Cormac McCarthy, dark genius of American literature, dead at 89

He wrote with a distinctive, spare style that eschewed grammatical norms but drew the reader in relentlessly to his world of blood, dust and an unforgiving universe

Updated - June 14, 2023 12:47 pm IST

Published - June 14, 2023 01:41 am IST - NEW YORK

U.S. writer Cormac McCarthy in 2011.

U.S. writer Cormac McCarthy in 2011. | Photo Credit: Getty Images via AFP

Cormac McCarthy, whose nihilistic and violent tales of the American frontier and post-apocalyptic worlds led to awards, movie adaptations and sleepless nights for his enthralled and appalled readers, died on Tuesday at the age of 89.

McCarthy — arguably the greatest American writer since Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner, both of whom he was sometimes compared to — died of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, according to a statement from publisher Penguin Random House that cited his son, John McCarthy.

Little known for the first 60 years or so of his life, rapturous reviews of 1992's All the Pretty Horses — the first in The Border Trilogy — changed all that. The book was made into a movie — as were 2005's No Country for Old Men and 2006's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road.

But McCarthy was never seen on the red carpet. An intensely private man, he almost never gave interviews. He granted a rare exception for Oprah Winfrey in 2007, telling her: "I don't think (interviews) are good for your head. If you spend a lot of time thinking about how to write a book, you probably shouldn't be thinking about it, you probably should be doing it."

McCarthy wrote with a distinctive, spare style that eschewed grammatical norms but drew the reader in relentlessly to his world of blood, dust and an unforgiving universe.

"He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they'd have no heart to start at all," he wrote in typical fashion in All the Pretty Horses.

Not respectable

Born Charles Joseph McCarthy Jr on July 20, 1933, in Providence, Rhode Island, McCarthy was one of six children in his Irish Catholic family, and later switched to using the old Irish name of Cormac.

His father was a lawyer and he was brought up in Tennessee in relative comfort. But middle America was not for him.

"I felt early on I wasn't going to be a respectable citizen. I hated school from the day I set foot in it," he told the New York Times in another rare interview in 1992.

He served in the Air Force in the 1950s and was married twice before the 1960s were out — first to Lee Holleman, who he met at college and with whom he had a son, and later to English singer Anne DeLisle, from whom he separated in 1976. After a short spell in Europe, he returned to Tennessee to settle near Knoxville, Tennessee and later moved to El Paso, Texas and then to Santa Fe.

His first book The Orchard Keeper, set in rural Tennessee and published in 1965, landed with Faulkner's last editor, who recognized the young writer's potential. But despite positive reviews — and some shocked reaction — for this and other early works like Child of God and Outer Dark, commercial success eluded McCarthy and he scraped by on writers' grants.

In 1985 Blood Meridian was published, garnering little attention at the time, although it is now considered his first truly great novel and perhaps his best. With lots of violence and no heroes, it tells the tale of a gang of scalp hunters in the mid-19th century West.

All the Pretty Horses, a coming-of-age book that kicked off a trilogy centered around Texas ranch hands at the close of the frontier, finally brought him acclaim in the 1990s.

The trilogy was followed by No Country for Old Men, a deeply disturbing and yet riveting Western crime novel about a drug deal gone wrong, quickly adapted into a movie by Joel and Ethan Coen that won the 2007 Best Picture Oscar.

This was the time that also saw the publication of The Road — perhaps even darker than what went before. Set in a world where an unnamed disaster has ended society and food production, a father and his son walk through a devastated landscape occupied by desperate people. The full depths of human depravity are on display — but also the love that the small family is able to sustain through it all. The Road won multiple awards and was also made into a movie in 2009.

Then came a long period until two new companion novels were released in 2022 — interconnected books The Passenger and Stella Maris that were unmistakably McCarthy, now approaching 90 years of age, albeit somewhat gentler — and, perhaps, valedictory.

“Enough,” says one character for whom death is approaching. “I have never thought this life particularly salubrious or benign and I have never understood in the slightest why I was here. If there is an afterlife — and I pray most fervently that there is not — I can only hope that they won’t sing.”

In a statement, Nihar Malaviya, CEO of Penguin Random House, said, "Cormac McCarthy changed the course of literature. For sixty years, he demonstrated an unwavering dedication to his craft, and to exploring the infinite possibilities and power of the written word."

McCarthy was married three times, divorcing his third wife Jennifer Winkley in 2006. He had two children: Cullen, born in 1962, and John, born in 1998.

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