If Toni Morrison is called “America’s conscience,” Cormac McCarthy is more like “America’s unrestrained id.” It’s hard to read his books and not be angry at them. They show the evils of genocide and violence that led to the birth of America without the gloss of manifest destiny and cultural myths to hide them. Through Western tropes like the cowboy, McCarthy shows how our folklore can be dangerous and how our collective gains are paid for with blood.
The Orchard Keeper (1965)
McCarthy’s first two books are always dark, but they stand out more for what they don’t have than what they have. The Orchard Keeper is the book that makes readers work so hard to understand so little. It’s about a boy, an old man, and a middle-aged bootlegger who are all linked in weird ways to murder. Because I read an online summary, I learned that much about the book But the impressionism is turned up so high that it’s hard to figure out what’s going on for a lot of the book. It’s just one hazy scene after another, with no sense of momentum or suspense like in his best work, which makes it interesting. It’s possible to trace a lot of what makes McCarthy unique back to the seeds that were planted here, but they’re just beginning to grow.
Cities of the Plain (1998)
Cities of the Plain is a better book than The Orchard Keeper because it’s easier to read, but I don’t like it at all. Why, then? I don’t like this book because it follows two of McCarthy’s best books and ties them together to make up the Border Trilogy. Cities of the Plain is a telenovela, and it’s not a good thing. It makes McCarthy’s most ridiculous plot out of two classics that should have been left alone. On the other hand, the language is striking because it comes right after one of the 20th century’s best literary runs. This is one to stay away from at all costs because it will make you laugh at yourself.
Outer Dark (1968)
Outer Dark is a lot better than McCarthy’s other early, hard-to-follow book. It’s better in almost every way. The characters are more interesting, the language is more interesting, and the smoke has cleared up just enough to let readers follow along without needing an investigation board. Outer Dark is still set in Appalachia, but it’s all incest and dead babies, which makes for a very cringe-y read.
Child of God (1973)
When you ask what’s worse than having incest and having dead babies, you should think about this: How about a necrophiliac who is a murderous hillbilly? If you don’t yet know what you don’t like, then Child of God might be the book for you. Unlike The Orchard Keeper or Outer Dark, this book is very simple. It has 150 or so pages, and it has a lot of power in just that short amount of time. Another thing: It’s also when McCarthy starts to play with perspective more deliberately. It’s like a simple character study that you could almost imagine Stephen King writing. The wild and disgusting things that happen here aren’t even possible for Stephen King. To read alone in the woods isn’t a good idea, but I think it would be a good choice for a good person to read.
The Road (2006)
Some people thought McCarthy was going on a run when The Road came out. No Country for Old Men was a hit right away. It led to the Coen Brothers film that won Best Picture. *** When The Road was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, McCarthy, a reclusive author, did a TV interview with the queen of talk shows herself. People probably didn’t like The Road because of its content (more dead babies, this time in an apocalypse!), but because of the wider recognition of his genius. This is why it was so popular: That doesn’t mean that The Road isn’t powerful. Like the best of McCarthy’s novels, it snatches you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the last page. It’s not a book that stands out. As far as I can tell, this isn’t very different from other works in the post-apocalyptic nightmare genre. Other than his clear writing style, there’s not much else that makes this book different from other works. It doesn’t matter if this is McCarthy’s last work, though. He went out on good terms. ****
No Country for Old Men (2005)
It doesn’t matter where you live, but the speed at which this thing moves helps push it toward the latter. The language flourishes and long romantic passages that made The Border Trilogy stand out are gone in this book. There’s no grit in this thing. It’s all told in sharp lines with the speed of a bullet and the power of a shovel. Before No Country for Old Men, McCarthy was not a fan of punctuation, but the book doesn’t use any extra words, leaving you with a straight shot of adrenaline that doesn’t let up until the very last chapter. It’s the McCarthy book for people who don’t like McCarthy. It’s a cat-and-mouse game where the cat, Anton Chigur, is truly terrifying and the best character McCarthy has ever written. It still has a lot of blood and bodies, but it’s by far McCarthy’s most accessible work and a great way for people who haven’t read his work before to learn more about him.
It’s the most unique of the last four books on this list. It stands out from the rest of McCarthy’s work. It’s a long, meandering, funny, and heartbreaking book that looks more like Huckleberry Finn than Blood Meridian. Another way to think of it is that this is McCarthy’s last book that is set entirely in the South, and it is his last work that is more or less like a painting. There are a lot of different things going on at the same time. You can tell that Suttree is very different from his first three novels because it has a lightness and richness that is very different from the dark animalism in them. It’s also longer than all three of them put together. When McCarthy’s name is mentioned, Suttree tends to be overlooked in the mainstream. This is a real shame, because its legacy should be that of Ulysses, the American Ulysses, and not just a small piece of history.
All the Pretty Horses (1992)
In this way, the Border Trilogy began. When McCarthy made a big change with Blood Meridian, he decided to leave Appalachia behind and dig even deeper into the frontier subculture. While the setting didn’t change, the way they did things changed a lot. Because there is so much violence and gratuitous descriptions about what happens when someone has their throat cut in a prison fight. Besides, All the Pretty Horses has a softness to it that McCarthy hadn’t tried to write about before. People talk about Horses as a romance all the time. Sure, there’s a boy who falls in love with a girl, but the real romance in this book is in the language. It talks about the landscape, the flowers, and the horses. All the Pretty Horses is one of McCarthy’s best books. It’s a great book in almost every way, and it’s one of his best.
Blood Meridian (1985)
If books were judged by how many bodies they had, Blood Meridian would be the best book ever. My guess is that at least 200 people have been killed in grisly fashion on this site. I’m sure someone has already counted how many murders have been described in great detail here. A lot of people have been scalped, impaled in the neck, hung upside down, clubbed, and shot in the back of the head. These things happen to women, children, babies, seniors, and just about everyone else you can think of. They happen to everyone. Is based on a true story. ***** I can’t say enough good things about this book. There’s a ferocity to Blood Meridian that isn’t found in any other book. A gruesome reminder of humanity’s most vile impulses makes it art of the highest order. It’s a terrifying account of our species’ capacity for evil with every speck of blood counted.
The Crossing (1994)
He has written four perfect books, and The Crossing is the best. Every idea and impulse that he had in his life is shown in some way in this book. The violence of the West, the romantic appeal of conquest, and the trampling of innocence are all shown in some way. It’s shown with a staggering tenderness and compassion that can knock you flat on your ass when you least expect it. It is told in three parts, each of which tells the story of Billy Parham’s trip to Mexico at a different time. The book moves around its themes on a Biblical scale, drawing out new, painful truths from each trip until there’s nothing left but to cry in the middle of the street. Billy’s quest with a leashed wolf might be the best 150 pages written in the last 100 years. When I see people put Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses above The Crossing, I don’t know what they’re talking about. This is a work of art from start to finish.