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Vintage Books, 2006
287 pp., $16.00
A Tabernacle in the Dark
Grant, for argument, that life is pointless—that purpose and moral order are mere projection, God just a big piece of embroidery. Still, there remains this odd human genius for projecting and embroidering. We call it "adaptive," and then blame it for making us ill-adapted. We call it "comforting," though it is most often felt as a burden, a sharp twinge, a weight of dignity. It sits out there, beyond all our tedious explanations, mysterious as Stonehenge. If you're a novelist, why not celebrate it?
This is the question that Cormac McCarthy's work has often raised for me. Clearly the man doesn't believe in God, and I'm not about to make him. But granting that for McCarthy there is nothing here beyond what's here, he has sometimes seemed insufficiently bedazzled by what's here; the rigor and uncompromising honesty of his vision have been, at times, indistinguishable from sadism and nihilism.
This tendency reached a peak of sorts with 1985's Blood Meridian, a blood-soaked revisionist Western set in 1840s Texas. Blood Meridian, regarded by many critics and fellow-novelists as McCarthy's masterpiece, suggests that wanton murder and self-destruction are definitive of humanity. Total depravity? You'd better believe it. Under the weight of this oppressive gloom, a kind of Calvinism minus God, even McCarthy's brilliant prose begins to sag, as when he writes of a mountain range that seems to be carved from "some other order whose true geology was not stone but fear." Blood Meridian was followed by the Border Trilogy, three novels that recast banal ("mythic") stories into an overstuffed ("Faulknerian") style that frequently devolves into mannered stuttering. The first two novels—which are likable enough and even moving, if you can ignore the affectations—serve as set-up for Cities of the Plain (1999), in which McCarthy broods on the end of the cowboy lifestyle and the misuse of the West as nuclear testing ground: America as Sodom and Gommorah.
The crowning annoyance ...