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Cormac McCarthy Books, With Brief Reviews

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy, author of some very long sentences

I enjoyed writing the list of Dean Koontz books, and I’m going to do it with as many authors as I can. So below, I’m going to list all of the Cormac McCarthy books, and write a brief paragraph or two about each. His output doesn’t exactly rival Koontz’s, so this will be a briefer post.

Of course, every McCarthy book could have a book of its own written about it, so these reviews will be inadequate. Of course, his books defy tidy summaries in any case, so descriptions of the “plot” of his books doesn’t do them justice.

In chronological order:

The Orchard Keeper

This book is sort of about the relationship between a young boy and a 1930s outlaw of the bootlegging variety. Neither one of them know it, but the bootlegger was responsible for the death of the boy’s father.

That said, not a whole lot happens in this book. The prose is lovely, but not nearly as dense or meandering as it would get in later works. Recommended for McCarthy completists who want a look at his first novel.

Outer Dark

Bizarre book. A young woman bears her brother’s child. The brother takes the unwanted child off into the woods and leaves, but deceives his sister, telling her that it simply didn’t survive the birth. So, beyond the brother-sister thing, not too weird yet.

But then a “tinker” comes and finds the child. The girl sets out to find the baby after learning that it’s still alive. Oh, and there are three Horseman-of-the-Apocalypse-type characters out there, chopping at everyone unfortunate enough to cross their paths.

If I were writing an English paper about this book, I’d probably be able to come up with plenty of things they might represent. As it is, I enjoyed Outer Dark without overthinking it, but it is a dark, strange work.

Child of God

A short book that feels much longer to me. Lester Ballard is not a ladies’ man. He’s just not that smooth. In gruesome McCarthy fashion, he finds a sort of “girlfriend” after a lethal fire. Then he goes out to find more, and soon he’s got a whole bevy of lifeless ladies tucked away in a cave.

McCarthy nearly does something incredible here: he makes what might be the least sympathetic character of all time seem almost sympathetic. But only almost.

For anyone completely turned off by this description, let me say that the more gruesome elements of McCarthy’s fiction are not graphic. You know what’s happening, but you rarely have to read all the details.


The main thing I have to say about Suttree is that I had to get my dictionary out for every other sentence. But I enjoy that, so that’s not meant as a criticism.

For me this is the least linear and most ambiguous of McCarthy’s works. It is essentially about a man who forms ill-advised schemes to earn money, and has relationships with women that never go anywhere, often ending in catastrophes.

I recommend trying this book for the experience of being immersed in the language and the style, not for the plot.

Blood Meridian (Or, The Evening Redness In The West)

Simultaneously my least-favorite and favorite book. I can’t summarize it, but I can summarize my reasons for reading it: The Judge. Blood Meridian takes place in the border areas of Mexico in the mid 19th century.

The Judge seems to know everything and is capable of anything. The scenes with the volcano and the first discourse about why he draws in his notebook are among my favorite scenes in all literature.

All The Pretty Horses

Book one in the Border Trilogy. These three books are a step back in terms of accessible prose. Meaning, they are much more straight-forward than Suttree, BM, etc.

Pretty Horses is the story of two young boys and their adventures as they head South into Mexico. They at times reminded me of Gus and Call from Lonesome Dove.

The Crossing

Book 2 in the trilogy. Again we have a young boy headed South into Mexico. But this time the goal is different: he makes friends with a wolf and decides to go and release it across the border.

Again, doesn’t sound like much of a plot, does it? But it doesn’t matter.

This book has some of McCarthy’s greatest descriptions of the Western landscape. It is also a meditation on the chaos and cruelty of nature, and of why some creatures survive while others do not. I wonder if Werner Herzog has read these books?

Cities of The Plain

Book three. A character from book one meets up with the main character from book two. John Grady falls in love with a woman whose entanglements make her an extremely dangerous marriage prospect. But he goes and tries anyway. I don’t want to say more than that.

No Country For Old Men

I was introduced to Anton Chigurh long before the Coen brothers brought him (and his floppy haircut) into the public consciousness with their movie adaptation of No Country For Old Men.

A fairly linear story about a briefcase full of money. One man finds it after a deal goes bad, and Chigurh is dispatched to go get it back. But McCarthy takes a common plot and turns it into something deeper, for anyone interested in wondering exactly why he might choose such a well-trod story.

I loved the movie as well. Seeing the reclusive author in the middle of the Hollywood glam-set, wearing a tux, cheering for the Coens, made my night.

The Road

When I heard that McCarthy’s new book was going to be a post-apocalyptic novel, I was thrilled. I’m a sucker for the genre, and I knew that if anyone could make it as bleak as the scenario deserves, it would be him.

Did he ever…too well, perhaps. The Road is the story of a father and son, walking to the ocean through a nightmare landscape in which survival has driven people to unspeakable lengths and acts.

I see a lot of hope in the book, but I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever read it again. It kicked my butt and wrung me out emotionally. Now that I’m a father, I don’t think I could take it.

For those of you who have read McCarthy, do you love his writing? Hate it? Is he overrated?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mitchell May 15, 2011, 6:32 am

    Very thorough look at an author I intend to delve into. Josh, where do you get the time, or has practice made you into a speed reader?
    P.S. My son finally watched your video. When he was done, I asked, “What?”. He said, “good”. A compliment in hemingwayesque tones.

  • Boris May 15, 2011, 10:53 am

    I read The Road – liked it , but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read it again.

  • Sarah May 15, 2011, 4:08 pm

    I love Cormac McCarthy’s writing–from his baroque writing in Suttree to his more terse later work. I love his dialogue between men–it seems so accurate. The Road is the best novel I’ve read in years, but it wrecked me too. I thought about it for months….and I agree, it’s strangely hopeful and definitely poignant.

  • Jen H May 16, 2011, 1:30 pm

    In his book Blood Meridian there is an unforgettable scene with the Judge and his men trapped on a rocky outcropping in the desert. He is naked (or nearly so) and he orders his men to start urinating on the rocks in order to make gunpowder so they can defend themselves. (Cormac describes this scene far more eloquently than I) The power and malevolence in that character just ooze out of the pages.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 16, 2011, 4:15 pm

      Jen, that’s actually the volcano scene I was referring to. Then he turns around and says “Gentlemen…” before the shooting starts. I think you got it: malevolence is the right word.

  • patrick September 3, 2011, 8:18 pm

    Blood Meridian moved me in a way most books based on that time period could not. His dark discription of the cruelty man can inflict on another without remorse was shocking.

  • Mike Leggitt December 4, 2011, 6:24 pm

    I read No Country for Old Men back in 2005 and was blown away. I am of Ed Tom’s age and could relate to the character and his perspective from haveing watched the effects of money and greed as time has passed. I beleive The Road is one of the most moving and memorable books I have ever read. I keep wondering what I would do in those circumstances. I have become a big Cormac McCarthy fan.

  • Kevin McDonough July 10, 2012, 9:12 pm

    Some of his writing is stunning and some of it is stupendously
    banal. His lunatic antipathy for punctuation seems to fuel his
    prose style–and that’s why I find him overrated and even somewhat absurd.