Author Cormac McCarthy famously hardly ever spoke a word on the subject of his writing. Regardless, his death this last week has inspired some of the most thoughtful obituaries in memory.
McCarthy’s work, despite its aggressively dispiriting nature, found its way to the screen several times, adapted in various ways. Maybe the purest translation of his text, in spirit, is No Country for Old Men, which is likely the best of them all. Changes were made, of course, but the visceral power, the emphasis on action, the enigmatic quality, these remained. Crucially, No Country For Old Men started as a screenplay to begin with, penned by the author himself, and only became a novel after a few years, which the famously verbose Coens adapted in faithfully spare terms. These films are how many readers will have come to know McCarthy’s work, and their screenshots and gifs have been flying across the internet.
More often you’ll see quotes. Passages. Sentences. Long ones. Like this 246 word spasm of description, highlighted by the Washington Post: “A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”
The power of this… sentence comes from its own extraordinarily literary quality, every clause and phrase a bombshell of fetishistic descriptivism, but no one could deny it is cinematic nonetheless. The horribles in question are an attacking band of Comanche, and their vivid characterization draws concern. But McCarthy, among the final great authorities in literature, never gave readers the tolerance to explain a character’s psychology. Only a brutal, unnerving present. He also detested writing courses, but we won’t hold that against him.
His outsized legacy has already left a big, calloused imprint on the readership as it stands today. Any writer worth their salt must contend with the immediacy, the passionate presence of Cormac McCarthy.