“If there is an afterlife — and I pray most fervently that there is not — I can only hope that they won’t sing.”
— Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger
He’s been compared to Hemingway, Melville, Faulkner, Conrad. But in my limited knowledge of literature, Dylan Thomas comes closest, with his sense of “crystalline, pulsing prose” as one critic put it. I love the guy. He reminds me of how I judge acting: if the actors seem to be enjoying themselves (think Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, or Emily Blunt in GOT, or Robert Downey Jr. in anything), then I’m probably going to have a good time watching their performance. Here he is on writing: “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.”
His death on June 13 caught me mid-Stella Maris, McCarthy’s coda to The Passenger, both of which came out late last year, one after the other. It’s no spoiler (it’s in the blurb) to say the books are about a suicidal math prodigy, a girl in love with her wise and troubled elder brother who, 10 years on, still mourns her. That’s pretty much it. But what it! Between them, the books embrace quantum mechanics (quantum mechanics, not quantum mechanics as it’s usually said), psychiatry, death, the making of the first nuclear weapons, God, morality, dreams, money, love. Not just embrace, but inform. Factually, but also through his sheer delight in words. Especially verbs: the parts of speech that give prose life, the élan vital of language.
Take this 16-word sentence:
“He shouldered his way through the patio doors and labored up the stairs with a mattress.”
Simple…except I can see it! Which, if he’d “pushed” and “carried,” I wouldn’t have been able to.
Or this, a fire on the beach:
“The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled…”
To say McCarthy was a pessimist about the human condition is like saying Adele can carry a tune. F’rinstance:
“Grief is the stuff of life. A life without grief is no life at all. But regret is a prison.”
“I think a lot of people would elect to be dead if they didn’t have to die.”
“My guess is that you can only be so happy. While there seems to be no floor to sorrow.”
“War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him”
“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow.”
The Coens’ version of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men has, in my untutored opinion, the best ending of any movie. Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), sitting at the kitchen table, telling his wife about his dream: “And in the dream I knew that [my father] was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.” Cut to black.