Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose dense yet demure prose whisked readers from the southern Appalachian Mountains to the desert of the Southwest in novels like The Road, Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses, died on Tuesday. He was 89.
McCarthy died of natural causes in Santa Fe, New Mexico, publisher Alfred A. Knopf said. Raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, McCarthy has been compared to William Faulkner for his Old Testament style and rural surroundings.
McCarthy’s themes, like Faulkner’s, were often somber and violent, dramatizing how the past overwhelmed the present. In harsh and forbidding landscapes and seedy frontier communities, he housed loafers, thieves, prostitutes and broken old men, all unable to escape the fate inflicted upon them long before they were born. As the doomed John Grady Cole was to learn from McCarthy’s acclaimed Border trilogy, dreams of a better life were just dreams and falling in love was an act of folly.
McCarthy’s own history was one of belated and enduring success and popularity. Little known to the public at the age of 60, he became one of the country’s most respected and successful writers, although he rarely spoke to the press.
His commercial breakthrough came with All the Pretty Horses in 1992 and over the next 15 years he won National Book Awards and Pulitzer, guest-starred on Oprah Winfrey’s show, and saw the adaptation of his novel No Country for Old Men by Coen brothers in an Oscar-winning film. Fans of the Coens would note that the film’s terse, absurdist dialogue, so characteristic of the brothers’ work, was adapted directly from the novel.
“The Road,” his dark tale of a father and son roaming a devastated landscape, garnered him the widest audience and critical acclaim. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was selected by Winfrey for her book club. In his Winfrey interview, McCarthy said that while he doesn’t usually know what inspires the ideas for his books, he can trace “The Road” to a trip he took with his young son to El Paso, Texas, earlier in the decade. undertook. Standing by the window of a hotel in the middle of the night while his son slept nearby, he began to imagine what El Paso would be like 50 or 100 years in the future.
“I just had this picture of those fires up on the hill… and I was thinking a lot about my little boy,” he said.
He told Winfrey he didn’t care how many people read The Road.
“You want people who appreciate the book to read it. But as far as lots and lots of people reading it, so what?” he said.
McCarthy dedicated the book to his son, John Francis, and said that having a child as an older man “the world imposes on you, and I think that’s a good thing.”
The Pulitzer Committee called his book “a deeply moving story of a journey.” “It boldly envisions a future in which there is no hope, but in which love sustains the Father and His Son, ‘the other’s world,'” the quote reads in part. “Awesome in the entirety of its vision, it is an unwavering meditation on the worst and best of what we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of utter devastation.”
In 2022, Knopf made the surprise announcement that it would be publishing McCarthy’s first work in more than 15 years, two related novels he had mentioned in the past: The Passenger and Stella Maris, tales of two unrelated novels Novel-obsessed siblings and the inheritance of their father, a physicist who had worked on nuclear technology. One of the notable features of Stella Maris was that it was a female character, a recognized weakness of McCarthy’s.
“I don’t pretend to understand women,” he told Winfrey.
His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, which he wrote in Chicago while working as an auto mechanic, was published by Random House in 1965. Its editor was Albert Erskine, Faulkner’s longtime editor.
Other novels include Outer Dark, published in 1968; “Child of God” in 1973; and “Suttree” in 1979. The violent “Blood Meridian,” about a group of bounty hunters along the Texas-Mexico border who were murdering Native Americans for their scalps, was released in 1985.
His Border Trilogy books were set in the southwest border with Mexico: All the Pretty Horses (1992)—a National Book Award-winning film-turned-film; The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998). McCarthy said he’s always been lucky. He recalled living in a cabin in Tennessee and running out of toothpaste. Then he went out and found a sample of toothpaste in the mailbox.
“That was my life. Just when things were really, really bleak, something was going to happen,” said McCarthy, who won a MacArthur fellowship — one of the so-called “genius grants” — in 1981.
In 2009, Christie’s auction house sold the Olivetti typewriter, which he used to write novels such as The Road and No Country for Old Men, for $254,500. McCarthy, who bought the Olivetti in 1958 for $50 and used it until 2009, donated it so the proceeds could benefit the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit interdisciplinary scientific research community. He once said he didn’t know any writers and preferred to hang out with scientists.
Texas State University-San Marcos’ Southwestern Writers Collection acquired his archives in 2008, which include correspondence, notes, drafts, proofs of 11 novels, a draft of an unfinished novel, and materials for a play and four screenplays.
McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee for a year before joining the Air Force in 1953. He returned to the school in 1957–59 but left before graduating. As an adult, he lived near the Great Smoky Mountains before moving west in the late 1970s, eventually settling in Santa Fe.
His long-abandoned and overgrown childhood home in Knoxville was destroyed by fire in 2009.
Retired AP reporter Sue Major Holmes from New Mexico was the lead author of this obituary. AP National Writer Hillel Italie reported from New York.
Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.