Cormac McCarthy obituary: a novelist of the ‘apocalyptic sublime’

American writer won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 novel The Road

American novelist Cormac McCarthy has died at the age of 89
Cormac McCarthy: ‘uncomfortable in the spotlight’
(Image credit: Mark Von Holden/Getty Images for Dimension Films )

The American writer Cormac McCarthy, who died on 13 June aged 89, was a novelist “utterly wedded to the apocalyptic sublime”, said Rob Doyle in The Guardian. Over a career that produced 12 novels and two plays – and spawned some excellent film adaptations, notably the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” – he wrote obsessively about the “darkness, violence, horror and chaos he perceived at the core of all creation”. He did so, however, not with the “hysterical terror of H.P. Lovecraft, but with an ecstatic lyricism more like that of Muslim mystic-poets rapturously praising their holy-beloved”.

It was McCarthy’s fifth novel, “Blood Meridian” (1985), that “exploded” his reputation, and is today regarded as his masterpiece. Set in the US-Mexico borderlands of the mid-1800s, this “revisionist western” follows a gang of bounty hunters searching for Native American scalps. Notable for its “epic, extravagant savagery”, it also features McCarthy’s most unforgettable creation, the “Luciferian” Judge Holden, one of whose utterances – “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent” – has “become a meme-slogan of the internet age”.

The darkness was there from the start, said Robbie Millen in The Times. McCarthy’s first novel, “The Orchard Keeper” (1965), opens with an attempted murder. In his second, “Outer Dark”, there is “incest and infanticide”, while his third, “Child of God” (1973), follows a psychopath. Yet McCarthy did later vary his tone. His Border Trilogy in the 1990s (“All the Pretty Horses”, “The Crossing” and “Cities of the Plain”) was notable for being “set in a less chilling version of the American west”, and found a wide audience. “The Road”, his Pulitzer-winning 2006 novel about a father and son in a post-apocalyptic America, was “heartbreaking” as well as terrifying. After “The Road”, McCarthy lapsed into a “16-year silence”; he devoted time to his interest in science, and tried his hand at screenwriting. Last year, “to everyone’s surprise”, he published two novels: “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris”. Neither was well received.

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McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. He lived there for much of his life, before moving to New Mexico with his third wife. Although he was widely seen as a recluse, the truth was more that he lived “determinedly outside the literary mainstream”, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. He only ever granted a “handful of interviews”, one of which – improbably – was to Oprah Winfrey, after she chose “The Road” for her book club. “He seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight”, telling Winfrey: “You spend a lot of time thinking about how to write a book, you probably shouldn’t be talking about it.

A selection of Cormac McCarthy novels – including “The Road” and “Blood Meridian” – are available to buy from The Week Bookshop

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