Contemplating Cormac McCarthy

On pain specific to America and artistic influence.

The summer I was 26, the woman I loved ended things and set me so utterly adrift that most nights I could not sleep, and unless I was at work I was consumed by the thoughts and feelings that come with first romantic loss. I made it through those dry, quiet and sunny afternoons in my hometown on my reservation by hanging out in my grandfather’s small, usually empty laundromat and reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Only McCarthy’s aestheticized world of horror and violence could turn me away from my pain. Only his vision of an apocalyptic, historical American West — the same that gave rise to my own life — could bring me that internal stillness I felt in the presence of great art.


I first encountered Cormac McCarthy’s name in an interview between Gus Van Sant and the late David Foster Wallace. The interview is very late-’90s, and it fills me with nostalgia for a time when the status quo relationship to art in America was not primarily one of political and social expectation. Because the conversation took place the better part of a decade before McCarthy won the Pulitzer and his name exploded into the popular conversation about literature — a writer who had done only two interviews before that was suddenly on Oprah and in Rolling Stone — Wallace discusses him the way you would a lesser-known writer. A writer’s writer. Because of the way Wallace talked about Blood Meridian — it was the greatest Western, it was horrific, the language biblical — I  brought it to the attention of HRH, my former high school English teacher. I had not yet read the book, but I felt its dark, humming presence out there in the world, waiting for me.

HRH was a brilliant, principled man of an older order. He had been in the Navy and he had been an alcoholic and he was profoundly distrustful of the powers that be. Yet he also believed in this country, and the great American project of raising people — all of us, regardless of origin — up. He said it was important to have a sense of a higher power — else what is this world but a pointless hell? He stood well over 6 feet tall, his hair and goatee a bright white. He smiled often and slyly. He held the strong opinions of someone who had spent their life with literature, and sometimes, when faced with bad writing, he could only raise a hand and close his eyes. He had come to my reservation in the early ’90s to teach because he believed he could help in some way,  and during my senior year, as my basketball career wound to a disastrous close, he was also my teacher. For the first time in my schooling I had met someone who made a point of challenging me intellectually. Then I graduated and left for college, but whenever there was a holiday break I came back home and usually would visit him. Our conversations ranged broadly, but always at their center was the knowledge that literature was a path to beauty, and with that came a shared reverence for the written word and a respect for its power. We never said this out loud, but that’s how it was between us. There are no bones to roll or cards to pull or leaves to read that might reveal a writer’s moment of origination, but I can say with certainty I would not be the writer I am had I not met HRH. His immaculate taste in literature is a part of me. His sense that the ultimate value of art is set forever apart from material success is my sense. His belief that one must, in some way, oppose the darkness in this world is my belief. A built-in, shock-proof shit detector is not just necessary for a writer; it is also necessary for a teacher who might convey that sensibility to another.

Only his vision of an apocalyptic, historical American West — the same that gave rise to my own life — could bring me that internal stillness I felt in the presence of great art.

There are times we encounter a book before we are ready. I can’t say how many times I approached the opening lines of Blood Meridian before, having been readied by a beginner’s sense of loss, those summer afternoons in the laundromat. I had never read something that so captured an openness of land and an immensity of weather that felt familiar to me, that felt correct. And there is an aura about the language in that book, a sense that each word from the novel’s beginning to its end is limned with the vast, extraordinary silence that defines and dominates the American West. But there is more. There is also — and I believe it to be the thing that haunts its readers the most — an unblinking look at the violence at the heart of America. More than any other book, Blood Meridian demands that we not just see the horror of our shared history, but understand that we cannot be apart from it. 

The destiny of the power of first experience, whether of art or love or loss, is to subside. Though an extraordinary beauty remains, McCarthy’s sentences no longer ride lightning for me; the logic of the book’s movement is somewhat revealed. His heretical narrator has long since ceased to be the ideal voice in my head. It has taken its place as one among the many. What I now see and appreciate — no, greatly admire — because of the many years of writing I have behind me, wherein each moment of aesthetic success was merely the final step in an era of failure, is the discipline, work and patience required to produce writing of such a consistently high and singular quality. The stories of McCarthy’s sacrifices, of self-enforced poverty, of isolation are the stuff of literary legend. I am reminded of Plato’s charioteer as the driver of the horses of the soul. Talent, that ineffable thing equally as mysterious as a work of art, is never enough; the artist must also become the person worthy of its magnitude and force.

Always at their center was the knowledge that literature was a path to beauty, and with that came a shared reverence for the written word and a respect for its power.

McCarthy’s major achievement, if one can discuss such a thing so close to a writer’s death, and what makes him the most important American writer of the latter 20th century next to Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace, was to master a particular aesthetic line in U.S. literature, one that begins with Melville, moving then to Faulkner and on to Morrison, finally arriving at Blood Meridian, one of those literary masterpieces that feels like an apex of the form. This is the line of baroque, lyrical sentences often composed of uncommon words and difficult syntax, of sentences that have guts, that know the nature of dirt and blood and death. Like the words of his predecessors, McCarthy’s language gets into your system and changes the structure of your aesthetic DNA. His diction is drug-like, addictive, hallucinatory in its collective effect. Some writers deliver well-made narratives. Others shine on us the light of intelligence and irony. And still others come not to bring peace but the sword. They cut us open, wound us with their beauty. It is no longer possible to conceive of American literature without McCarthy’s books. 

There is a rhetoric in the background of American letters now, one that, while not often directly stated, runs in the undercurrent of many conversations, both private and public, among writers. It is a rhetoric that requires I acknowledge that McCarthy and HRH — in different ways both very much my teachers — are white Americans, and that I am not, and that because of this fact I must reject, along with the aesthetic preferences of my younger self, them and everything we are told they represent. Or I should at least keep their influence to myself. But I can’t. I can’t because that would mean I have to agree that the story of Indians — which includes this thing we call Native literature, and the future of tribal sovereignty within the U.S. — can finally be separated from the story of America. That somehow never the twain shall meet. I would have to deny not just the aesthetic influence HRH had on me, but also our friendship, which so profoundly changed me for the better. And I would have to deny what McCarthy showed me in his masterwork that lonely summer — that a reader’s experience of sentences, and the beauty that might result, can transform one’s understanding of life. Our politics cannot rise to the majesty or horror of this world; neither can they meet the simple, day-to-day realities of life in this country — only art is worthy of the task. There is a pain in America we can’t be rid of. We must bear it. And we must go beyond it.

There is a pain in America we can’t be rid of. We must bear it. And we must go beyond it.

I finally read Blood Meridian several years after mentioning it to HRH. He had read it well before then, and said it was the kind of book you cannot ignore. In the afternoons of that summer, when I wasn’t working, I would walk over to my grandfather’s laundromat and sit at one of the old school desks that had been put there, and I would read, kept company by the turning and whirring of washing machines and dryers. Though they were born of pain, I see them now as some of the best afternoons of my life. I was reading an extraordinary book. I had begun to dream of being a writer. I am certain HRH and I talked about the book at some point but I have no memory of it. My life began to range out from its origins. I worked in the Seattle-Tacoma area during the summers. I dropped out of college and then at my mother’s behest went back. I wrote most of a failed novel in a voice that can only be described as derivative of McCarthy’s. I went to graduate school and found new teachers. I felt I understood writing and maybe life, and I grew careless about the people who had helped me get there. I began to believe myself very different from HRH. We spoke less than we used to. Somewhere along the way I bought a book for him and struggled to inscribe it — I had a sense of debt and it was so large I could not get my head around it. I still haven’t. Years went by and we hardly spoke and then, when I had been humbled by failure upon failure, by another novel I could not finish, by romantic relationships I could not sustain, and by the beginning of time’s great acceleration, I gave him a call. His cancer, which I did not know about until that day, had begun to overwhelm him. He could barely speak. I sat in my truck in a convenience store parking lot on a cool and gray fall afternoon in a small town in Montana several blocks from where he lived and strained to hear his voice and then listened to the silence between us and it was as large as any I’ve ever felt. There would be no more talk. I said I loved him. I called a few months later and he did not answer and a few weeks later he was dead and a few months after that I published my first story. I felt I knew something of grief. But I did not. I did not know how often I would want to talk with him, to sit and talk with him about another book. That I would continue to feel this way. I did not know the immortality that goes with great art applies only to the art. I did not know that even the greatest of teachers cannot outlive the teachings. 

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain is a Jones lecturer at Stanford University, where he formerly held a Stegner fellowship. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review and elsewhere. He is an unrecognized citizen of the Blackfeet Nation. 

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