In the current New Yorker, James Wood’s negative review of Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel doubles as a nuanced consideration of the author’s position in the U.S literary canon.
There is intense disagreement about McCarthy’s literary status, which his new novel, “No Country for Old Men,” an unimportant, stripped-down thriller, will only aggravate. Some readers are alienated by his novels’ punctual appointments with blood-soaked violence. (“No Country for Old Men” opens with a prisoner strangling a sheriff’s deputy with the chain of his handcuffs.) Others think his work bombastic, pretentious, or claustrophobically male-locked: McCarthy has a tendency to omit half the human race from serious scrutiny. But a balanced assessment has been hard to come by, because his reputation, at least since the publication of “Blood Meridian,” in 1985, has been cultic. He is swarmed over by fans, devotees, obsessives, Southern and Southwestern history buffs, and fiercely protective academic scholars. He lives quietly in New Mexico, and has given just two interviews in the past decade. His granitic indifference to his readership only feeds its almost religious loyalty.
Surely no one disputes McCarthy’s talent. He has written extraordinarily beautiful prose. He generally disdains the intermediate interference of small-bore punctuation. His sentences are comma-less convoys, articulated only by the Biblical “and”: “They’d had their hair cut with sheepshears by an sequilador at the ranch and the backs of their necks above their collars were white as scares and they wore their hats cocked forward on their heads and they looked from side to side as they jogged along as if to challenge the countryside or anything it might hold.” They take on a hard, obstructive, processional quality; this is one of the reasons that McCarthy is so often called a mythic, or Biblical, or primordial writer.
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