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Cormac McCarthy, American novelist of the stark and dark, dies at 89

Cormac McCarthy attends the New York premiere of <em>The Road</em>, the film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, in 2009.
Mark Von Holden
Getty Images For Dimension Films
Cormac McCarthy attends the New York premiere of The Road, the film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, in 2009.

Cormac McCarthy, one of the great novelists of American literature, died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 89. His death was confirmed via a statement from his publisher.

McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his stunning, post-apocalyptic, father-son love story called The Road. He wrote most compellingly about men, often young men, with prose both stark and lyrical. There was a strong Southwestern sensibility to his work.

"McCarthy was, if not our greatest novelist, certainly our greatest stylist," says J.T. Barbarese, a professor of English and writing at Rutgers University. "The obsession not only with the origins of evil, but also history. And those two themes intersect again and again and again in McCarthy's writing."

Take, for example, this early scene in McCarthy's Western classic Blood Meridian. A teenage boy from Tennessee runs away and eventually lands in San Antonio, haggard and penniless. In exchange for a horse, saddle and boots, the boy agrees to join a renegade ex-Confederate captain who intends to invade Northern Mexico to claim it for white America. That night, the lad and two new acquaintances go to the local cantina, where they meet an old Mennonite who issues dire warnings that their adventure in Mexico will end badly.

McCarthy's next passage is brutal and poetic:

They drank on and the wind blew in the streets and the stars that had been overhead lay low in the west and these young men fell afoul of others and words were said that could not be put right again and in the dawn the kid and the second corporal knelt over the boy from Missouri who'd been named Earl and they spoke his name but he never spoke back. He lay on his side in the dust of the courtyard. The men were gone, the whores were gone. An old man swept the clay floor within the cantina. The boy lay with his skull broken in a pool of blood, none knew by whom. A third one came to be with them in the courtyard. It was the Mennonite. A warm wind was blowing and the east held a gray light. The fowls roosting among the grapevines had begun to stir and call.

There is no such joy in the tavern as upon the road thereto, said the Mennonite. He had been holding his hat in his hands and now he set it upon his head again and turned and went out the gate.

"I have read that book I don't know how many times — a dozen times," Barbarese says. "There's one passage where he's describing the Indian raid on the cavalry group that had formed. And it was a slaughter, and it's about two paragraphs. It's some of the most extraordinarily beautiful writing I've ever seen, and it's horrifying. I mean, I think Fitzgerald had that ability, Faulkner had it as well — to describe menace and horror in such a way that you just cannot disengage, that's greatness."

Although McCarthy was born in Rhode Island, he grew up in the South, his father a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Embarking on a writing career, he changed his name from Charles to Cormac so as not to be confused with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's famous dummy Charlie McCarthy.

His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published by Random House in 1965, but it was Blood Meridian in 1985 that garnered acclaim. Then in 1992, the coming-of-age novel All The Pretty Horses — the first book of his "Border Trilogy" — won the National Book Award and made McCarthy famous.

No Country For Old Men began as a screenplay, grew into a novel and cemented the writer's reputation as a giant of the Western canon. The movie adaptation won four Academy Awards, including best picture, in 2008.

A deeply private writer, McCarthy loathed any whiff of celebrity and largely refused to do interviews. But he made an exception for Oprah in 2007, who naturally asked him why: "Well, I don't think it's good for your head," he said.

Then McCarthy shared a tale of literary inspiration. It begins with the writer and his young son in Texas.

"He and I went to El Paso and we checked into the old hotel there," McCarthy said. "And one night John was asleep – it was night, it was probably about 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning — and I went over and I just stood and looked out the window at this town. I could hear the trains going through and that very lonesome sound.

"I just had this image of these fires up on the hill and everything being laid waste and I thought a lot about my little boy and so I wrote those pages and that was the end of it. And then about four years later I was in Ireland and I woke up one morning and I realized it wasn't two pages in another book — it was a book. And it was about that man and that little boy."

Those few pages, born in the El Paso gloom, grew to become McCarthy's devastating Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Road.

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Wade Goodwyn
Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.
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