I have lately come into possession of a fact that threatens my very sense of things. It is this: Cormac McCarthy is funny. Not just incidentally, not just as a bit of leavening in an otherwise unrelieved gloom, but through to his core. A gallows humor was always right there, a fascination with the unspeakable and the obscene that quickly compounds into camp, and a satirical vision of American history that, in its nasty accuracy, approaches the work of Armando Iannucci, George Romero, or the Coen brothers (who made a masterpiece from one of his least substantial novels). I am looking again at the man’s entire career in the light of this revelation, noticing sharp bits of dialogue, nice ironies to which the overall blackness of his fictional universe blinded me. Maybe he was even kidding in 1992 when he told a New York Times writer that Proust and Henry James, being insufficiently concerned with death (?!), were “not literature” (?!!!).
I first realized how funny McCarthy is while reading Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985), an infamously beautiful and gory novel in which a gang of well-armed moral children carry out organized atrocities (“raids”) in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. They are led by the Judge, a hairless giant who lustily eulogizes their adventures in a voice that combines Faulkner and Schopenhauer with Twain’s Duke and Dauphin. He participates in their depredations, and commits many of his own. He is respectable, pretentious, and infinitely worse than they are: they follow instinct and the bloodcurdling mood swings of young men at war, but he endlessly theorizes about why all their depredations are necessary, before finally turning on them too. Now maybe I’ve been listening to too much Chapo Trap House, but I’m not sure I can think of a better metaphor for the relationship between those who have inflicted and suffered the violence of American history and the “nation” that re-narrates their sordid little odyssey as the Conquest of the West. It’s a brutal joke, and, as always with McCarthy, it comes with a certain amount of kitsch—not so much an evening redness in the West as a thick smudge of purple on the page. But it works.
In The Passenger and Stella Maris, his paired—or entangled—new novels, he broadens his repertoire of jokes, and of many other things. The novels concern Alicia and Bobby Western, the daughter and son of a Manhattan Project physicist. The action takes place during the 1970s and early 1980s, though McCarthy writes with a physicist’s disrespect for linear time. Alicia, and occasionally Bobby, suffer from hallucinations involving a troupe of carnival characters who are led by a disabled and foul-mouthed young man whom Alicia calls the Thalidomide Kid. She calls him that because he has flippers where we might expect hands. The Thalidomide Kid tells a lot of dad jokes—many of which raised a chuckle from me, though I’m an easy mark. (I was moved at the time by McCarthy’s last novel, the bestselling 2006 apocalyptic picaresque The Road, which in hindsight seems a rather threadbare thing, a sort of Chicken Soup for the Prepper’s Soul.) More intriguing is the Kid’s love of puns and wordplay—the language, if you ask some people, of the unconscious.