Staff Chat: Cormac McCarthy Book Club

This summer, Brazos Bookstore is hosting a Cormac McCarthy-themed Book Club. We sat down as a staff to discuss the highs and lows (and more lows, and more lows) of Cormac McCarthy's work. 

Mark: Alright, Cormac McCarthy. An American icon. Today we’re talking about our book group this summer: we’ll be reading three different books, a variety of books that trace the career of Cormac McCarthy, one of America’s best living contemporary writers.

Keaton: Consummate prose stylist.

*laughs*

MH: He’s always been kind of a favorite in the store, I guess that’s true of much of the country as well, but i’m not sure who thought of doing the book group for the summer, but —

KP: I think that was you, Mark.

MH: — It’s been really popular. It was probably me.

KP: What can we say about Cormac that hasn’t been said already? Reclusive, sparse writing.

MH: Roots in Faulkner, and a little Melville maybe.

KP: Very much draws from that modernist naturalist wing of American lit for sure.

So I guess what I want to ask you, you said to trace the arc of his career but I mean for this year we’re reading CHILD OF GOD, BLOOD MERIDIAN, THE ROAD. Why did you settle on those three?

MH: Well, he has a trilogy. I thought that might be the easy way out, because those are written in order usually and want to stay aesthetically the same. I wanted to show — you know, he’s been writing for decades — how he’s changed since the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, Aughts. My choice with those books was that they represented different eras of his writing, different decades. They were also ones that I was a fan of, that I was interested, selfishly, in re-reading.

KP: What about you, Kevin? You’ve been a fan of McCarthy for a while.

Kevin: Yeah, I’ve been a fan.

KP: What draws you to his literature?

KM: BLOOD MERIDIAN is one of my favorite books. I think there’s something sparse, but one thing that draws me the most is the epic weight he gives every little detail. All his characters, and the stories, I think thematically there’s just something so grandiose. Maybe Shakespearean, if I could say that.

KP: I think it’s interesting that you said that, because BLOOD MERIDIAN does hit a lot of the notes of what you consider an epic. It begins in medias res, it begins in the middle of the story with the kid just kind of moving along. It doesn’t really give you a starting point for him (well, I guess his abusive father) but it kind of just… starts off. It’s a quest story that charts the birth, in all of its bloodshed, of modern Texas.

KM: A lot of people comment on the beauty of his writing. I’ve always enjoyed reading such beautiful prose, juxtaposed against such gritty and violent stories and images.

KP: I don’t think horrific is too strong of a word.

MH: No. BLOOD MERIDIAN is definitely the most violent book I’ve ever read.

It wasn’t a huge hit upon its release, it wasn’t this critical darling at all, it just was a bit of a dud at first. But I think Harold Bloom, the well-known critic, famously said something like “this is in the tradition of MOBY DICK,” kind of “a modern MOBY DICK for this century,” and then the acclaim followed ten or fifteen years after the book. Similar to MOBY DICK, which waited a lot longer, but which didn’t have instant acclaim on its publication.

KP: It also is important because it turned the genre on its head when it came out. There are books which would have been coined “acid westerns” coming out around the same time or a little before, but this is the book that took the American western mythos and peeled back the veneer of heroism and showed the slaughter, debauchery, moral vacuity present in it. It’s interesting – even though the narrator grows up – you’re seeing all these things through the eyes of “the kid.” Of a child. Which I think serves to heighten the epic weight that he gives the work.

MH: Everyone knows Custer died at little big horn, but what this book presupposes— maybe he didn’t?

*groans and laughs from KM and KP*

Okay, sorry. Little ROYAL TANNENBAUMS moment. But seriously, I think his character is supposed to be loosely based on Cormac McCarthy. I guess so.

When ending the Book Club, I was going back and forth between THE ROAD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, because those came out a year apart. They came in quick succession. I just didn’t know which one to do. I’m a fan of both. I decided on THE ROAD because I think it’s so different from his other stuff. I mean really different. It’s basically a post-apocalyptic book, and there’s actually a little bit of hope in it. A tinge of hope.

KP: The kernel of love at the center of that book is different from the other books as well.

MH: Absolutely, with the father and son.

KM: Much more tenderness.

MH and KP: Yeah!

KP: Very biblical feel to THE ROAD, but that scripture-like cadence I would say is through most of his work. I would say that adds to the heft that he has. He mimics that in his writing sometimes. People have feelings about THE ROAD, I mean it’s been so commercialized with Oprah and everything, but really in my opinion it’s one of the few perfect novels I’ve ever come across. It’s flawless. It does have that hope in it that is sorely needed, but I think it doesn’t varnish over the ugly. It’s obviously an allegory of the time it was written, but it is nice to have that little bit of hope at the end.

MH: Hopefully, doing this summer Book Club is going to nudge McCarthy into finally announcing a release date for his new book. In his career, this is the longest he’s ever gone without having a book come out. Since THE ROAD, seven or eight years.

KP: For three years now, I’ve been checking for that book to come out.

Overall what are your favorite books by him?

KM: I like BLOOD MERIDIAN a lot.

MH: BLOOD MERIDIAN, definitely. The other two we’ve mentioned I’m a big fan of as well. There’s so much I haven’t read, like SUTTREE. But I haven’t read all his work.

KP: I particularly like OUTER DARK. It’s right before CHILD OF GOD. It’s an early work for him but I think that’s where you see him become the Cormac McCarthy that we know. Before then, you had THE ORCHARD KEEPER, then his second novel, and when you get to OUTER DARK you see the notions that you see in BLOOD MERIDIAN are in it, the notions in THE ROAD are in that. You can make direct lines from that book to all his later masterpieces for sure. I love that book very much.

It’s hard to go wrong, though, with somebody like him.

MH: He’s amazingly consistent.

So if you’re around, join us for this Book Club this Wednesday the 19th, or in August for our discussion about THE ROAD!

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