Cormac McCarthy, one of the greatest writers of our generation, has passed away at the age of 89. The American novelist, playwright, and screenwriter was famous for his bleak, gritty, and engaging writing that spawned massive, big-screen adaptations.
McCarthy’s publisher announced on Tuesday, local time, that he had died of natural causes in his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Literary heavyweights like Stephen King have shared their tributes online, with King writing that he “may be the greatest American novelist of my time.”
“He was full of years and created a fine body of work, but I still mourn his passing,” King said.
The reserved writer, who famously did not own a computer, published 12 books in his lifetime, starting with The Orchard Keeper in 1965 through to the twin novels The Passenger and Stella Maris in 2022. He also wrote two plays, five screenplays, and three short stories, winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2007.
Anyone familiar with the film adaptations of his work will know that his stories are typically hypermasculine, extremely violent, and deal mainly with life, death, and the meaning of it all.
If you’re looking for where to get started with Cormac McCarthy, or which of his works you should pick up next, here’s what we recommend.
The Road is probably McCarthy’s most approachable book. It’s short, but it manages to pack in intense horror and page-turning drama that will leave you emotionally reeling for weeks afterwards.
The story deals with a father and his daughter trying to make their way on foot through a blackened, ash-coated wasteland. The moody, post-apocalyptic struggle is a huge influence on this year’s HBO hit The Last of Us and deals with similar challenges of starvation, cannibals, and who can be trusted.
Although it’s probably also his bleakest book, it gives an inspiring insight into the human need to go on in the face of massive adversity. There’s little wonder this was McCarthy’s Pulitzer winner.
If you’ve read The Road and think you’ve got a handle on McCarthy, prepare to be proven wrong in Blood Meridian. The book is an intensely violent, brutally disturbing picture of life in the Wild West that dispels any romantic ideals about life on the plains.
The story follows ‘the kid’, a runaway who joins the Glanton gang, a ruthless bunch of outlaws who make their living selling the scalps of Native Americans. They descend into sheer mass murder of every non-white person they find, led by their evil captain, the judge. Thematically, it’s about the struggle of morality over nihilism in an uncaring world.
The book is widely considered to be his best, but it’s not an easy read by any stretch. It’s almost impossibly dense, complex, and confusing, giving the impression of some nightmarish fever dream. If all the bloodshed has you shook, just remember; it’s all based on historical events.
‘All the Pretty Horses’
For something much lighter, check out All the Pretty Horses. This is McCarthy at his most romantic, creating an all-American tale of love, adventure, and long journeys on horseback through the West.
It follows the teenage travels of John and Lacey as they ride through Texas and into Mexico, trying to find a place of belonging in a hostile and changing land.
The book is also the first of the Border Trilogy, so if you find yourself wanting more, you’ve got The Crossing and Cities of the Plain to dig into afterwards.
‘No Country for Old Men’
And we’re back to violence. If you’ve seen the film, and you should have, you’ll know what you’re in for. The Cohen Brothers‘ 2007 adaptation sticks closely to its source material and, in doing so, picked up four Oscars at the 2008 Academy Awards.
Set in 1980, No Country for Old Men follows Llewelyn Moss, a Texan hunter who stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong and makes off with $2.4 million in cash. He’s pursued by ruthless assassin Anton Chigurh who wants the cash back. Chasing both of them is the aging detective Ed Bell.
The book is a tense thriller made up mainly of dialogue, as it was first intended as a script. Unlike most of McCarthy’s other books, No Country has a moral lean in it, decrying the ultra-masculinity, violence, and extreme individualism that plagues America in the modern era.
This is McCarthy’s earliest book on the list, his fourth novel, and probably the most revealing about the man himself. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale that took the author 20 years to complete.
Just because it’s somewhat closer to home for McCarthy, that doesn’t however mean it’s free from the carnage of his other works. The book follows Cornelius Suttree, a man in the 1950s who gives up his family and his life of luxury to become a fisherman in Tennessee.
Given its author, the book is both unbearably sad and impossible to put down as it dances through a range of mad characters, strange events, and unsentimental acts at the fringes of American society.
Despite the subject, the book is a comedy or a farce, a witty exploration of meaning in the unfathomable chaos of life. Particularly poignant right now in the wake of the author’s death are the lines:
“Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember, and nothingness is not a curse.”