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A quintessential American voice
I woke up this morning focused on the sad and deadly serious spectacle of a former president facing grave charges in federal court. It is a drama of sweeping import that could, once resolved in some fashion, shape the course of history.
But as the news day unfolded, another bulletin hit the headlines that stopped me in my tracks. A long life coming to an end isn't surprising. But what an end this one represents — the silencing of a uniquely American voice that for decades has touched countless readers deeply. I was one of them.
It is a testimony to Cormac McCarthy’s exalted place in the pantheon of great American writers that his death at age 89 is a major news event. Obituaries are rightly recognizing him as an author of exceptional skill and influence. Over the years, I devoured his books, even as I sometimes wrestled with their meanings.
He was a sower of sentences, a creator of characters, a transmitter of tone, and an instigator of impact. He was not always easy to read, but you felt empowered in doing the work. In a world where we worry about artificial intelligence, there is some comfort in knowing the indelible power of original art produced by the unique creative powers of the human brain.
Often in school, we read writers from past eras who are referred to as “the greats.” So it was something special to recognize that greatness can also be contemporary. Not everything that needs to be said has been said already. The age-old journey of wrestling with the human condition can still have new chapters and storytellers.
There is a void in a world without Cormac McCarthy. He was a quintessential American storyteller — unique, hard to characterize, and powerful. Yet he had a genius knack of capturing the universality of the human condition. For example, his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Road” was the best book on fatherhood I have ever read.
McCarthy knew that words have power and that often, the less said, the better. He knew that life is difficult, messy, and complicated, and that is all the more reason we need to confront it with nuance and courage. His prose was infused with the spirit of poetry. He rarely granted interviews and didn’t do book tours. His elusive public persona was echoed in his books. He did not give you more than he felt you needed. One could discern in his work a commitment to craft.
The obituary in The Washington Post ends with a McCarthy quote from 2009: “I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That’s heaven. That’s gold and anything else is just a waste of time.”
We are all better off for McCarthy's not wasting time. To speak of him now, in the past tense, feels surreal and wrong. He may be gone, but his books endure — imparting the basic truths of what it means to be alive.