Cormac McCarthy, Novelist of a Darker America, Is Dead at 89

Cormac McCarthy, the formidable and reclusive writer of Appalachia and the American Southwest, whose raggedly ornate early novels about misfits and grotesques gave way to the lush taciturnity of “All the Pretty Horses” and the apocalyptic minimalism of “The Road,” died on Tuesday at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 89.

Knopf, his publisher, said in a statement that his son John had confirmed the death.

Mr. McCarthy’s fiction took a dark view of the human condition and was often macabre. He decorated his novels with scalpings, beheadings, arson, rape, incest, necrophilia and cannibalism. “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” he told The New York Times magazine in 1992 in a rare interview. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.”

His characters were outsiders, like him. He lived quietly and determinately outside the literary mainstream. While not quite as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon, Mr. McCarthy gave no readings and no blurbs for the jackets of other writers’ books. He never committed journalism or taught writing. He granted only a handful of interviews.

The mainstream, however, eventually came to him. “All the Pretty Horses,” a reflective western that cut against the grain of his previous work, won a National Book Award in 1992, and “The Road” won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Both were made into films, as was Mr. McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2008.

That film, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, gave the world the indelible image of Javier Bardem as Mr. McCarthy’s nihilistic hit man Anton Chigurh, dispatching his victims with a pneumatic bolt gun meant for cattle.

Mr. McCarthy had in recent years been discussed as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The critic Harold Bloom named him one of the four major American novelists of his time, alongside Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, and called Mr. McCarthy’s novel “Blood Meridian” (1985), a bad dream of a western, “the greatest single book since Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’”

Saul Bellow noted Mr. McCarthy’s “absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences.”

Acclaim for Mr. McCarthy’s work was not universal, however. Some critics found his novels portentous and self-consciously masculine. There are few notable women in his work.

Writing in The New Yorker in 2005, James Wood praised Mr. McCarthy as “a colossally gifted writer” and “one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.”

But Mr. Wood accused Mr. McCarthy of writing sentences that sometimes veered “close to nonsense,” of “appearing to relish the violence he so lavishly records,” and of being hostile to intellectual consciousness.

The language and tone of Mr. McCarthy’s novels changed markedly over the decades. Among academics and Mr. McCarthy’s legion of obsessive readers, the essential question about his oeuvre has long been: What’s better, early McCarthy or late?

His first four novels — “The Orchard Keeper” (1965), “Outer Dark” (1968), “Child of God” (1973) and “Suttree” (1979) — are bleak fables, set in the Appalachian South, related in tangled prose that owes an acknowledged debt to William Faulkner. Indeed, the editor of Mr. McCarthy’s first five books, Albert Erskine of Random House, had been Faulkner’s last editor.

These early novels could be carnivalesque in their humor. In “Suttree,” for example, one character has carnal relations with the entirety of a farmer’s watermelon field. The farmer sues, alleging bestiality, but the man later brags, “My lawyer told em a watermelon wasnt no beast.”

Mr. McCarthy’s later period began in earnest with “All the Pretty Horses,” the first volume in his Border Trilogy, which includes the novels “The Crossing” (1994) and “Cities of the Plain” (1998). These novels put on display his powerful and intuitive sense of the American landscape.

His prose was now rich but austere, shorn of most punctuation. It owed more to Hemingway than to Faulkner. The location in his fiction had shifted as well, to the desert Southwest.

The elegiac quality of “All the Pretty Horses,” with its existential cowboys, surprised some of his admirers. One of Mr. McCarthy’s friends, the novelist Leslie Garrett, was quoted as remarking about it, “Cormac finally has succeeding in writing a book that won’t offend anybody.”

“All the Pretty Horses” attracted a vast audience, and was made into a film in 2000 starring Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz. It was not merely Mr. McCarthy’s first best seller; it was his first novel to sell many copies at all. None of his previous books had by then sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover.

A full obituary will appear shortly.

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