Cormac McCarthy, whose nihilistic and violent tales of the US frontier and post-apocalyptic world led to awards, film adaptations and sleepless nights for his enthralled and shocked readers, died on Tuesday at the age of 89.
McCarthy – arguably the greatest American writer since Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner, to whom he is sometimes compared – died of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, according to a statement from publisher Penguin Random House, citing his son John McCarthy. .
Little known for the first 60 years or so of his life, McCarthy rose to prominence after rave reviews for 1992’s All the Pretty Horses, the first in his The Border trilogy.
The book was eventually made into a film, as were 2005’s No Country for Old Men and 2006’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road.
But McCarthy was never seen on the red carpet. An intensely private man, he almost never gave interviews. He granted a rare exception to Oprah Winfrey in 2007, telling her: “I don’t think [interviews] Good for your head. If you spend a lot of time thinking about how to write a book, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about it, you should probably be doing it.”
McCarthy wrote with a distinctive, spare style that eschewed grammatical conventions but relentlessly drew the reader into his unforgiving universe of blood and dust.
“He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the goings-on in the square, and he said it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young, or they wouldn’t have the heart to begin with. All,” he wrote in his typical fashion in All the Pretty Horses.
Cormac McCarthy, perhaps the greatest American novelist of our time, has died aged 89. He lived many years and produced a wonderful body of work, but I am still saddened by his death.
— Stephen King (@stephenking) June 13, 2023
Early success eluded McCarthy
Born Charles Joseph McCarthy Jr. on July 20, 1933, in Providence, Rhode Island, McCarthy was one of six children in an Irish Catholic family. He later used the old Irish name of Cormack.
Her father was a lawyer and she grew up in Tennessee in relative comfort. But Central America was not for him.
“I felt early on that I was not going to be a respectable citizen. “I hated school from the day I stepped foot in it,” he told the New York Times in another rare interview in 1992.
He served in the Air Force in the 1950s and was married twice before getting out in the 1960s – first to Lee Holman, whom he met in college and with whom he had a son. Later, he married English singer Anne Delisle, from whom he separated in 1976.
“Light a little fire; hide no matter how small.”
— Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy died today of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was eighty-nine years old. pic.twitter.com/5Xl9MH5Nx2
— Alfred A. Knopf (@AAKnopf) June 13, 2023
After a short time in Europe, he returned to Tennessee to settle near Knoxville, then moved to El Paso, Texas, and then Santa Fe.
His first book, The Orchard Keeper, set in rural Tennessee and published in 1965, landed with Faulkner’s last editor, who recognized the young writer’s potential. But despite positive reviews – and some shocking reactions to it and other early works such as Child of God and Outer Dark – commercial success eluded McCarthy. He scraped by on grants to writers.
In 1985, Blood Meridian was published, attracting little attention at the time, although it is now considered his first truly great novel and perhaps his best. With lots of violence and no protagonist, it tells the story of a group of scalp hunters in the mid-19th century.
All the Pretty Horses, a coming-of-age book that began a trilogy centered on Texas ranch hands near the frontier, finally brought him acclaim in the 1990s.
The Border Trilogy was followed by No Country for Old Men, a deeply disturbing and yet western crime novel about a drug deal gone wrong, which was quickly adapted into a movie by Joel and Ethan Coen. It won the 2007 Best Picture Oscar.
This time also saw the publication of The Road — darker than anything that had gone before. Set in a world where an unnamed disaster has wiped out society and food production, the novel follows a father and his son as they move through a ravaged landscape occupied by desperate humans. The full depth of human depravity is on display — but also the love that the little family is able to sustain through it all. The Road won multiple awards and was even made into a movie in 2009.
Then came a long period until two new companion novels were published in 2022 — the interconnected books The Passenger and Stella Maris. They were undoubtedly McCarthy, now nearing 90 years of age, albeit somewhat humbled and, perhaps, dismissive.
“Enough,” says a character for whom death is approaching. “I never thought of this life as particularly healthy or benign, and I never understood why I was here. If there is an afterlife – and I most fervently pray there isn’t – I can only hope they don’t sing.”
In a statement, Penguin Random House CEO Nihar Malviya said, “Cormac McCarthy changed the course of literature. For sixty years, he has demonstrated an unwavering dedication to his craft and to exploring the infinite possibilities and power of the written word.”
McCarthy was married three times, divorcing his third wife Jennifer Winkley in 2006. He had two children: Cullen, born in 1962, and John, born in 1998.