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The legacy of Pulitzer-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy


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Geoff Bennett: Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy died today at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His books often focused on loss and bloodshed, set everywhere from the American West, to the South, to a post-apocalyptic world.

Throughout his long career, he wrote novels that could be bleak and violent, but that were also hailed for his beautiful prose. They were often suffused with moral ambiguity. That included some of his best-known works, such as "No Country For Old Men," "All the Pretty Horses," and "The Road." Critics likened him to Faulkner, Hemingway, and Melville.

Joining us now is writer Walter Kirn, the author of many novels, including up in the air, and he's also a literary critic himself.

Thank you for being with us.

Cormac McCarthy, as we said, was one of our greatest writers, known for his violent and bleak depictions, his sort of dark view of the human condition. But in his own way, he never really wrote an uninteresting sentence.

What informed his approach to writing?

Walter Kirn, Novelist and Critic: Well, Cormac McCarthy was kind of a hybrid of the great American novelists of the last 150 years.

For some reason, he channeled in an authentic way, not as though he were copying others, everybody, like you say, from Melville on, really. He was a very masculine novel, I think -- novelist. I think that needs to be noted, though his last novel was narrated by a female character, something he'd been preparing for, for 50 years.

So he was very settled in his tradition. He had absorbed all the great writing. And, somehow, he managed to channel it in a new way, as though it came from his deepest self. It was as though he was a river that all the other rivers flowed into.

Geoff Bennett: He was relatively obscure for much of his career. And when fame and acclaim eventually found him, he really abhorred talking about his books.

He didn't do very many interviews. Is it fair to say that he was the most, I guess, celebrated, reclusive writer since J.D. Salinger? I mean, what accounted for it?

Walter Kirn: Well, we have got a few celebrated, reclusive writers, like Thomas Pynchon, in this country.

But McCarthy, who did get around -- he just lived a very private life. It wasn't as though he was completely hiding out or he didn't want his photograph taken. But he was hard to meet. You had to go to Santa Fe. You had to sort of seek him out. But he wasn't pushing America away.

He just wanted to do his business. And his business was the page. And that was where he focused himself.

Geoff Bennett: You, as I understand it, reviewed all of his books. What lines or passages stuck with you, resonated with you?

Walter Kirn: Oh, no, I can't claim to have reviewed all of them. But I have reviewed quite a few of them.

McCarthy wrote every genre. He wrote a great suspense novel in "No Country For Old Men." He wrote a great sort of historical, almost horror novel in "Blood Meridian," and he wrote a dystopian science fiction novel in "The Road."

And I think "The Road" is probably the novel that I think of most these days, because it dealt with war and an uncertain future and perhaps an apocalypse on the horizon for a country much like the United States. So it's a very haunting book.

And the very end of it, I think, where he looks back at the American landscape through a clear trout stream back into the primeval pre-civilization of this content -- continent, really sticks with me now.

Geoff Bennett: How do you think McCarthy in his body of work, how will it be remembered?

Walter Kirn: It's going to be remembered with extreme fondness, respect, and, I think, affection.

He was a popular novelist. Once he got going with "All the Pretty Horses" in the early '90s, he became a bestselling American novelist, whose movies -- I mean, whose books were made into movies and whose work became familiar. And when he died today, it wasn't just literary people who started texting me and saying, oh, my gosh, can you believe it?

It was people of all kinds, the general reader. We don't think that the general reader maybe exists in the United States anymore. But she does, he does, and they do. And Cormac wrote for all of them.

Geoff Bennett: How then does his imprint, does his influence show up in contemporary writing?

Walter Kirn: Well, in some ways, he was a writer of ancient prose. He sounded at times like the Bible. He sounded at times like ancient philosophical texts.

He really combined knowledge of the past and present in a way few do here. And I think he will be remembered as a kind of gold standard for a very laconic, strong, minimalist American prose, though his early books were anything but minimalist.

I mean, if you look at "Blood Meridian," it was a book that might have been written by a mad prophet of the desert in the year zero.


Geoff Bennett: Walter Kirn, thanks so much for joining us, as we acknowledge and pay tribute to the many contributions of Cormac McCarthy.

Walter Kirn: Thank you.

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