Cormac McCarthy's dislike of publicity has made him one of the commanding absences of American letters. But the huge success of his latest novel, The Road, may change that for goodby Jason Cowley / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
In an interview earlier this year, Norman Mailer was asked about the contemporary writers he most admired. There were only a few novelists, the old egoist replied, who were truly ambitious, excluding himself naturally: Martin Amis, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy.
As surprising to me as the omission of Philip Roth from this list (though this being Mailer, it is probably not so surprising that he would not privilege a fellow Jewish-American) was the inclusion of Cormac McCarthy. It was a long time since I had read McCarthy, and when, in idle moments, I thought of the writers whose new novels I would most like to read—Roth, JM Coetzee, Ian McEwan, Milan Kundera, Zadie Smith—I never thought of McCarthy. Then I read The Road, his latest, astounding, novel. Set in an America ravaged by an unexplained global catastrophe, it describes the journey of a father and young son in search of food and shelter through a landscape that is ashen and deathly.
I was alerted to The Road by Jon Riley, who used to publish McCarthy when he was an editorial director at Picador. He had an early proof and was enthralled by the beauty and brutality of McCarthy’s vision of a world in ruins.
He was right to be excited; I have read many writers who have dared to dream of how our human story might end—most recently Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma and Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island—but none who writes as well as McCarthy, has his intelligence or the compassionate intensity of his vision. His prose, so much sparer here, is richly allusive, with its biblical cadences, recondite vocabulary and abrupt changes of pace—short, verbless sentence and then something longer, more looping and poetically expansive. Images from The Road—especially of the frightened boy and his father alone in the ash-darkened snowy wastelands—are unforgettable.
Saul Bellow once remarked on McCarthy’s “absolutely overpowering use of language.” Yet you seldom feel overpowered reading him, as you can be by Bellow himself, who buries you under an avalanche of words. This is because McCarthy’s fictions, at their finest, have the moral force of parable and the compulsion of adventure: you read on because you have no choice but to read on. You care about what happens next.
One admiring reader is none other than Oprah Winfrey. Attracted no…