In McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, one sees an author so impressed with his plainly enormous literary powers that there is no thing, however small, that he will not test them out upon. The book is resplendent with visual imagery for almost every item it touches. Lightning in particular is described in so many ways that one almost longs for a cliched bolt.
McCarthy followed up The Orchard Keeper with two novels that, though decidedly less ambitious than his first, are more existentially profound and emotionally resonant for their sharper focus and greater coherence. They are also the darkest novels in all of McCarthy's works, ones inhabited by men who commit acts that are despicable by any meaningful measure. Although Blood Meridian will feature men that impassively participate in genocide, in these books McCarthy seems to be transgressing limits that have greater potential to shock. The banal evil that he will undertake in later works does not strike the same taboo chords as in these two novels.
After Child of God we reach the highest expression of McCarthy's early style with the book that remains his longest and densest, Suttree. Like Ballard, Suttree's titular protagonist at first tries to quit human society, and like Ballard he eventually comes to see the falsity of that quest. Unlike Ballard, however, Suttree is a much more benevolent character: he plays a central role within a fringe society of outlaws, minorities, ne'er-do-wells, and the impoverished, and it is the panoply of Suttree's interactions with this entire human ecosystem that makes Suttree a polyphonic work.
Blood Meridian also marks an important shift from McCarthy's Appalachian novels for how he changes his use of the road as a trope. The road is without a doubt the main organizing trope of all McCarthy's work, yet, unlike the denizens of McCarthy's first four novels, who were content to wander in small circles within the environs of Knoxville, Tennessee, in Blood Meridian and the books that follow McCarthy's characters will become true wanderers. They will strike out on the open road and become lost.
The Border Trilogy is certainly not nearly as realist as McCarthy's first four novels, or even as realist as Blood Meridian. It has been previously commented that John Grady and Billy are far too able as cowboys to be believable. Whether breaking a horse, muzzling a wolf, or shooting game, they never struggle to do anything; they just do it, much like an epic hero might.
No Country for Old Men is about a rugged individualist workman who discovers over $2 million sitting around in a satchel at the site of a drug deal gone bad. He takes the money and returns home without being seen, and all appears well—except, he returns inexplicably to the scene of the crime to bring a drink of water to man who is dying of gunshot wounds and is clearly beyond the help of medicine. The drug-runners pick up his scent, and though he makes a valiant stand his fate is sealed.
The Road finds McCarthy's language at its most minimalist; yet out of this very spare language McCarthy creates one of his most deeply felt characters, the closest we have ever been to a novel-length first-person narrator. He frequently places us into the father's head indirectly. ("He knew that he was placing hopes where he'd no reason to. He hoped it would be brighter where for all he'd knew the world grew darker daily. He'd once found a lightmeter in a camera store that he thought . . .") In terms of morality, the almost complete state of nature McCarthy imagines post-apocalypse and the unrequited chain of horrors entailed by it (not seen since Blood Meridian) mark this book as far more bleak and morally vacant than anything in McCarthy's late phase--even No Country for Old Men's anti-heroes and psychopaths still had something to live for (money, power, material accumulation) beyond pure survival.
To what extent is prose therefore the medium that best allows McCarthy's particular talents to manifest? To what extent do his skills as an author depend upon setting down words on a page in order to coax out a distinct voice that mediates dialogue, character, and story with its own idiosyncratic ruminations? These questions seem speculative, I admit, but they must be asked because they haunt McCarthy’s latest book from the first page to the very last. That book is The Sunset Limited, a verbatim reproduction of the script for a stage play McCarthy wrote in 2006--verbatim except for the addition of a cryptic subtitle, "A Novel in Dramatic Form," with which it distinguishes itself from the stage play by making an issue of its own novelistic capacity for prosaic meditation.
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