Author Cormac McCarthy in 2014. “If it doesn’t concern life and death,” he once said, “it’s not interesting.” (Beowulf Sheehan)
Cormac McCarthy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose lyrical and often brutally violent novels propelled him to the first ranks of American fiction, immersing readers in scenes of savagery, despair and occasional tenderness in the backwoods of Tennessee, the deserts of the Southwest and the ashen desolation of a postapocalyptic world, died June 13 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 89.
His death was announced in a statement by his publisher, Penguin Random House, which did not give a specific cause.
Mr. McCarthy explored the dark side of human nature in a dozen novels that were lean and poetic, poignant yet unsentimental. Author Saul Bellow praised his “absolutely overpowering use of language, his life-giving and death-dealing sentences,” and some literary critics called him an heir to William Faulkner and Herman Melville, writers with whom he shared a keen interest in themes of loss, suffering, bloodshed and fate.
“If it doesn’t concern life and death,” Mr. McCarthy once told Rolling Stone, “it’s not interesting.”
For the first quarter-century of his career, Mr. McCarthy was little more than a cult figure, a “writer’s writer” who declined to talk to most reporters and was rumored to live like a hermit.
None of his first five books sold more than 3,000 hardcover copies, and even glowing reviews of his novels emphasized that they were not exactly a pleasure to read: His semi-autobiographical novel “Suttree” (1979) was likened to “a good, long scream in the ear,” while his western epic “Blood Meridian” (1985) was said to hit readers “like a slap in a face.” The novel has a scene in which dead babies are found hanging from a tree.
Mr. McCarthy’s prose style was strikingly idiosyncratic, earning comparisons to James Joyce, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. He stripped most of his sentences of punctuation, limiting his use of commas and dispensing with semicolons and quotation marks altogether; played with traditional syntax; and sprinkled his novels with obscure words (vermiculate, gryke, patterans, rachitic) while using naturalistic dialogue to anchor his books in time and place. “This whole thing is just hell in spectacles,” says one of his lawman characters.
As Mr. McCarthy played with conventions of the western, crime thriller and horror genres, reviewers found that his writing became slightly more accessible over the years. He received the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for “All the Pretty Horses” (1992), one of his most romantic westerns, and the Pulitzer Prize for “The Road” (2006), about a father and son trudging across the United States in the wake of an unspecified disaster.
In 2009, he followed Philip Roth in becoming the second author to receive the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for lifetime achievement in American fiction.
“His writing is a hypnosis of detail. He makes you feel that, because this place is palpably real, these events would seem to be true,” New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard wrote in a review of “Suttree,” about a man who abandons a life of privilege in the 1950s to live on a houseboat in Knoxville, on the Tennessee River.
Mr. McCarthy, who had a relatively luxurious upbringing in the city, described Knoxville in the novel as a city home to “reeking clapboard warrens where children cried and craven halfbald watchdogs yapped and slank,” and where “every other face [was] goitered, twisted, tubered with some excrescence.”
While “Suttree” was darkly funny, with a sprawling cast of characters that included a man who has a sexual obsession with watermelons, many of his books were almost unremittingly bleak.
In “Outer Dark” (1968), a man impregnates his sister and leaves their baby to die in the woods. A necrophiliac serial killer fills a cave with bodies in “Child of God” (1973), and a hit man named Anton Chigurh uses a bolt gun to blow out door locks and execute his victims at close range in “No Country for Old Men” (2005), which the Coen brothers adapted into an Oscar-winning film.
“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” Mr. McCarthy told the Times in 1992. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”
Mr. McCarthy received some of the best reviews of his career for “Blood Meridian,” perhaps his most violent book, which literary critic Harold Bloom called “the ultimate western, not to be surpassed.”
Loosely based on historical events, it followed a 14-year-old known simply as “the kid,” who joins a group of scalp-hunting bounty hunters after the Mexican-American War. The gang’s members include a hairless, 7-foot-tall giant named Judge Holden, who kills without hesitation, dances and fiddles with seemingly boundless energy and declares that “war is god,” emerging as a monster in the mold of Shakespeare’s Iago.
Mr. McCarthy used campfire exchanges between the judge and the kid to examine ideas about war, fate, religion and the collapse of civilization. He also demonstrated his literary range by mixing short, punchy lines with sentences that sprawled across the page, like a description of charging Comanches that stretched nearly 250 words:
“A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners … and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”
The scene was classic McCarthy: all action and vivid description, offering no details of his characters’ thoughts or feelings. Unlike writers such as Proust or Henry James, whose work Mr. McCarthy said he never understood, he had little interest in bringing his readers inside the minds of his protagonists.
He took a similar approach to his own life. Mr. McCarthy declined all but a handful of interview requests — even when he appeared on TV, interviewed by Oprah Winfrey after she selected “The Road” for her book club, he was almost inert — and preferred to steer the conversation away from literature, talking about country music, theoretical physics or the behavior of rattlesnakes.
Despite the rumors, he was hardly a recluse. He frequented El Paso pool halls, befriended the high-stakes poker player Betty Carey and was a longtime fixture of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, a scientific research center that was co-founded by his friend Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel-winning physicist.
The two men met after Mr. McCarthy received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1981, the first year it was awarded. Mr. McCarthy was living out of a motel room at the time, and he bought a small stone cottage in El Paso with some of the $236,000 grant. But he still cut his own hair, prepared meals on a hot plate and washed his clothes at a laundromat, according to the Times.
Mr. McCarthy refused to teach creative writing, calling it “a hustle,” and never went on tour or gave public readings. When it came to autographing books, he told the Wall Street Journal that he signed 250 copies of “The Road” and gave them all to his younger son John, “so when he turns 18 he can sell them and go to Las Vegas or whatever.”
His apparent lack of interest in promoting his novels was complemented by a fierce devotion to writing them, sometimes at the expense of his family life. His three marriages ended in divorce, and he described himself as an absent father to his first son, who was born while he was working on his debut novel.
“Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing,” he told the Journal in 2009, explaining why he wrote novels rather than short stories. He added: “Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don’t have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything. It’s not a good arrangement. If I were God, I wouldn’t have done it that way.”
‘I wasn’t going to be a respectable citizen’
The third of six children, Charles Joseph McCarthy Jr. was born in Providence, R.I., on July 20, 1933. Mr. McCarthy — by some accounts, Cormac was an old family nickname — grew up in Knoxville, where his father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and became the federal power utility’s top lawyer.
The family settled in a 10-room home surrounded by fish ponds and rock gardens, not far from woods, caves and creeks where Mr. McCarthy would fish and hunt as a boy, acquiring animal hides that he and one of his brothers sold downtown.
From a young age, he rebelled against his upper-middle-class upbringing. “I was not what they had in mind,” he said of his parents. “I felt early on I wasn’t going to be a respectable citizen. I hated school from the day I set foot in it.”
Mr. McCarthy graduated from parochial school, enrolled at the University of Tennessee, dropped out and joined the Air Force. While stationed in Alaska, he began reading obsessively, drawn to the novels of Melville, Dostoevsky and Faulkner. He returned to the University of Tennessee in 1957 and dropped out again three years later to focus on writing what became his first novel, “The Orchard Keeper” (1965).
The book followed the interlocking stories of a hermetic old man, a rebellious young moonshiner and a mink-trapping child in rural Tennessee, and it received a first-novel award from the William Faulkner Foundation. (He and Faulkner, who died in 1962, shared an interest in Southern folkways; they also happened to have the same editor, Random House’s Albert R. Erskine Jr.)
By the time “The Orchard Keeper” was published, Mr. McCarthy was married and divorced from his first wife, poet Lee Holleman McCarthy, with whom he had a son, Cullen.
Decades later, her obituary in the Bakersfield Californian said that she filed for divorce when Mr. McCarthy asked her to “get a day job so he could focus on his novel writing,” even though she was already “caring for the baby and tending to the chores of the house.”
The abandonment of a child kicked off the plot of Mr. McCarthy’s second novel, “Outer Dark,” which he wrote while living on the Spanish island of Ibiza with his second wife, Anne De Lisle, a British singer. They met while he was traveling to Europe on an American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowship, and they later moved near Knoxville, where Mr. McCarthy gradually converted an old dairy barn into a home.
“We lived in total poverty,” De Lisle told the Times. “We were bathing in the lake. Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.”
They separated in 1976, around the time Mr. McCarthy moved to El Paso, fascinated by the landscape and mythology of the West.
After setting his previous novels in eastern Tennessee, he began crisscrossing the Texas-Mexico border, studying the landscape in preparation for westerns such as “Blood Meridian.” His follow-up, “All the Pretty Horses,” followed 16-year-old cowboy John Grady Cole, who rides to Mexico after learning that his family is selling its Texas ranch. The novel was adapted into a 2000 movie starring Matt Damon and was the first installment in Mr. McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which continued with “The Crossing” (1994) and “Cities of the Plain” (1998).
‘Your future gets shorter’
Although Mr. McCarthy maintained a reputation as an unusually single-minded author, plugging away at his novels without a care for their commercial prospects, he also wrote for film and television, penning the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s crime thriller “The Counselor” (2013). One of his unsold screenplays inspired the Border Trilogy; another evolved into “No Country for Old Men,” about the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong.
Mr. McCarthy also wrote two plays, “The Stonemason” (first performed in 1995) and “The Sunset Limited” (2006), which he adapted into an HBO movie. The 2011 film starred Samuel L. Jackson as Black, an ex-convict and born-again Christian who tries to dissuade White (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed) from suicide.
The play’s central tensions — between hope and despair, faith and unbelief — were also at the fore in “The Road,” about a father and son trying to keep moving through a violent, ash-covered world. Describing the unnamed father, Mr. McCarthy wrote: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: if he is not the word of God God never spoke.”
The novel was dedicated to John McCarthy, Mr. McCarthy’s son from his third marriage, to Jennifer Winkley.
“A lot of the things that the kid [in the book] says are things that John said,” Mr. McCarthy told the Journal. “John said, ‘Papa, what would you do if I died?’ I said, ‘I’d want to die, too,’ and he said, ‘So you could be with me?’ I said, ‘Yes, so I could be with you.’ Just a conversation that two guys would have.”
In addition to his two sons, Mr. McCarthy is survived by a brother; two sisters; and two grandchildren.
By the early 2000s, Mr. McCarthy was spending much of his time at the Santa Fe Institute, where he served as a kind of artist-in-residence, chatting with researchers and helping edit their work for publication. He found scientists far more interesting than writers, he said, and drew on his time there to write what was apparently his first nonfiction piece, a 2017 essay for the science magazine Nautilus, in which he examined the relationship between language and the unconscious.
His scientific interests seeped into his last two books, “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris,” intertwined novels that were published within weeks of each other in 2022. The books focused on two siblings, a math prodigy and her salvage-diver brother, with an incestuous attachment and a father who helped develop the atomic bomb.
Both novels received mixed reviews, although critics praised Mr. McCarthy for trading his usual mythic characters for more ordinary-seeming people, including what for him was a rare female protagonist.
Mr. McCarthy declined to talk about the books after they were published, but he was known to have been working on the novels for more than a decade, fueled by a recognition of his advanced age.
“Your future gets shorter and you recognize that,” he said in 2009. “In recent years, I have had no desire to do anything but work and be with John. I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That’s heaven. That’s gold and anything else is just a waste of time.”
Harrison Smith, Washington Post