Tag Archives: Cormac McCarthy

Wouldnt Hold A Candle

Mac nodded. He put the cigar in his teeth and pushed back the chair. Wait here a minute, he said.

John Grady listened to him going down the hall to his room. When he came back he sat down and placed a gold ring on the table.

That’s been in my dresser drawer for three years. It aint doin nobody any good there and it never will. We talked about everything and we talked about that ring. She didnt want it put in the ground. I want you to take it.

Sir I dont think I can do that.

Yes you can. I’ve already thought of everything you could possibly say on the subject so rather than go over it item by item let’s just save the aggravation and you put it in your pocket and come Tuesday you put it on that girl’s finger. You might need to get it resized. The woman that wore it was a beautiful woman. You can ask anybody, it wasnt just my opinion. But what you saw wouldnt hold a candle to what was on the inside.

– Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain (p. 215)

3 Reasons You Should Read ‘The Road’

the-roadI read The Road for the first time three years ago, while confined to a chair recovering from major surgery. I’ve read it twice more since, and I intend to read it a fourth and a sixth and a twelfth time. After all, Stephen King has said that good books don’t give up all their secrets at once. And The Road is a good book. One of the best.

But this isn’t a review, at least not in any proper sense. Been there, done that. It’s merely an excuse to recommend (for the zillionth time) a novel I dearly love. All you people who haven’t been paying attention to the hints I’ve dropped elsewhere elsewhen, listen up here and now.

Of course, I also needed a dumping ground for the impressions that have been welling up inside my head with each additional read through. If you’ll pardon a funky metaphor, The Road is like an onion: there’s always one more layer.

So without further mucking about, here are three very simple and very pointed reasons you should read this book:

First, the characters. McCarthy’s story takes place in a post-apocolyptic wasteland, amid falling ash and desolated cities and roving bands of cannibals. It’s not a ‘boring’ read by any stretch of the imagination. But more compelling than the world itself are the characters who roam it. As McCarthy studies them, we look over his shoulder to see hatred and anger and despair locked in a death-struggle with hope and courage and sacrifice. Men who prey on their fellow man, who hoard heartbeats with greedy, blood-soaked fingers; contrasted with one man who holds his life with an open hand, whose chief aim is to prepare his son for the day he will no longer be around, to train him to “carry the fire,” to teach him what it means to be the good guy in a world of bad guys.

Second, the questions. What does it mean to be “civilized” when civilization has ceased to exist? What does it mean to be human while up to your neck in inhumanity? Is man more than a collection of molecules wrapped in a fleshy exterior? Is life without hope worth living, or even possible? And that’s but a fingernail’s scratch on the surface, believe me. If you read this book and put it down unshaken, unbothered, and unstirred, you did not read this book. Try again.

Third, the writing. Reading Cormac McCarthy is like nothing else in the world of literature. Oh sure, people throw around comparisons to Faulkner and Hemingway like tokens at an arcade, but the fact remains that McCarthy is his own man entirely. His style and his voice are exceptional and unique, and I could spend a dozen paragraphs trying to describe them to you without getting any closer than I am now. You have to experience them for yourself. You don’t know what you’re missing otherwise.

As a bonus: if you happen to be an Andrew Peterson fan, you should know that The Road served as the inspiration for ‘Carry the Fire’:

A Whole Lot Bigger of a Problem

“I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin in the schools. And they come across these forms, they’d been filled out and sent in from around the country answerin these questions. And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework. Things of that nature. So they got out one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time ever when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I’m getting old. That it’s one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is that anybody that cant tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I’ve got.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men (p. 195-196)

Book Review: The Sunset Limited

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, odds are you know I’m a Cormac McCarthy fan. A big fan. In fact, I have yet to read one of his books and come away disappointed. I realize he’s not for everyone, but magnificent storytelling skills coupled with brilliant word-craft make him my favorite fiction writer, hands-down.

One of my most recent literary acquisitions was – you guessed it – a McCarthy book. It’s one of his lesser known works, but no less fascinating than Blood Meridian or The Road. What sets it apart from the aforementioned books is that it’s essentially a play: a “novel in dramatic form.” Short, stripped-down, and in typical McCarthy-fashion, thought-provoking. And let me assure you: for a book that’s pretty much 140 pages of pure dialogue, The Sunset Limited packs more tension per sentence than most thrillers. No joke.

The story takes place in a run-down New York tenement, where “Black” and “White” sit across a table from one another. Black is an ex-con and a professing Christian; White is an aging academic with a cynical and despairing view of the world. The two men first encountered each other on a subway platform… when Black prevented White from throwing himself in front of an oncoming train, The Sunset Limited. Now they sit in Black’s apartment: one set, two men, two opposing worldviews. The stakes are life and death.

One of the most striking things about the story is White’s character, in which we see utter despair and disillusionment. He has no use for God or his fellow man. He despises both. And when asked what it is he believes in exactly, his answer is telling:

Mostly the value of things… Cultural things, for instance. Books and music and art. Things like that. Those are the things that have value to me. They’re the foundations of civilization. Or they used to have value. I suppose they dont have so much any more. People stopped valuing them. I stopped valuing them. To a certain extent, I’m not sure I could tell you why. That world is largely gone. Soon it will be wholly gone.

He then adds, with obvious pain,

The things I loved were very frail. Very fragile. I didn’t know that. I thought they were indestructible. They werent. (p. 25)

It’s a powerful picture of one man coming face-to-face with emptiness. Life has no meaning for him. There’s no purpose – nothing to keep his feet glued to the platform when the train comes roaring by. The things he once loved and believed revealed themselves to be insubstantial and unreliable. What’s left? Nothing. So he turns to suicide. The only thing he believes in now is The Sunset Limited.

Then we come to Black’s character, and that’s where things get even more interesting. Black has many valuable things to say as he challenges White’s worldview; but he also has a remarkable flaw: he rejects the idea of man’s basic depravity. When White asks him if there’s anything in the Bible that he finds questionable, he responds,

Maybe the notion of original sin. When Eve eat the apple and it turned everybody bad. I dont see people that way. I think for the most part people are good to start with. I think evil is somethin you bring on your own self. (p. 67)

This foolishly optimistic view of the human condition may seem like small potatoes at first glance; in fact, it’s the way most people tend to view themselves. But Black’s belief in man’s essential goodness ultimately doesn’t get him anywhere. It crumbles, like sand, when confronted with someone like White.

Black seems to be making progress toward the end, until White lashes out in a frenzied, nihilistic tirade. It’s devastating.

I dont regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world. I regard it as the world itself. Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility…

If people saw the world for what it truly is. Saw their lives for what they truly are. Without dreams or illusions. I don’t believe they could offer the first reason why they should not elect to die as soon as possible. (p. 136)

Then and there, it becomes apparent just how dark this man’s soul truly is. Nothing in him, nothing at all, yearns for the Light. Only darkness. Always darkness. Confronted with this, Black is shattered and confused – his view of man’s condition doesn’t go deep enough. It’s too cheerful, too bright, too positive. It fails to take into account the words of Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”

White isn’t just sick. He’s “dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2:1) He doesn’t just need assistance; he needs resurrection. Black fails to grasp this, and when the depth of White’s lostness finally begins to dawn on him, he’s left stunned and disconcerted.

All of this makes sense when you consider how often McCarthy has dealt with human depravity in his other works. In fact, he has a better grasp of this fact than most writers I’ve read, and it comes through strongly in his fiction. The Sunset Limited is no exception.

This is a tough book to wrestle with – make no mistake – and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re a newcomer to McCarthy. It’s not perfect (and it most certainly shouldn’t be regarded as a presentation of the Gospel) but I do think older, mature Christian readers will be rewarded with much to consider.

Way the World Is

“You think God looks out for people? I do. Way the world is. Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some damn place and before you’re done there’s wars and ruination and all hell. You don’t know what’s goin to happen. I’d say He’s just about got to. I don’t believe we’d make it a day otherwise.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses