Like so many others, Cormac McCarthy was profoundly influential to my literary practice.
McCarthy’s prose left me aghast. Devoured. Devastated, but in the way that reckoning with the shock of extraordinary art can bring you to your knees. It often still does.
McCarthy granted unimaginable freedom and dexterity to sentences, summoning images with such singular vision and intonation they read like incantations from another realm. Like painters and cinematographers, he possessed a staggering deftness for slanting the field of view to transpose once familiar objects and symbols into astonishment.
His novels confirmed my instinctual love for stories that prize natural settings and lyricism as main events. I reveled in twisted delight at the desperate loners and their deplorable misadventures. I always kept a dictionary close so as not to stumble past signposts I didn’t readily recognize.
While my reverence runs deep, so does my respect for criticisms about the trappings of McCarthy’s blood-drenched Westerns, despite what I read as a largely revisionist lens applied to the inhumanity of settler politics—my reading of Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy is that America is built on hypermasculine violence, and its borders are maintained through that same violence. But does that excuse the lack of fully-formed female characters in these stories? When women show up at the fringes—sometimes as rape victims or as Mexican love interests for white cowboys—what function do they serve?
Colorado-based writer Raksha Vasudevan describes this complexity in her brilliant and beautiful essay “Hiking Cormac McCarthy’s Western Wilderness During an Immigration Crisis.” McCarthy’s hardboiled depictions of the American West and its taciturn cast fueled Raksha’s imagination as a shy child in India and years later, at the tail end of a two-year working visa, inspired a solo backpacking trip to locations that served as settings in his books.
Upon visiting these chimerical borderlands as an adult during the Trump era, thoroughly exhausted by America’s hostility toward immigrants and greed for displacement, Raksha understands McCarthy’s depictions of the desolate frontier were “built on a white male mythology that left little space for women or people of color—for people like me….His portrayal of these lands as barren and ripe for conquest now rang less true than ever, a willful blindness in the vein of Manifest Destiny.”
The takeaway of the essay isn’t a categorical admonishment of McCarthy’s work—at each stunning summit and star-laden campsite, Raksha pulls out her dog-eared sources of inspiration, studding the essay with razor-sharp, glistening passages of his that never cease to resonate.
I came to McCarthy’s books in college, some of which I read while spending time on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I’d made relationships there through a Tribal development course, co-led by Mark St. Pierre of the Pine Ridge-based Wounded Knee Community Development Corporation. From 2009-2012, I returned nearly every six months on various invitations: supporting a science fair for Tribal youth; clearing flood debris around Henry Red Cloud’s Lakota Solar Energy Enterprise; house sitting for author Walter Littlemoon.
Summer evenings on Walter’s porch, I’d bend back the spines of my paperbacks and breathe in the sugared smell of sage and musk of woodsmoke, listening to the western wheatgrass bending and swaying beneath breathlessly huge fuschia and bloodred sunsets. I frequently drove past the memorial site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, one of the most heinous acts of violence and betrayal committed by the federal government in its endless history of atrocities toward Native people.
The depth of America’s colonial terrorism came into sharper view with each visit, cuspidated to a knife edge as I studied and listened to stories of how colonization continued to impact the lives of those around me.
Though I’ve read it twice in the years since, I could never lucidly wade through the brutality inflicted on Indigenous peoples in Blood Meridian, despite its efforts to illuminate the federal government’s genocidal campaign to settle the west. Though this is hardly a moralistic gloat—Child of God, in all its sordid, reprehensible pageantry, remains a bilious darling on my bookshelf.
As critical as it is to confront the magnitude of America’s barbarous treatment of Native bodies, at what point can the amplified portrayal of this violence cross over into voyeurism—particularly when rendered by a white writer and consumed by white readers, such as myself?
I consider similar questions within the scope of violence against women as I pull out my treasured copy of Child of God, wondering how I can recall its depraved plot and still smile to myself, beguiled and amused and a tad contrite. But I do.
Online, I observe an outpouring of grief from a diverse spread of writers, from S.A. Cosby to Gabino Iglesias to Lauren Groff to Porochista Khakpour to Raksha herself; writers of color, queer writers, and women writers grappling with the loss of this literary wunderkind; many of whom for, like me, McCarthy’s work left them gutted and awestruck; possessed and haunted.
Like life so frequently demands, I wonder how to hold complex grief. I wonder how to honor my admiration while holding space for the highly necessary expansion of humanity in how we tell our country’s stories, even as we excavate the darkest chapters. I dig through my favorite sentences to share, wondering how to choose the one that resonates most deeply. I decide to select one that sparks light in this moment, understanding that my beloveds, like me, are incomplete, fallible, and ever-evolving:
“They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.”
- Cormac McCarthy, All The Pretty Horses