Several years ago we muddled through Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” (1992). We found it long and dull; peppered with McCarthy’s annoying omission of simple punctuation (what’s wrong with using quotation marks and apostrophes?) and filled with run-on sentences of questionable clarity.
Try this sentence on for size:
“Although the night was cool the double doors of the grange stood open and the man selling the tickets was seated in a chair on a raised wooden platform just within the doors so that he must lean down to each in a gesture akin to benevolence and take their coins and hand them down their tickets or pass upon the ticketstubs of those who were only returning from outside.”
Yeah, it makes you dizzy that McCarthy can write a 70-word sentence about a man handing another man a ticket stub (which is two words, Cormac). Our jaw dropped when this novel won the National Book award.
We applauded critic and author B.R. Myers scathing literary criticism “A Reader’s Manifesto” when he called out McCarthy as one of the guilty among the long list of pretentious literary writers (other authors called out by Myers included E. Annie Proulx, David Guterson, Paul Auster, Charles Frazier, and Don DeLillo).
Myers took offense at this sentence from McCarthy’s “The Crossing” (1995): “He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.”
Then Myers tore into it:
“This is a good example of what I call the andelope: a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction and. Like the "evocative" slide-show and the Consumerland shopping-list, the andelope encourages skim-reading while keeping up the appearance of “literary” length and complexity. But like the slide-show (and unlike the shopping-list), the andelope often clashes with the subject matter – the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the methodical meal that is being described.”
While we still find McCarthy’s reluctance to use proper grammar maddening it appears that he may have been listening to his critics (such as it is). Both novels are shorter and he strays away from his past sin of using long complicated sentences to describe simple mundane moments.
Instead, he focuses both “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” on developing rich complex characters and then mines their interactions with each other for great emotional depth. The novels evoke great truths about human nature that at times left us breathless (and eager for more).
While reading “All the Pretty Horses” felt like a miserable chore, we couldn’t put down “No Country for Old Men” or “The Road.” There was energy to the prose and while the plots weren’t intricate – at least they had plots. The action feels more external and less internal. And that’s a good thing.
While we’ll stop short of lavishing McCarthy with the praise the likes of Literary Critic Harold Bloom – who called him one of the most important authors of his time – we have changed our minds about McCarthy.
The greatest praise we can give to McCarthy is that both “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” have stayed with us. Both novels are haunting and powerful and stick to the ribs of your mind for a long, long time (like good, old-fashioned oatmeal).
So we kind-of apologize, Mr. McCarthy. We’re not going back to the Border Trilogy, but we can’t wait for your next book – ‘cause we’re going to be first in line to buy it.
Our literary sketch of Edith Wharton's "A Journey"