Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James T. KeaneJune 20, 2023
Cormac McCarthy (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)

One of the more unsettling characters in American fiction over the past half-century is surely Judge Holden, the huge, pale, hairless sadist who serves as the antagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian. I have a friend who insists that Judge Holden was McCarthy’s Moby-Dick, a symbol of ultimate evil and “all the subtle demonisms of life and thought” that haunted humanity’s dreams. He could plot out Judge Holden’s whole character arc, he claimed, as a parallel to the huge, pale, hairless whale that bedeviled Melville’s Captain Ahab—and indeed, McCarthy once listed Moby-Dick as his favorite work of fiction. (He also wrote a screenplay called “Whales and Men” that has nothing to do with Moby-Dick.) But does Blood Meridian hold up as a rival for the title of “the great American novel”?

More than a few famous writers have said just that, including David Foster Wallace and Harold Bloom, the latter calling McCarthy “the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner.” The author of 12 novels, McCarthy won the National Book Award for All The Pretty Horses and the Pulitzer Prize for The Road. When Toni Morrison died in 2019, some critics called McCarthy the nation’s best chance for another Nobel Prize in Literature. After a 16-year hiatus, he published two novels in 2022, The Passenger and Stella Maris.

In addition to the relentless violence depicted in many of his books, McCarthy also had little use for stories of redemption or of the possibility of good triumphing over evil.

But after McCarthy died at the age of 89 last Tuesday, June 13, many obituaries noted that McCarthy’s writing also had a dark, disturbing timbre not usually found among those proposed as great American novelists. “McCarthy has always nursed a perverse streak,” wrote Robert Rubsam in his March 2023 review for America of The Passenger and Stella Maris, something more than a few readers of McCarthy’s early novels might consider a serious understatement. In addition to the relentless violence depicted in many of his books, McCarthy also had little use for stories of redemption or of the possibility of good triumphing over evil in a fallen world. Instead he invariably told the tale of instinct-driven men (almost always men) whose base natures went unchecked by society or morality. At the same time, religious imagery abounds in all his books.

“Much like Flannery O’Connor, McCarthy was surrounded by evangelical caricatures of his family’s faith, and that dissonance is reflected in his pulpy and visceral fictional iconography,” wrote Nick Ripatrazone in a 2014 review of Bryan Giemza’s Sorrow’s Rigging, a study of McCarthy, Don DeLillo and Robert Stone. Giemza, Ripatrazone wrote, “reaches a smart conclusion: McCarthy’s Catholicism is revealed in ‘literally liturgical’ prose, in a ‘fascination with the mystery of evil,’ all delivered in a ‘heretical interrogation’ of the religion.” That McCarthy is “less sacramental than eschatological does not negate his Catholic background.”

McCarthy was raised Catholic—his brother William McCarthy spent a decade as a Jesuit, leaving in 1968 before being ordained a priest—and former America literary editor Patrick Samway, S.J., once noted after speaking with McCarthy that he “knew things only a Jesuit would know.” (Why is that comment so terrifying?) However, McCarthy drifted from the church after high school, and his (rare) interviews over the years shed little light on what faith, if any, he professed.

In 2020, Mike St. Thomas reviewed Ripatrazone’s own book on lapsed Catholic authors, Longing for an Absent God, for America.He noted that Ripatrazone connects McCarthy’s “ruthless, merciless, supernatural” killers to a “profoundly Catholic vision,” because in grade school he would have learned that the church teaches “that the devil walks among us.” St. Thomas argued, however, that “McCarthy, like his literary influences William Faulkner (Methodist) and Herman Melville (Presbyterian), drew upon tropes from Greek tragedy that, after being fused with Catholic notions of sin and redemption by Dante and others, has come to form part of what has often been called the Catholic literary imagination.”

Former America literary editor Patrick Samway, S.J., once noted after speaking with McCarthy that he “knew things only a Jesuit would know.”

The violence and depravity that marked the novels of McCarthy’s middle career, including his “border trilogy” and Blood Meridian, became more muted in McCarthy’s later novels, and his 2006 novel The Road is a stark departure from his earlier work. Amid the carnage and cannibalism (and yes, there’s still plenty of both) committed by those trying to survive in a dying world, his two unnamed protagonists share a loving father-son relationship that feels remarkably authentic for a writer not known for his explorations of human love.

America’s onetime literary editor, John B. Breslin, S.J., reviewed The Road in 2007. Linking McCarthy’s tale to a long literary history of apocalyptic novels born out of the fear of a global nuclear war, he noted that “Cormac McCarthy has crafted a lean fable in this book that spells out the horrors we may face in our atomic future, but he also gives us hope for our continuance with the story of a father who gives all to his son, and stranger who takes the father’s place when all seems lost.”

Many of McCarthy’s novels were made into movies, two of which were reviewed for America by longtime contributor and former managing editor Richard Blake, S.J.: “No Country for Old Men” (which he liked) and “The Road” (which he didn’t). One of the powerful lessons of the former film, Blake noted, was its reflection on violence and the human condition, in terms that might sound familiar to McCarthy readers: “​​The destructive monster one faces is not necessarily the objectifiable other but the force that lurks deep within the subconscious of every human being.”

Some obituaries mentioned that McCarthy had been working on a screenplay for a film adaptation of Blood Meridian, to be directed by John Hillcoat, who helmed the film adaptation of The Road. So many questions: Who would play Judge Holden? How could the events of such a novel be distilled into a two-hour movie? And let’s be honest—would the Motion Picture Association of America have to create a new rating category, one far, far beyond NC-17?

“​​The destructive monster one faces is not necessarily the objectifiable other but the force that lurks deep within the subconscious of every human being.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “St. Teresa’s Pillow,” by Laura Reece Hogan. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Vatican II’s secret priest-journalist: The story of Xavier Rynne

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

The mystery of Thomas Merton’s death—and the witness of America magazine’s poetry editor

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

The latest from america

Elizabeth Cullinan's literary output was not prodigious—but her memorable characters and close attention to the Irish-American culture in which she lived made her a prominent fiction writer in the '70s and '80s.
James T. KeaneApril 16, 2024
Pope Francis and his international Council of Cardinals continued their discussions about the role of women in the church, listening to women experts, including a professor who spoke about how culture impacts women’s roles and status.
For Bonaventure, to eat spiritually is to approach eating the Eucharist both with faith and ultimately with the affection of charity in one’s heart.
Being a member of the “I don’t know club” means you will be attacked by both sides. It does not mean you have nothing to say.
Thomas J. ReeseApril 16, 2024