Cormac McCarthy is dead at the age of 89. An obituary is supposed to offer words about the man and his work. But that is hard in this case because McCarthy offered little about the man himself to the public. His ex-wife once recalled, “someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.”
Hence, what little writers can learn about McCarthy the man comes from borrowed anecdotes like this. Profiles, reviews, and now obituaries pass these along like trafficked artifacts, some of which might be forged. Not that I have reason to doubt. Only, “the story gets passed on and the truth gets passed over,” as No Country for Old Men’s Sherriff Ed Tom Bell once warned. Still, what excitement and mystery in the trafficking: he lived in a barn he built himself outside of Knoxville, observed whales in Argentina for a year, spent much of his Genius Grant on a stay in Ibiza, once conspired with Edward Abbey to re-introduce wolves into New Mexico, and for years lodged in hotels, ate off hot plates, and stayed five steps ahead of any glory trying to chase him.
The trafficking shows there might be a lot to know about McCarthy, after all. As it turns out, he gave plenty of interviews throughout the early years—only to local papers, not national presses. McCarthy contained multitudes, among them one of our nation’s greatest writers, and one who couldn’t care less.
As for me, I came to see two men in McCarthy, both in the work and in the man—make it four, then.
The first was the great Southern macabre aesthete at work. He reveled in the debauched vagaries of the Scots-Irish legacies of Faulkner. No circumstance too damned, no relationship too foul, no setting too smelly, for him to wax on about as eloquently as if he were commissioned to add pulp fiction to the King James Bible. This was the McCarthy of Outer Dark, Child of God, above all Suttree and Blood Meridian (though the latter was set in the West), with remainders scattered throughout the rest of his work, including his second to last, The Passenger.
This McCarthy, though often hailed as the writer at the height of his technical skill, showed hints of excessive influence from the Oxford (Mississippi) don. He also rarely indulged in a straight plot. These books, again Suttree foremost, would build their characters by meandering in such circles of time which might have delighted Nietzsche but leave others a little cold. I don’t mean nihilism. There is dignity and beauty in even the bleakest of these novels. There is just so much weight put upon the surface, the words and their intricate workings, while the characters betray signs of deeper—what? —just beneath. McCarthy is sly enough to keep the surface holding, so you cannot break through. This McCarthy is a pretty good time, and a pretty bad time, and he leaves you excited with big words and some big ideas, yet wanting more.
Now for the second McCarthy, the public man. He would shrug his shoulders at everything you’d be so excited to talk to him about. This was the McCarthy of his interviews. He didn’t like writers or think so highly of writing. He didn’t indulge much in his work or method beyond, “read.” A reader of Wittgenstein, he gleaned from him a deflationary demeanor somewhat common among Wittgensteinians. (In that respect, McCarthy shared a tic with another reader of Wittgenstein, the director Terrence Malick, who also shuns the public eye and, when rarely in the spotlight, offers little beyond simple replies.) So, he answered questions curtly and often left his interviewers to become monologuers, with him sitting beside them, a little embarrassed. Why was he interested in geniuses and theoretical physicists? “Smart people are fun.” What does he think about his life? “I’ve been very lucky.” About the meaning of life? “I agree that it’s more important to be good than it is to be smart. That’s all I can offer you.” About the unconscious? “It doesn’t really care about anybody but you.” About the state of the world? “Ah, that’s not a subject I’d be that happy to talk about, I just think, right now, today, is a, a very dangerous time.” On the question of intention in the universe? “Oh, I have to plead ignorance, I’m pretty much a materialist.”
I don’t want to ignore this McCarthy—he’s very fun—but I can’t quite get him. There is a sense that this was not the Cormac McCarthy, only the public McCarthy, or the man bound by the strictures of an interview. Surely there was more to his mind than this? I wonder. As a member of the public, it’s not my right to know what he really thought about all these things. Or, maybe this was the real McCarthy. Maybe things are that simple: life is short and fun but hard, and the big answers are just clouds. Even as I’ve struggled with this McCarthy, still I’ve learned from him. Most things are simple, after all. And life, as Wittgenstein rightly taught, is often about becoming content with simple true things, however disappointing they might feel at first.