Cormac McCarthy and His Exposure of a Problematic Modern American Society

The 1990s and early 2000s were full of revolutionary changes in society, and heralded some of the changes in technology usage and social norms that still define our lives today. Cormac McCarthy is an accomplished, acclaimed, and rather dark American author who wrote mainly during this time period. His writing is especially different, including odd punctuation, debilitating violence, and a scarily detached tone. However, he succeeded in capturing certain unpleasant aspects of modern American society and exposing them to readers through his novels. Although McCarthy is a largely idiosyncratic writer in terms of his style, he does represent the quintessential zeitgeist of the time period.

The relationship between father and son is a large topic covered within Cormac McCarthy’s tenth book, The Road, which was published in 2006. In this novel, an unnamed father and son roam the roads of a gray, post-apocalyptic world with diminishing hope for survival. In desperation, the majority of the world’s survivors have reverted to cannibalism, and the father and son spend most of their time avoiding terrifying encounters with their gangs. Since the boy’s mother killed herself after losing faith in everything, the two are all that they have left in the world. During the late 1990s, “fatherlessness” was considered a very harmful trend that was “the leading cause of declining child well-being in our society” (Blankenhorn 1). It was often the scapegoat for crime, abuse, and domestic violence by adolescents. In a 1991 survey, the National Commission on Children described growing fatherlessness, saying father-son relationships “are frequently tenuous and all too often nonexistent” (12). In the early 2000s, this idea influenced many to strengthen father-to-son bonds in order to eliminate fatherlessness’ reparations in society. The essential American image of a son playing catch with his father, “like father like son”, was reinforced. According to the U.S. Department of State, as of 2001, “fathers in intact families [were] spending more time with their children than at any point in the past 100 years” (Coontz 13). McCarthy exemplifies this resurgence of fatherly love, and its importance. His young son John is his greatest love in the world; the book is even dedicated to him.

McCarthy’s story of the father and son in The Road oddly represents John and his relationship. He once said, “a lot of the lines that are in there are verbatim conversations my son John and I had…John said, ‘Papa, what would you do if I died?’ I said, ‘I’d want to die, too,’ and he said, ‘So you could be with me?’ I said, ‘Yes, so I could be with you’” (McCarthy “Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy”). Though it is a very strange relationship, the bond between the father and son in this novel is known as one of the most moving relationships in literature. The first words spoken by the man in the book are about his son: “if he is not the word of God, God never spoke” (McCarthy The Road, 5). He later states that “the boy was all that stood between him and death” (29). The immense love that the father has for his son is the only thing that allows him to survive; for keeping the boy alive is his single remaining purpose. In the boy’s case, his father embodies his last shred of morality. The idea that they are the good guys, “carrying the fire”, is the one thing that keeps the boy from losing himself in his dismal surroundings (278). This relationship is a rare sanguine aspect discussed by McCarthy in the entire book. The love is tragic but never-ending. Being one of the only plot points one can call beautiful and positive within the story, it is greatly appreciated by readers. The “extraordinary tenderness” exhibited by the father and son in the midst of such a hellish world is inspiring to readers (Maslin). This single remaining sliver of humanity, is a much-needed counter to the bleakness of the story. It also is one of the only points within such an abstract plot that readers can connect to. In the midst of cannibalism, starvation, and constant raining ash, a beautiful and surprisingly normal filial relationship remains constant. Yet, McCarthy being the terrifying writer he is, includes the heart-wrenching death of the father at the end of the story, leaving the boy to fend for himself. In this way, McCarthy continues his trend of tragic and entirely unsatisfying endings. Nevertheless, this bond perfectly represents the growth of love between father and son represented both by McCarthy and John, and their time period.

Numbness to violence is a large issue addressed by McCarthy in The Road. The introduction of the internet and mass media occurred in the 1990s, and rapidly gained popularity during the early 2000s. As this popularity grew exponentially, information was spread faster and to an incredibly wide audience. Modern-day violence has grown to be portrayed so much in world culture, that people are now blind to its barbarity. The statistics of rising violence are appalling. As of 1993, 46% of children in a survey admitted to being beaten up. 51% had been threatened with a gun or another weapon. 17% of the children had been shot by a gun (“Growing Up Fast and Frightened”). As of 1994, children younger than 18 were 244% more likely to be killed by guns than they were in 1986. One out of every six youths between the ages of 10 and 17 saw or knew someone who had been shot. Most shocking, the average child watched 8,000 televised murders and 100,000 acts of violence before finishing elementary school (Adler). By 1998, violent crime had increased 560% since 1960. The child (youths under 19) homicide rate had more than quadrupled since 1960. From 1990 to 1994, more than double the number of people who died in the Vietnam War (58,000 people total) were murdered in the United States (119,732 people) (Stetson). Because death was so prevalent in every day life by the time of The Road, people had built up an almost impenetrable tolerance to the despicable and gruesome. McCarthy noticed this issue that, it seemed, everyone was susceptible to. He tries to raise awareness of the numbness to violence in contemporary society throughout his novels, especially in The Road, by including many a grisly description. For instance, the father and son stumble upon a tractor-trailer on the road, and decide to look inside for provisions. The man opens the roof of the container with a jacknife, only to find, “human bodies. Sprawled in every attitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotten clothes.” (McCarthy, The Road 48). He speaks often of “the dead impaled on spikes along the road”, illuminated harshly by daylight (53). In an especially harsh scene, the boy notices “a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit” left by a group of cannibals (167). These images, witnessed by the protagonist father and his painfully young son, force the reader to feel and to sympathize with the characters, as well as to reflect on the violence that occurs every day in the real world. McCarthy told of several different letters he had received from many different countries after his book came out, all stating the same thing: “They said, ‘I started reading your book after dinner and I finished it 3:45 the next morning, and I got up and went upstairs and I got my kids up and I just sat there in the bed and held them’” (McCarthy “Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy”). McCarthy’s goal of urging readers to rethink their ideas of humanity within society is accomplished by describing the emotional scarring that the apocalypse has had on the pair, rather than detailing the violence itself. Because people are so unrelentingly exposed to violence on a daily basis, simply violent scenes would not have such an effect on the reader; what was truly necessary for McCarthy was to force readers to feel the trauma experienced by the father and son. The characters’ emotional reactions to the violence around them are somehow illustrated by McCarthy’s sparse writing. As a result, the reader cannot help but feel the fear and despair emanating from the man and his son. McCarthy gives us the opportunity, in this way, to “affirm [evil’s] inexplicable reality” by “jolting us out of complacency” (Cremean 57). Only after this was done would readers’ blindness to brutality be broken. However, some critics find McCarthy’s depictions of violence extremely unsettling, and even traumatizing. According his fanatics’ concept of “McCarthyism”, this disturbance is caused by deviating from the Just World Hypothesis. This hypothesis states that people must believe that the human world is a place where people receive whatever they deserve; that is, bad guys are punished, and good guys are rewarded.

However, McCarthy’s story in The Road explains that this is not the case. Both the father and son suffer unspeakable horrors, although they are inherently good people. The boy’s mother kills herself to escape the pain of the world, they see death everywhere they look, and their situation never brightens or becomes easier to bear. According to the hypothesis, if someone is dealt pain and grief, people must believe that they, in some way or another’ deserved it, or that it was at the fault of some divine being greater than themselves. However, in McCarthy’s novel, there is absolutely no explanation for the violence dealt to the characters. They are the “good guys” who deserve none of the suffering placed upon them. There is no God who can account for that suffering in their world, a world where everything, even ethics, have deteriorated. Because of this, people have cast off the violence as being unnecessary. Yet the violence does have a point, one that may very well account for McCarthy’s purpose as an author; the violence is included in order to force readers to reflect on their own society and to allow them to realize that this situation is not entirely impossible. Every day, real people are dealt undeserving troubles. The depictions by McCarthy define violence in its very real and very true essence. It serves, not to pummel readers with senseless brutality, but to contrast the bad with the good. This is how love, sacrifice, and, and bravery exhibited by the father-son duo are illuminated in the novel, thereby contrasting their importance and meaning in a world of constant and cruel violence. Although the book exhibits unjust punishments dealt upon the “good guys”, subsequently leaving the reader without resolution or a stereotypically happy ending, the violence McCarthy includes is essential to forcing a realization upon people; that they are numb to the fact that the human world has been, is and will continue to be, a very violent place. In this way, The Road effectively deals with the major issue of violence in McCarthy’s age.

Growing numbness regarding violence is also a prevalent issue in McCarthy’s ninth novel, No Country for Old Men, though in a different way. Though the book was published in 2005, it takes place in the Texas desert backcountry during 1980. The story begins with Llewelyn Moss finding a drug deal gone horribly wrong, and a briefcase left behind filled with over two million dollars. The money belongs to Anton Chigurgh, the leader of a drug ring and a terrifying psychopath who lacks the ability to comprehend normal human emotion. Chigurgh chases after Llewelyn, and finally succeeds in killing him and his wife, Carla Jean. The 1980s was a decade of escalating violence. In 1980, the homicide rate in the United States rose to 10.2 per 100,000 people from 9.7 in 1979. During the 1960s, it had only been 4.6 per 100,000 (Cooper). This increased violence led to a general numbness towards brutality in America. McCarthy exposes this to his readers by including many harsh acts of violence. For instance, Wells, a hitman trying to find Chigurgh, finds an elderly, insignificant woman who was shot by Chigurgh: “she’d been shot through the forehead and had tilted forward leaving part of the back of her skull and a good bit of dried brain matter stuck to the slat of the rocker behind her” (McCarthy No Country for Old Men, 147). Additionally, McCarthy subtly exhibits the overall violence of the time by including a great deal of minutiae about the guns used by his characters. These descriptions include, “a nickel-plated government .45 automatic, a nine millimeter parabellum, a pistol with a hairspray-can silencer, a stun gun (for unlocking doors), an Uzi, a stainless steel .357 revolver”, and the list continues on. These details “greatly add to the deadly miasma” of the story, causing every description of death to become increasingly tragic (Proulx). The clinical, detached way that McCarthy describes these weapons emulates the way that people saw violence from the 1980s up to the early 2000s. He writes without a hint of ethos or pathos; no ethical or moral wrongness is tied to his descriptions of death. While this may seem scarily uncaring of McCarthy to the reader, he is only describing violence just as all people did during that era, and still do: with a nearly impenetrable numbness. From finding several rotting corpses in a desert, shot to pieces over drug money, to intense gun battles in the streets, Llewelyn Moss’ story is told as if by a machine. Most readers find this disturbing and entirely abnormal. People dislike how McCarthy enumerates every act of bloodshed “as though violence were a dry industrial process” (Kirn). Others criticize the sheer amount of deaths included by McCarthy in the novel, saying “murder leads to murder, the innocent pulled in along with the more than guilty and many in between” (Cheuse). However, both of these aspects are intrinsic to moral of McCarthy’s story. As difficult as it may be to read, the detached way he describes multitudinous deaths emulates the treatment of violence by Americans in the 1980s.

The struggle with spirituality exhibited by McCarthy’s characters in No Country for Old Men correlates with the loss of faith during the early 2000s. Though the percentage of people that did not ally themselves with any faith in particular dropped slightly in 1980, it gradually increased and continued to do so throughout the time that McCarthy was writing the book. In 1950, the “nones”, or non-affiliates, comprised a mere 2% of Americans. In 1980, it reached 6.5%. In 2005, it was nearly at 11%. The spike after these years resulted in one third of Americans under 30 years of age identifying as a “none”. The adolescents and young adults surveyed had been “coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics” (“Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the Nones”). Therefore, this shift of religious beliefs in the American youth was most likely linked to the growing conservatism in the 80s. McCarthy himself is not affiliated with any particular beliefs. He once explained, “I have a great sympathy for the spiritual view of life, and I think that it’s meaningful. But am I a spiritual person? I would like to be” (McCarthy “Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy”). He writes about his struggle with spirituality by infusing it into his characters. He talks often of “that God that lives in silence who has scoured the land with salt and ash” (McCarthy No Country for Old Men, 45). He describes God as an abstract figure who, if He exists, has never moved to help anyone. Subsequently, almost all of the main characters in many of McCarthy’s novels experience immense hardships, with no apparent help from any divine being. Carla Jean says, “you’ve suffered a loss of faith. I’ve suffered a loss of everything I ever had” when talking to Chigurgh (256). Sheriff Ed Tom reflects upon religion several times: “I always thought when I got older that God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me he does” (267). McCarthy’s message was eye opening for some, and agitating for others. Some felt it further added to the constant depression of the characters’ situation: “satan exists, the world is getting worse, and God is too busy with other matters to care. He’s written us off and moved on to fresh creations” (Kirn). Critics see religion as just another thing lost from the inherently good characters of the story. However, the addition of loss of faith by McCarthy had a very important part in his purpose of writing the novel. The pure evil that is seen in No Country for Old Men surreptitiously demands a realization from readers: that if divinities are all-knowing, trustworthy, and superior, they would not allow innocents to encounter tragedy. Yet, in McCarthy’s novels, they do; just like in the real world. Innocent citizens in this novel die violently at the hands of evil, represented by Chigurgh. A police officer is strangled to death by Chigurgh’s handcuffs. Llewelyn experiences immense violence and fear before being ruthlessly killed. Even the most guiltless character, Carla Jean, has everything taken away from her, including her own life, by the end of the book. McCarthy’s hope is merely to explain the painful truth that was illuminated in the 1980s: that there is no religion that can save people from seeing evil and death in every day life. It is a fallacy to think that belief in God saves one from these experiences. This realization caused people to lose faith. McCarthy writes poignantly about religion being a presence in people’s lives, but not a solution to the pain and suffering of the world.

One of the biggest issues of the 1980s, by which No Country for Old Men is largely influenced, was the war on drugs. McCarthy had lived in El Paso, Texas, a city bordering Mexico, for years. El Paso’s neighboring city in Mexico is Ciudad Juárez, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world because of its location on the biggest drug route into North America. The slogan of the city is, “‘if Juárez is a city of God, that is because the devil is scared to come here’” (Cremean 78). Drug trafficking in Mexico began with its role as a heroine funnel into the United States for Columbian cartels. Soon, the drugs that were pouring into the country grew to be the top issue in America. The number of citizens who saw drug abuse as America’s most worrying problem increased from 2-6% in 1985 to 64% in 1989 (“A Brief History of the Drug War”). The government’s response was the Just Say No campaign, led mainly by First Lady Nancy Reagan. All throughout the 1980s, the campaign hired popular celebrities to back their ideology of zero tolerance for drug use in order to sway the mass public from encouraging cross-border drug trafficking. Though this had little effect on smuggling drugs into the country, it called attention to one of the greatest continuing issues of the last century. The drug war of the 80s is alluded to by McCarthy throughout Llewelyn’s journey. The central plot point occurs when Llewelyn stumbles upon a heroine deal between cartels that ended in a violent massacre. Pablo Acosta Villarreal, the most powerful drug lord of the Mexican-American borderlands during the 1980s, is referenced by McCarthy when some of the men chasing after Llewelyn are referred to as “Pablo’s men” (McCarthy No Country for Old Men, 141). McCarthy’s descriptions of gun battles in motels and in the streets of Mexico, with “dead bodies in the street. Citizens’ businesses all shot up”, sound like events from a fictional action movie (134). However, they were very real, and very likely occurrences of the 1980s borderlands. This particular topic may not be one subject to much criticism, because McCarthy portrayed it so accurately. That being said, it is a topic that many readers are loathe to revisit or learn about because it brings up the feeling of panic caused by drugs in America during the 80s.

Though Cormac McCarthy represents the zeitgeist of the early 2000s in his novels The Road and No Country for Old Men, he is an incredibly unique author. His writing style is often cited as being “Faulkner-esque”. William Faulkner is known for his blatant, methodical, and systematic descriptions that often shock readers by differing from common, sugar-coated literature. McCarthy follows this trend, allowing his uncomfortable topics to resonate at a deeper level in readers. He is also known for using little to no punctuation. He uses periods, capitals, and the occasional apostrophe or comma; there are no quotation marks included in any of his writings. McCarthy believes, “there’s no reason to blot the page with weird little marks” (McCarthy “Cormac McCarthy on James Joyce and Punctuation”). These things have often subjected McCarthy to criticism. Nevertheless, his depictions of the human condition, however uncomfortable and painful, precisely represent the early 2000s. Growing rates of violence, loss of faith, drug sales, and other societal issues have thus far characterized the new millennium. Though The Road and No Country for Old Men may have been arraigned by some, they accomplish McCarthy’s purpose of exposing the ugly, yet important, aspects of 21st century society to readers.

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“A Brief History of the Drug War.” Drug Policy Alliance. Drug Policy Alliance, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Cheuse, Alan, prod. “McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men.'” All Things Considered. NPR, 28 July 2005. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

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Coontz, Stephanie. “The American Family: Where We Are Today.” U.S. Society and Values 6.1 (2001): 13-16. PDF file.

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Cortazar, Maximiliano, et al. “Announcement on the Joint Operation Michoacan.” Mexico City. 11 Dec. 2006. Presidencia de la República. Sistema Internet de la Presidencia, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2016

Cremean, David N., ed. Cormac McCarthy. Ipswich: Salem, 2012. Print.

Goldman, Linda. “Facts about Children and Violence.” Breaking the Silence: A Guide to Helping Children with Complicated Grief – Suicide, Homicide, AIDS, Violence and Abuse. 2nd ed. N.p.: Taylor and Francis, 2001. 62-64. Google Books. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

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