the best opening line in cormac mccarthy

October 17, 2011

Cormac McCarthy isn’t everyone’s snort of nasty violent brackish hooch. He’s certainly mine, that’s for sure, for reasons metaphysical and difficult to state. One day when I reread The Crossing, and in particular its enigmatic, almost incoherent closing scenes, I’ll do my level best to state them, the reasons, that is. 

Until then, let’s trouble ourselves with the opening sentences of his novels, all 10 of them.

(1) “The tree was down and cut to lengths, the sections spread and jumbled over the grass” (The Orchard Keeper, 1965).

(2) “They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung out in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadows with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well” (Outer Dark, 1968).

(3) “They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face” (The Child of God, 1973).

(4) “Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth high shouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors none shall walk save you” (Suttree, 1979).

(5) “See the child” (Blood Meridian, 1985).

(6) “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door” (All the Pretty Horses, 1992).

(7) “When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed country they’d named Hidalgo was itself little older than the child” (The Crossing, 1994).

(8) “They stood in the doorway and stomped the rain from their boots and swung their hats and wiped the water from their faces” (Cities of the Plain, 1998).

(9) “I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville” (No Country for Old Men, 2005).

(10) “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him” (The Road, 2006).

Some quick observations before I prove by algebra that there’s only one “best” opening sentence in McCarthy. Our steely-eyed novelist is a softy for “they.” Four sentences start with this plural pronoun without an antecedent, i.e., (2), (3), (7), and (8). In a writer famed for minimalism, two sentences are completely italicized, i.e., (4) and (9). Three sentences suffer from an acute case of word retention, swelling to over a 100 words, in the case of (2). Lastly, the themes that dominate McCarthy’s work are everywhere on display: nature, poverty, evil, violence, and the gothic and grotesque. 

But enough with pleasantries.

If you mistakenly think (1) is the best sentence, you’re easily forgiven, what with its succintness and grammatical orderliness. It’s a nice sentence, granted, but nice doesn’t land you a second date — or so I’ve been told. 

(5) is an abortion of Melville’s miraculous first sentence. It’s passive and under-determined, woefully so. 

(10) has a nice lyrical quality, especially as it lilts at “in the dark” and rises at “and the cold of the night,” and the intimacy of sleeping by a child and the poignancy of touch is a powerful image. Overall it’s a good, strong sentence, but it lacks ambiguity, pressure, urgency, and pluck.

The second person point of view in (4) grates insincere with “Dear friend.” Not even “clockless hours,” which is an arresting combination of words, can correct course. After a good deal of verbosity, the sentence plunges off the road, fatally, right after “save you,” paradoxically enough. 

(6) exhibits an interesting doubling, i.e., the “candleflame and the image of the candleflame,” and “twisted and righted” is reminiscent of Wallace Steven’s “Turning in the wind, / Turning as the flames, / Turned in the fire,” etc., but the sentence runs headlong into “pierglass,” forcing most readers to the dictionary to learn that it’s a slender type of mirror placed between two windows.

Now I rather like the use of “one” over “a” in (9). Clearly this sentence is looking ahead of itself. Still, it’s largely undistinguished, just as (7) and (8) are undistinguished, too, although (8) does present a strong image with the active “stomped” and “swung.” 

(3) is very promising until you realize that its syntactical and compositional fraternal twin has all the advantages of prior birth.

That’s right, (2) is McCarthy’s best opening sentence. And it’s nowhere near my top five. It’s faults are glaring: “they” might refer to two people or seven — or more; conjunctions pile up with precious little rhythm, unlike the river above which “they” wend; and toward the end of the sentence, “altogether” occurs twice, adding a redundancy to an already long opening sentence.

Despite its faults, the line has several nice elements. “Sawgrass” and “burnt sedge,” for instance, orient us to a setting that is at once natural and unpleasant. Sawgrass might look pretty from a distance, but it’s a series of nasty paper cuts just waiting to happen. Now maybe I’m in a minority of one, but I can’t read “sun” and “shadows … moving single file and … high above” without thinking of Plato’s cave. A subtle note of the irreal is neatly established. In addition to its irreality, the passage is also invested with a gathering sense of evil and doom, from the “implacability” of the group “moving single file,” to the play of “light” and “shadow” anointing their heads with “spurious sanctity.” Given their implacability and the comfort and ease with which they traverse the valley of shadow and darkness, one has every reason to suspect the final score when the last page is turned.

Evil, 1 — goodness, 0.

the prognostications of c. mccarthy

July 28, 2011

Striking confirmation of the thesis that C. McCarthy’s fiction is sober prediction.  

“How many have you killed?” one reporter asks.

“Four,” responds the accused, who seems calm and collected in a video of the interview.

“How did you execute them?” the questioner continues.

“I slit their throats,” the teen replies.

The accused is a 14-year old American boy in Mexico who works for a drug gang. Lest you worry the child’s behavior reflects poorly on his youth and nationality, chipper up: “the defendant showed good behavior during the proceedings…” For more, read here.

Blood Meridian

August 12, 2010

Cormac McCarthy is a master of cryptic endings. And if ever a novel had a sphinx-like epilogue, it’s Blood Meridian, which, if your ears are attuned to the musicality of McCarthy’s prose, is a kind of inverted Ninth Symphony. An ode to violence, as it were. A parable about existence, about life, about leading and following, about authorship and reading, in a word, about everything, McCarthy’s epilogue surpasses, in my opinion, Plato’s allegory of the cave. Carriers of light, a recurrent theme in his fiction, are solitary beings. They can be “good” people, moral exemplars, or effective leaders. Or they can be literary artists like Homer and Cervantes, or Robinson and McCarthy. What these fire-producers and spark-throwers have in common is the cold unregenerate darkness from which they issue and the wake they leave in their train, as others struggle to comprehend the meaning of their efforts in a silent world. Just as we struggle to comprehend McCarthy’s novel. Which after all is a piece of life, scary, ambiguous, and implacable. In McCarthy’s universe, if ever there’s truth, beauty, and justice — which are hard-won achievements, indeed — they occur on the granite-like surface of selfishness, greed, and violence. Perhaps that’s the import of the epilogue: a solitary man, any man, everyman, struggling in a dry, inhospitable land to forge a path or create a space for others to follow or occupy, if only gropingly.

Child of God

May 11, 2010

Any self-professed black belt in Cormac McCarthy had better demonstrate his prowess by answering some tough-ass questions. Like why doesn’t Chigurh die a bloody, pulpy mess when he’s broadsided in the intersection? Why the bizarre, ambiguous encounter between the Judge and the kid in the outhouse? And how in the world are we like Lester Ballard, a back-asswards, homicidal necrophiliac with rotting Mountain Dew mouth? Difficult questions, these. And I’ll save the first two for another day. For my eyes are on Ballard, Lester Ballard…

He is small, unclean, unshaven. He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps.

I am many things, but I am no murderer. And I don’t sleep with dead people, either. We have our faults, you and I, but we’re not howling with psychopathy. So how are we like him? It’s a fair question. And the answer lies in McCarthy’s exquisite characterization of Ballard. Especially as it pertains to his final revelation. There are four key episodes in Child of God that constitute a single trajectory of increasing awareness for Ballard: (1) his weeping with the advent of spring, (2) his intimation of mortality, (3) his perception of himself in the child, and (4) his realization that he “belongs” in the hospital. Importantly, (3) and (4) occur after Ballard is delivered from the womb of the Earth, a profoundly symbolic second birth. Having given the men who freed him from the hospital the slip in the caves, Ballard emerges in the field and walks to the road and sees himself in another, for the first time, and returns to the hospital and says, “I’m supposed to be here.” McCarthy’s description of Ballard is stunning:

A weedshaped onearmed human swaddled up in outsized overalls and covered all over with red mud.

“Swaddled” like a baby, innocent. “Covered with red mud” like vaginal blood from birth. But most important, “human.” This is the first time McCarthy describes the humanity of Ballard. Gone are the “simian apes,” the “gnomes” and “troglodytes,” gone are the “demons” and assorted images of feral rage. Ballard’s life is a series of expulsions. His mom expels him by leaving the family. His dad expels him by killing himself. And the community expels him by taking his land and pushing him to the edge of survival. His need to belong is so strong that it can only be satisfied perversely. Through voyeurism, stuffed animals, and sex with dead bodies. Like all children of God, Ballard desperately wants to belong, to be part of the human community. Even if it’s as a ward of the state.

The Road

April 18, 2010

During a recent re-read of The Road, I was struck by a theme that, on previous readings, had simply been overwhelmed by McCarthy’s evocation of a blasted landscape, in much the same way that an inconspicuous note gets lost in Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction.” I’m talking about the gift of death. And I don’t mean this in a sloppy-seconds Derridean kind of way. No, I mean a practical, real-world advantage is won through death. During their blind pilgrimmage, the man routinely thwarts the boy’s desire to belong with others, first a little puppy (which his dad says avoid), then another little boy (which his dad says avoid), and lastly other people, in various states of need, want, and degradation (which his dad says avoid, as they’re potential cannibals). Living on the edge of survial, the man is simply unwilling to risk his son’s life in a world fraught with danger and menace. But once the man dies, the boy has no choice. He has to risk his life, and in doing so, he gains community with others. In that sense, the man’s death, although painful, is a gift to the boy outright.