Carry the fire


Last updated 6/20/2023 at 10:42am

It seems fitting that I would learn about the death of novelist Cormac McCarthy dozens of miles up the Chewaucan River, in an old cow camp, if only because the location was an antipode of the Susquehanna, where I first encountered his work some 30 years ago.

I think now, and the evidence is strong, I was there because of him.

Back then I was in Pennsylvania on a fellowship at Bucknell, and found “All the Pretty Horses” by pure accident, in a tiny bookshop next to the Amish Farmer’s Market. I was riveted by that book, stunned by it, because it was a piece of unexpected fiction that cracked open my soul, and fired something in my experience, in my imagination, that demanded a course correction, a review of designs and my history as a child of the rural American West.

Because of that book I seized at roots I had spurned, and over the next few years would cowboy around the American West, jealously protecting whatever remained of the fire once carried by the fictional John Grady Cole. Years later, the flame would come to life again, in my documentary film “The Outside Circle.”

Great writers and artists create their own following, and so I became a disciple of McCarthy’s work and world, burning through his books and finding inspiration, and instruction, in all of them. Like many others, I was frustrated by his reclusiveness and celebrated when a relentless young reporter finally cornered him at his shack in El Paso. McCarthy gave an interview that will stand for all time as a masterpiece of dodgery: he wouldn’t talk about writing at all, because it simply wasn’t as interesting as Mojave rattlesnakes, or shooting pool, or the fare at his local cafeteria.

When his early works were out of print McCarthy lived in an old barn eating canned beans and bathing in a lake, which probably led to his first divorce. But he kept writing which, like cowboying, is a profession that can be particularly brutal on marriages, and he would eventually run through two more wives. But he stayed the course, believing in himself when the vagaries of publishing must have felt like the sufferings of Job, and eventually moved to El Paso where he would cruise the big Southwestern deserts alone in an old Ford pickup. And so the “Border Trilogy” was born.

The lineage is clear: Melville begat Faulkner, who begat McCarthy. They are inextricably linked, in substance and in style, though McCarthy would never need to suggest to his publishers —as Faulkner once did —that they print an additional page of commas and periods at the end of the book so that readers could cut them out and put them in wherever they wanted them.

McCarthy was, perhaps, the finer craftsman, with an ear for language and precision brushstrokes that forged a distinct voice in American letters. “Moby Dick” is widely considered the foremost masterpiece of American novels, but “Blood Meridian,” McCarthy’s fourth book, has probably nudged it aside. It is a book so weighty in its implications, so masterful in its construction, so unflinching a look at human behavior, that it also, sadly, sinks far too many readers.

Originality is one mark of genius, but function must equal the form, and McCarthy never disappointed in his ability to tell a hard—even brutal—story honestly. His work is not for everyone. He is often, and wrongly, dismissed as a nihilist. From “Child of God” to “Stella Maris,” his last book, where he rightly suggests that next to fire, and language, the Manhattan Project is the most consequential development in human history, McCarthy is a consistent realist, whose characters plumb the nature of human beings and their motivations. But always with disturbing honesty, which is another mark of genius.

A nihilist could not have written “The Road,” which is a love song to one of his sons, set in a post-apocalyptic world whose origins remain intentionally vague. It is dark, and occasionally hard, but it is also a hero’s tale of our quest to continue life, to see it through at any cost, to carry the fire.

In “No Country for Old Men” we are reminded that “Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction…” which is undoubtedly true. But then we are given the narrator’s dream of his father, who rides past him through a cold mountain pass. “He had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it…And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

When I learned of McCarthy’s death I was in an old cow camp up the Chewaucan River. I was with a cowboy buddy of mine, who now carries the fire for his own son, as his father did for him. And I was there, in that strangely meandering way of fate, because of a book I read more than 30 years ago, on the banks of a far different river —which sparked the fire I’ve carried in a horn ever since.


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