Cormac McCarthy, in 2011 (Alamy Stock Photo)

This essay was originally published November, 2016. 

Critics have often described Cormac McCarthy as a writer beyond good and evil: his characters may appeal to moral ideas, they concede, but McCarthy himself gives it to us straight, describing a massacre or a rape the same way he might describe a meteor shower—with care and precision, but without judgment. The same flat and ruthless light seems to fall on every scene of his novels, and this indiscriminate attention can be disorienting. It is like the desert sun as McCarthy describes it in a famous passage in Blood Meridian:

In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence.... [I]n the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.

But the critics are wrong. Beneath the neuter austerity of McCarthy’s prose, a keen moral imagination is at work, one that finds hints of communion—of “unguessed kinships”—in unexpected places, including some any sane person would avoid. If Graham Greene’s fiction haunts the seamier quarters of purgatory, McCarthy’s often harrows hell with a disconcerting zeal.

Born in 1933, McCarthy attended Catholic schools and served as an altar boy in Knoxville, Tennessee. His books, especially those set in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, are full of Catholic language and imagery. Yet he is rarely mentioned in lists of contemporary Catholic writers—lists that often include other cradle Catholics who no longer practice the faith. Perhaps his stories strike the list-makers as too bleak to have anything to do with Christianity. His work is often moving but rarely consoling. Faith, hope, and love get a hearing, but despair and bitterness often seem to prevail.

Many of McCarthy’s protagonists are misfits of one kind or another, and that is the role he chose for himself for much of his career, even after his reputation was firmly established. He received a MacArthur Fellowship 1981 and has since won many of the country’s most prestigious book prizes, including a Pulitzer for The Road (2006) and the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses (1992), but he has mainly avoided the trappings of a successful literary career. He doesn’t do readings and he’s given only a handful of interviews—the first to a New York Times reporter in 1992, the strangest to Oprah Winfrey. Though reputed to be a gifted raconteur, he does not like to talk about himself. Richard B. Woodward, the Times reporter, wrote, “McCarthy would rather talk about rattlesnakes, molecular computers, country music, Wittgenstein—anything—than himself or his books.” He has never taught at a university, never written a review or a memoir, and prefers the company of scientists to that of fellow writers. He has lived in motels, in an old dairy barn near Knoxville, and in a run-down shack behind a shopping center in El Paso—a dwelling he once described as “barely habitable.” That was back when he was still euphemistically called a writer’s writer, before his commercial success began to catch up with his critical acclaim. Since then, several of his novels have become bestsellers. One of them, No Country for Old Men, became an Oscar-winning film. The eighty-three-year-old McCarthy now lives somewhat more comfortably but no less remotely in Tesuque, New Mexico.


Of all McCarthy's novels, Blood Meridian (1985) seems like the one best suited to confirm the theory that he is an essentially amoral writer, not just unsentimental but anti-sentimental. Blood Meridian is also commonly regarded as McCarthy’s greatest work. Some, including Harold Bloom, consider it one of the greatest works of American literature.

Set in the late 1840s, Blood Meridian tells the story of “the kid,” a violent young drifter who wanders around Texas getting himself in and out of trouble before joining the Glanton Gang, a group of American mercenaries hired by Mexican officials to kill Indians. Most of the novel follows the gang’s murderous rampage through northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The official leader is John Joel Glanton, but the real heart of the gang’s dark enterprise is Judge Holden, a mysterious character who combines the qualities of Melville’s Ahab, Conrad’s Kurtz, and Milton’s Satan. None of the other members of the gang is quite sure where the judge comes from; he speaks many languages and appears to know much about history, science, and the law. He is tall, pale, totally hairless, and, even by the standards of his fellow killers, immensely cruel. Children mysteriously disappear when he’s around. When their bodies are discovered, there are signs they’ve been sexually violated. The kid distrusts the judge from the start, and gradually comes to detest him. The judge, for his part, accuses the kid of betraying the rest of the group, by reserving in his soul a “corner of clemency” for their victims.

The Glanton Gang are finally broken up after they’re attacked on the banks of the Colorado River by some Yuma Indians they’ve double-crossed. Most of the gang meet with violent deaths, but the kid and the judge both survive. Three decades later, they encounter each other one last time in Fort Griffin, Texas, where the judge buys the kid—now called “the man”—several drinks at a saloon and welcomes him to what he calls “the dance.” “This,” says the judge, “is a ceremony of a certain magnitude perhaps more commonly called a ritual. A ritual includes the letting of blood. Rituals which fail in this requirement are but mock rituals.” The man—that is, the kid—refuses to be intimidated by the judge. He tells him, “You ain’t nothin,” to which the Judge responds:

You speak truer than you know. But I will tell you. Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.

The man eventually wanders off, dances a little, visits one of the saloon’s prostitutes, and then walks to the outhouse behind the saloon. He opens the door and steps in: “The judge was seated upon the closet. He was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him.” And so the blood ritual ends. A little later, someone else goes to the outhouse and is horrified by whatever he finds there. The novel ends with the judge back in the saloon, where he joins in the dance:

He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

In medieval folklore, the devil was sometimes represented as a fiddler who would lead people in dances they could not quit. So our last glimpse of the judge confirms the suspicion that he is not an ordinary human being. If he isn’t the devil, he is at least a personification of evil, endowed with supernatural qualities and possibly immortal—a figure of death and larger than life.


But if the judge represents evil, what does the kid represent? Not innocence: we see him do awful things, along with everyone else in the Glanton Gang. If he shows signs of clemency, as the judge claims, they are visible only in contrast to the total ruthlessness of his comrades. In any case, the novel’s hero certainly doesn’t embody goodness the way its villain embodies evil. The question is: Can someone who doesn’t embody goodness nevertheless represent it, however partially?

In a lecture on Blood Meridian available online, Amy Hungerford of Yale University argues that it is essentially an amoral book that only plays with the empty forms and symbols of morality. She acknowledges that there are indications in the novel that the kid is less depraved than the other scalp hunters and even that he undergoes some kind of moral development as the story proceeds. But Hungerford concludes that all these hints are finally just an authorial trick because “every time the kid shows mercy, he shows mercy to one of his own gang and we know what the gang goes on to do. They simply go on killing more people. So, the allegiance that he seems to show with suffering, the mercy, is so selective that it can’t be called such.”

There are two problems with this argument. First, Hungerford’s description of the story is somewhat misleading. While most examples of the kid’s expressions of mercy do involve his fellow scalp hunters, there’s at least one memorable episode in which he tries to help a person his old gang would have ignored or killed. Wandering alone, he finds a company of penitents butchered in the desert and an old Mexican woman kneeling nearby, her eyes cast down.

He spoke to her in a low voice. He told her that he was an American and that he was a long way from the country of his birth and that he had no family and that he had traveled much and seen many things and had been at war and endured hardships. He told her that he would convey her to a safe place, some party of her countrypeople who would welcome her and that she should join them for he could not leave her in this place or she would surely die.

As it turns out, the woman is already dead. “He reached into the little cove and touched her arm. She moved slightly, her whole body, light and rigid. She weighed nothing. She was just a dried shell and she had been dead in that place for years.” Still, this episode shows that the kid is capable of kindness to a stranger with whom he has nothing in common; and, coming as it does very late in the story after all the kid’s experiences with the Glanton Gang, it also suggests real moral development. It is hard for the reader—hard for this reader anyway—to imagine the young tough we encounter at the beginning of the novel exhibiting this sort of tenderness and compassion.

But the larger problem with Hungerford’s claim is its dubious ethical premise, which is that unless a person is merciful to everyone, he or she cannot be truly merciful to anyone. It’s all or nothing; and, in the kid’s case, it clearly isn’t all. The obvious reply to this is that much of the real virtue we observe in the world, as well as in literature, belongs to people who are deeply flawed. There is sometimes honor among thieves—or, if not honor, then perhaps courage or kindness.

So why is Hungerford unwilling to acknowledge any real goodness in the kid? Maybe because of the shadow cast by Judge Holden. A reader might want an equal-and-opposite hero to resist the judge; a saint, if not a god, perfect in goodness as the judge is perfect in wickedness. Instead, we get just another sinner, albeit one with a conscience. You might think the atrocities in which the kid participates would have destroyed whatever conscience he might have started out with. Instead, they appear to have awakened it. By confronting someone like the judge who is violent on principle and without limit, the kid, who was merely violent by disposition, has grown into a man capable of mercy, no less real for being partial.


Even if the kid counts as a kind of hero, though, there remains the related question of whether McCarthy takes the side of his own heroes, or whether he includes them for purely narrative reasons—as a necessary feature of the kind of story he wants to tell. This may seem like an odd question. After all, what kind of author wouldn’t take the side of his heroes? The question might indeed be odd if it weren’t for the fact that McCarthy often gives his villains the best lines and the most persuasive arguments.

Why would he do this? I think it’s partly because he’s suspicious of homiletic novels: he couldn’t give his heroes all the best lines without appearing to preach to the reader, something he scrupulously avoids. In narrative terms, McCarthy’s novels couldn’t be clearer, but in moral terms they are often highly ambiguous. Sometimes his characters appear blind to the ambiguity—the author signals it over their heads to the reader. But at other times the characters themselves remind us that stories can always be told in more than one way, and with more than one purpose.

In McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited (2006), a short play about a black born-again Christian and ex-convict who saves a white college professor from throwing himself in front of a train, each of the two characters—identified in the script only as White and Black—are constantly challenging each other’s interpretations of the events they describe. Black tells the story of a prison fight in which he nearly killed a man and came close to dying himself. The other prisoner was so badly injured that he had to be sent away to a special facility for the disabled. As Black lay recovering from his own injuries, handcuffed to a hospital bed, he heard a voice telling him, “If it was not for the grace of God, you would not be here.” That was the beginning of his conversion. White asks Black, “You dont think this is a strange kind of story?”

Black: I do think it’s strange kind of story.

White: What I mean is that you didnt feel sorry for this man?

Black: You gettin ahead of the story.

White: The story of how a fellow prisoner became a crippled, one-eyed halfwit so that you could find God.

The choice of which person a story is about will often determine its meaning. As told by Black, the story of the prison fight is about himself and is the prologue to a conversion. But what if the story were about the prisoner who became “a crippled, one-eyed halfwit” because of the fight? In that case, it might have a very different theological implication. As told by, say, the mother of that prisoner, the story might be the prologue to another kind of conversion, to a loss of faith. McCarthy knows all this and won’t let the reader forget it.

Along with his aversion to homiletic novels, there is also McCarthy’s suspicion of a certain kind of eloquence, the kind that corners the listener with a phony conclusiveness. The reader may fail to notice this because McCarthy himself has a well-deserved reputation for another kind of eloquence, or because McCarthy doesn’t stack the deck against his villains by making their eloquence cheap or comic. It’s the real thing, sure enough, sometimes pompous but always powerful. McCarthy’s most memorable villains—Judge Holden, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2005), a Mexican sheriff in All the Pretty Horses (1992)—tend to be certain about everything, and about themselves above all. Their absolute certainty makes courage unnecessary, since courage always answers to risk, and, for these characters, all of them paid-up determinists, there can be no real risk, for the outcome is never in doubt. McCarthy’s heroes, by contrast, don’t pretend to have all the answers. They often find themselves stumped or thwarted; they are subject to doubt and capable of regret.

What McCarthy’s heroes do have in common with his villains is an outsized appetite for meaning. The heroes deal with this by constantly reflecting on their past. When they’re not reflecting on it, they’re often dreaming about it, their minds passing over and over the same event, looking for the missing detail that might render it intelligible. The villains, by contrast, deal with this same appetite for meaning not by brooding on their past but by constructing abstract theories that will account for everyone’s past, as well as everyone’s future. Not incidentally, these comprehensive theories have the effect of absolving the villains of any responsibility for their deeds. McCarthy’s fiction suggests that those who insist on sating their hunger for meaning in this world often end up feeding on death—their own or that of others. To live honorably is to learn to tolerate the hunger, accepting whatever crumbs of meaning come your way. These won’t satisfy, but they’re sufficient. If there is a feast of meaning, where all that is hidden will be revealed, it must be in some world to come.

McCarthy’s heroes hope there’s a world to come but fear there might not be. His villains and antiheroes, meanwhile, are sure there isn’t one, and they’re glad of it. If death merely ushered them into another kind of life, its appeal would be diminished. Thus, in The Sunset Limited, White explains that he wants to die only because he is sure there will be no one waiting for him, nothing to dread or look forward to apart from nothingness itself:

If I thought that in death I would meet the people I’ve known in life I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate horror…. I want the dead to be dead. Forever. And I want to be one of them. Except that of course you cant be one of them. You cant be one of the dead because what has no existence can have no community. No community. My heart warms just thinking about it. Silence. Blackness. Aloneness. Peace. And all of it only a heartbeat away.

The main appeal of an afterlife to those of McCarthy’s characters who believe in it—or hope for it—is not so much the promise of personal immortality as the prospect of reunion with the dead. They are often unsure that they can communicate directly with God, but they pray to their departed loved ones, and the confidence that these prayers are heard is the foundation of whatever faith they have. To put it another way: Rather than believing in what Christians call the communion of saints because they believe in God, their belief in God, strong or weak, springs from their belief in a communion of saints. At the end of The Road (2007)—a novel about a father and son journeying together toward the sea through a post-Apocalyptic landscape—the father dies and the boy is taken in by another family of survivors. On the book’s last page we read that the woman who becomes his foster mother “would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.”

The critic James Wood has argued that passages like this one “throw the book off balance” with their “solacing theological optimism.” Wood finds the hints of a world to come after the destruction of this one coy and uncharacteristically sentimental. They may or may not be sentimental, but they’re not uncharacteristic. We find very similar passages elsewhere in McCarthy’s work. In No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell, that book’s only real hero, tells us that he still talks to his daughter, who’s been dead for thirty years: “I like talkin to her. Call it superstition or whatever you want.... I know how that sounds and I guess I’d have to say that I don’t care.... I listen to what she says and what she says makes good sense. I wish she’d say more of it. I could use all the help I can get.” Or again, in The Stonemason (1995), a family drama about three generations of black masons in Louisville, Kentucky, Ben Telfair tells us of a vision he had after the death of his beloved grandfather:

He came out of the darkness and at that moment everything seemed revealed to me and I could almost touch him I could almost touch his old black head and he was naked and I could see the corded muscles in his shoulders that the stone had put there and the sinews and the veins in his forearms and his small belly and his thin old man’s shanks and his slender polished shins and he was so very beautiful. He was just a man, naked and alone in the universe, and he was not afraid and I wept with joy and a sadness I’d never known and I stood there with the tears pouring down my face and he smiled at me and he held out both his hands. Hands from which all those blessings flowed. Hands I never tired to look at. Shaped in the image of God. To make the world. To make it again and again. To make it in the very maelstrom of its undoing. Then as he began to fade I knelt in the grass and I prayed for the first time in my life. I prayed as men must have prayed ten thousand years ago to their dead kin for guidance and I knew that he would guide me all my days and that he would not fail me, not fail me, not ever fail me.

Such passages can of course be interpreted metaphorically or psychologically—they can be naturalized. But insofar as they bear a theological interpretation, they would seem to insist that our experience of God is often, if not always, mediated by other persons, the spirits of those we loved or admired in this world. If we look again at the last line of that passage from The Road, we discover a related idea: “She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” Human beings are a fitting abode for the spirit of God, both before and after their death. This idea is given another turn in The Sunset Limited when Black tells White:

[Jesus] couldnt come down here and take the form of a man if that form was not done shaped to accommodate him. And if I said that there aint no way for Jesus to be ever man without ever man bein Jesus then I believe that might be a pretty big heresy. But that’s all right. It aint as big a heresy as saying that a man aint all that much different from a rock. Which is how your view looks to me.

The decidedly non-heretical idea behind these words is that the Incarnation was only possible because man was created in the image of God to begin with. Man was the natural thing for God to become when He entered into his own creation.


But if God did become man, Christians believe that he did so for a particular purpose; he had something to tell us, something to reveal. Do we actually see any sign of the Gospel message in McCarthy’s bleak fictions? I think the answer is yes, once we know how to look for it. Again, it isn’t delivered to us homiletically by the author, though sometimes he will allow one of his Christian characters to preach. These sermons are often awkward, even clumsy, not nearly as shapely or polished as the fulminations of McCarthy’s monumental villains. When we do hear the Gospel proclaimed, it is likely to be the Gospel as proclaimed by some sinner who has just recognized how far short he’s fallen. In The Stonemason, Ben Teflair, the play’s hero, acknowledges that he began to go wrong when he tried to protect some members of his family by cutting the family’s black sheep loose, in a kind of horrible reversal of the parable of the lost sheep. He tells us of a dream he had in which he stood in “the full folly of his righteousness,” ready to meet his Maker with his job-book beneath his arm “in which was logged the hours and the days and the years and wherein was ledgered down each sack of mortar and each perch of stone.” Then he looks down at the book and discovers “that the pages were all yellowed and crumbling and the ink faded and the accounts no longer clear.” He suddenly realized that God will have only one question for him: “Where are the others? Oh I’ve had time to reflect upon that terrible question. Because we cannot save ourselves unless we save all ourselves. I had this dream but did not heed it. And so I lost my way.”

We find an echo of this passage in something Black tells White in The Sunset Limited. Since Black is a kind of freelance preacher, his way of making the point does sound more like a sermon. But since Black is also a Cormac McCarthy character, his sermon has a strength of metaphor most sermons don’t. He tells White:

He said you could have life everlastin. Life. Have it today. Hold it in your hand. That you could see it. It gives off a light. It’s got a little weight to it. Not much. Warm to the touch. Just a little. And it’s forever. And you can have it. Now. Today. But you dont want it. You dont want it cause to get it you got to let your brother off the hook. You got to actually take him and hold him in your arms and it dont make no difference what color he is or what he smells like or even if he dont want to be held. And the reason you wont do it is because he dont deserve it. And about that there aint no argument. He dont deserve it. You wont do it because it aint just.

What keeps us from accepting what Black calls life everlasting is precisely our narrow sense of desert, that job-book we keep clutching as it disintegrates in our hands. We want more than justice, but we are afraid to settle for less. We want grace, but are afraid of what it might require of us. In one sense, it requires nothing. Grace is by definition given freely to anyone who will accept it; it is not a thing one must earn; it is not a thing one can earn. Still, it may be that we can accept grace only if we’re willing to become gracious ourselves, in the deepest sense of that word: only, that is, if we’re willing to be merciful—and that’s something we’re reluctant to do. Like Ben Teflair, whose wife has to remind him:

You said there were some things that people didnt have to deserve. You said there were some things you couldnt deserve. Things so sweet or so precious or even just so common to all humanity that there was no deserving them they just were given and you couldnt question them whether they fell to you or to someone else you couldnt question them.

“Common to all humanity”: in that context, the phrase calls to mind a famous sentence early in McCarthy’s novel Child of God (1973)—the sentence from which the novel gets its title. The author calls the story’s main character, Lester Ballard, “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” The rest of this short novel seems to test that claim. Before it’s over, Ballard will have killed several women, sexually violated their corpses, scalped one of them so he could wear her hair as a wig, and dragged their bodies into a cave to keep him company. As a boy, Ballard was abandoned by his mother and found his father hanging from a rope in the family’s barn—the father’s eyes “run out on stems like crawfish.” Things don’t improve after that. When we first meet him, Ballard is just a pathetic misfit; as the novel proceeds he gradually becomes a monster. The violence one encounters in Child of God is not unusual for McCarthy, but that probably isn’t what bothers readers most. What really bothers us is Ballard’s depraved abnormality.

McCarthy’s abiding interest in a category of characters we might loosely call “losers”—the alienated, the undesired and undesirable, the freakish and the forgotten, the terminally disappointed—may be the best evidence that he possesses an essentially Christian moral imagination. It is possible to read Child of God as a test case for Karl Barth’s claim that “we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother, and God is Father.” Can we really think of Ballard in that way, no matter what we say we believe about the extent of God’s love? Can we accept, or even imagine, that a murderous necrophiliac, really is “a child of God”—in that way like ourselves, if in no other? Late in the novel, McCarthy suggests that one might even pity Ballard if one could see him in his cave: “In the morning when the light in the fissure dimly marked him out this drowsing captive looked so inculpate in the fastness of his hollow stone you might have said he was half right who thought himself so grievous a case against the gods.” Ballard’s neighbors in the hill country of Tennessee have every reason to hate him. Ballard, for his part, has pretty good reasons to hate “the gods.” If grace is no less real or important than justice, then it must somehow find room for itself between these two reasonable hatreds. Christian readers of this novel are forced to ask themselves if their God could really command anyone to love a creature as vile as Lester Ballard, without illusion but also without reservation.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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Published in the November 11, 2016 issue: View Contents
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