At 74, author Cormac McCarthy has finally found his audience. Though he’s received numerous literary merits during his career, his deserved marketplace success didn’t begin until more recently. It took a book club selection and three adaptations of his work into film, such as the upcoming release of The Road to get him there. Most of his writing life he scrapped by, using infrequent award and fellowship monies rather than commercial profit to pay his debts. An admitted public recluse, McCarthy continues to focus on his personal brand of fiction but rarely on its promotion. No book signings, no readings, no special appearances at writing workshops. In an extremely rare interview he stated, “I don’t know any writers. I would much prefer to hang out with scientists.”
Significant critical success came to McCarthy’s work over the years, though he seemed to pay it equally little attention. He won a MacArthur Fellowship Grant in 1981, which allowed him to complete his Southwestern gothic novel Blood Meridian. In 2006, it was named runner-up in the “Best Novel in the Past 25 Years” by the New York Times. In 1992 McCarthy won the National Book award for his western, All the Pretty Horses. It also became McCarthy’s first book adapted into a film. That was a major moment for the fans of his work. The opening credit, “Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy” meant more would be exposed to his style of storytelling. The later film adaptation of No Country for Old Men drove more readers to McCarthy’s work. The Cohen Brothers, directors known for their quirky intelligent films, played it straight and filmed a classic that stayed true to McCarthy’s novel. It also won four Academy Awards including Picture of the Year. Good on both sides.
But there is only so much a film can do. McCarthy’s work proves that writing can still go places that film cannot. Blood Meridian for example, with all its accolades, is also considered one of the most brutally violent novels ever written. Loosely based on the Glanton gang that made their living off collecting scalps during the Indian Wars, the subject matter requires the violence. There is, arguably, nothing gratuitous about it. It captures the hardness of the old west and desperation when there is no law. How violent is it? Movie critic Roger Ebert, a fan of the novel, said, “I don’t know if audiences could endure Blood Meridian if it were filmed faithfully.”
In 2007, just into his seventies, McCarthy’s career made another major turn. His latest novel, The Road about a father and son trying to stay alive after an apocalypse, won the Pulitzer Prize. Soon after, it was chosen as Oprah’s April 2007 Book of the Month Club Selection. Cormac granted his first ever television interview to Oprah. Not just an interview. A Sit-Down-on-the-Oprah-Couch-with-Oprah interview. Oprah flew to the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico before he could change his mind and filmed their discussion there. She asked him why he refused so many interviews. He said, “Well I don’t think it’s good for your head. You probably shouldn’t be talking about it, you should be doing it.” The effect of her selections cannot be overestimated on a fiction writer’s career. There was nothing so powerful. Commercial success had found him.
The Road as an Oprah Book of the Month selection was considered a controversial choice. The Road is a desperately heavy novel. A meditation of human capability, of evil and death. There are no traveling pants, no poetic banter, and a different kind of hope than self-affirmation can provide. But maybe the choosers of all books Oprah saw what I saw. During the interview, McCarthy told us that his eight year old son was the inspiration for The Road. Cormac’s love for his boy absolutely shines through the pages. It is the story. The dark and desperate setting strips their interaction with the world down to the most basic of humanity: food, shelter, warmth, protection and fear. From this basic pallet the love of this father for his son is the brightest paint. I found it the most touching portrayal of a father and son relationship anywhere in literature. It is how I hope to raise my own boys, metaphorically. Between the dangers and hopelessness of a nearly extinct world, I hope Oprah’s readers were able to discover the same.
The movie, The Road, is the next long-form commercial for Cormac McCarthy’s work. It stars Viggo Morgenson, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, and Guy Pierce and is currently playing in a theatre near you.