Cormac McCarthy: Spike Strips on the Road to His Definitive Biography

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy © Derek Shapton

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography?

One of the most anticipated movies of the next few months is The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott. Watch the trailer on Youtube, and you may wonder why -- it looks like your average shiny guns and slick motorcycles, shimmering swimming pools and glinting cocktails drug-heist flick. But read through the credits, and you’ll understand what the excitement is about: the film is written by Cormac McCarthy.

Even before he won the Pulitzer for his 2006 novel, The Road; even before Oprah chose him for her book club; even before the adaptation of 2005’s No Country for Old Men racked up Academy Awards, McCarthy was celebrated for his bleak, uncompromising, unadorned tales of desperate characters in pitiless landscapes. He first gained attention with 1985’s Blood Meridian, in which he carved out his own distinct terrain in American literature, setting morality tales of good vs. evil against a backdrop of the country’s bloody, cutthroat history, showing how the land itself shapes human motivation and desire. Fame, when it came, arrived slowly: McCarthy had been writing novels for twenty years before Blood Meridian, and remained, in 1992, obscure enough that the New York Times called him a "cult figure." Now he is famous enough to be considered a good shot for the Nobel, and the Cormac McCarthy Society publishes monographs on his works. The question is not if there will be a biography written, but when. As the writer enters his 80th year, the time is nigh.

Complicating the task is the reclusiveness of the writer, who, when he does speak on the record, has little to say about his craft. His gnomic pronouncements about his work are oft-repeated: he abhors semi-colons, eschews dialogue tags, and favors "simple, declarative sentences." He has no use for writers such as Henry James, who limn the vagaries of the emotional life, believing the only valuable novels deal with issues of life and death. He has fashioned his life as that of a lonesome cowboy, turning down honors and requests for interviews, living modestly, preferring the company of non-writers. Clint Eastwood could play him in the movie.

The biographical facts of his life are interesting enough -- he was born not in the West, but in Providence, Rhode Island, and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. As a young man, he spent time in Ibiza, thanks to a Rockefeller grant. When he returned to the States, he eventually moved to Texas, the setting for parts of Blood Meridian. From the start, he wrote, preferring to live on grants or in poverty in order to keep writing. His early novels got mixed reviews, but he found a champion in the writer Shelby Foote, who nominated him for a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981. Throughout his career, he has lived as a writer’s writer, seeming uninterested in fame or wealth, always choosing the path that will allow him the most time to work, uninterrupted, even if it comes at expense of his personal life. In a 1992 interview, his second wife recalled, "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."

More interesting than his monk-like devotion to his work, however, is his inspiration, about which he has said little. Just as he gives scant insight into the psychological underpinnings of his characters (many of whom are dark, or disturbed), he is mum on the topic of his own inner life. He’s acknowledged that some of the more disturbing characters and incidents in his books are based on real-life events he’s read about, but he doesn't say what about these stories interest him. His vision is uniformly bleak (if laced with pitch-black humor) -- the question is, why? What shaped this worldview, and why has it persevered, even as he’s matured, succeeded at his chosen profession, and been handsomely rewarded for his efforts? We need a biography of McCarthy that will not just tell the tale of his life, but separate the facts from the myths, especially the self-created ones, and explain not just how his books happen, but why.