract the attention of a sociopathic hit man, Anton Chigurh, who works for a cartel and ruthlessly hunts Moss down as he tries to escape to Mexico. Rounding out the novel's trilogy of main characters is a laconic sheriff who struggles against a new breed of criminals while trying to save Moss and bring in Chigurh. Sparse in language and dense in allusion, No Country for Old Men was another big hit for McCarthy thanks in large part to Joel and Ethan Coen turning the novel into an Academy Award-winning film in 2007. Starring Josh Brolin as Moss, Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell and Javier Bardem as Chigurh, "No Country for Old Men" was a major box office hit and won four Oscars, including one for Best Picture. Meanwhile, McCarthy's novel, The Road (2006), was turned in to a rather depressing film in 2009, starring Viggo Mortensen as a father trying to traverse a post-apocalyptic wasteland with his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The following year, McCarthy saw his play, "The Sunset Limited" (2011), turned into an HBO film starring Tommy Lee Jones as a suicidal man saved by an ex-convict-turned-evangelical Christian (Samuel L. Jackson).
By Shawn Dwyer
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