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This book argues that McCarthy’s works convey a profound moral vision, and use intertextuality, moral philosophy, and questions of genre to advance that vision. It focuses upon the ways in which McCarthy’s fiction is in ceaseless conversation with literary and philosophical tradition, examining McCarthy’s investment in influential thinkers from Marcus Aurelius to Hannah Arendt, and poets, playwrights, and novelists from Dante and Shakespeare to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Antonio Machado. The book shows how McCarthy’s fiction grapples with abiding moral and metaphysical issues: the nature and problem of evil; the idea of God or the transcendent; the credibility of heroism in the modern age; the question of moral choice and action; the possibility of faith, hope, love, and goodness; the meaning and limits of civilization; and the definition of what it is to be human. This study will appeal alike to readers, teachers, and scholars of Cormac McCarthy.



1. Introduction

The introductory chapter traces the history of scholarship on McCarthy that recognizes the moral weight of his works. Hillier acknowledges the significant contribution of the first generation of McCarthy scholars in expanding approaches to interpreting the author, while allowing for an abiding philosophical, and even religious, framework, a “deeper structure” in which McCarthy’s literary sensibility is conscious of the presence of beauty and of moral and spiritual value. McCarthy’s fiction reflects the panorama of a Renaissance mind, a magpie intelligence that absorbs and synthesizes entire disciplines of thought, as is also evident from his collaboration with renowned scientists at the Santa Fe Institute. The chapter proposes that the nihilist-pessimist-misanthropist thesis regarding McCarthy’s fiction is overstated, and that McCarthy remains as intrigued by the mystery of goodness as he is by the mystery of evil. At the heart of McCarthy’s literary project is a record of souls at hazard, chronicles of characters, much like ourselves, perhaps, who make apparently small but actually momentous moral decisions, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. A sense of rightness tacitly or vocally haunts McCarthy’s characters and his pages. McCarthy’s great subject, Hillier contends, is the miracle and possibility of goodness in spite of the infliction of moral and natural evil. McCarthy’s conviction in, or at the very least his enduring hope for, a bedrock universal ethical standard against which his villains and moral cowards fall short, and to which his heroes and upright folk strive to adhere, is at the root of his imaginative vision.
Russell M. Hillier

2. “Give the Devil His Due”: Judge Holden’s Design in Blood Meridian

Hillier begins his study proper with Blood Meridian. This second chapter focuses upon the novel’s outstanding instance of evil, the indomitable, hairless, twenty-four-stone albino giant Judge Holden, a living paradox of Enlightenment sophistication and vicious barbarism. Hillier enquires into the Judge’s design, which consists of the calculated way in which the Judge spreads his bad influence throughout the narrative as he contaminates others with his ideas and asserts his suzerainty by binding the members of the Glanton gang, and others, to his will. Through close reading and a consideration of McCarthy’s inventive appropriation of and engagement with, among others, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons, the synoptic gospels, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Jacob Boehme’s philosophy of religion, Hillier explores the Judge’s diabolism and, in the words of the frockless ex-priest Tobin, “Give[s] the devil his due” (131). As the architect of the blood meridian, the Judge is a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, whose design instills a vicious gospel of hatred and egotism, impels human resentment and antipathy, and foments chaos. In playing the smiling villain, and murdering while he smiles, McCarthy’s diabolic Judge has the demerit of earning a place at the table with literature’s most mischievous malefactors, including Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas, William Shakespeare’s Iago, Milton’s Satan, Dostoevsky’s Svidrigailov, and Joseph Conrad’s Mistah Kurtz.
Russell M. Hillier

3. “Antic Clay”?: The Competing Ethical Appeals of Blood Meridian

Chapter Three complements the second chapter’s study of evil in Blood Meridian. Hillier examines whether the novel’s universe offers a counterbalancing philosophy to the Judge’s claim that the only human bonds are bonds of violence and that “[i]f war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.” The argument first situates the novel within the genre of the Post- or anti-Western. Hillier then surveys the inadequate forms of resistance to the Judge presented by the Kentucky veteran Grannyrat, the ex-priest Tobin, and Toadvine, before turning to the kid as the novel’s most persuasive manifestation of the possibility of a moral ground. The chapter charts the kid’s moral development and explores how his growing attempts to connect and compassionate with others relate to Kantian ethics and moral law, Rousseau’s conception of the state of nature, and Behmenist voluntarism. Rousseau’s positing of a tension between natural pity and “civilized” reason seems to reflect, respectively, the kid’s innate capacity for pity, identification, and limited altruism and the Judge’s pride and mania for scientific rationalism and Enlightenment values. The threat that the kid’s moral autonomy poses to the Judge is a measure of its significance, but also confirms how different the novel would be in the kid’s absence. The novel recurrently dwells upon the idea of the witness. Its final witness, though, is neither the Judge nor the kid, but McCarthy’s reader, upon whom the burden of interpretation and moral response rests.
Russell M. Hillier

4. “A Knowing Deep in the Bone”: Cowboy Stoicism and Tragic Heroism in All the Pretty Horses

The fourth and fifth chapters of the study are dedicated to The Border Trilogy, and principally to the evolution of John Grady Cole’s character in the trilogy’s first and third installments, All the Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain. A close reading of The Border Trilogy supports the thesis that John Grady is McCarthy’s idea of desirable moral exemplarity. An appreciation of the bildungsroman All the Pretty Horses is contingent upon an interpretation of its central protagonist John Grady. Dianne Luce finds that John Grady possesses a “childish’ vision of himself as a romantic hero,” and Charles Bailey styles John Grady as an “anti-hero, futilely acting in a degraded world.” Hillier suggests that John Grady’s heroism is neither immature nor futile, but beneficial, and that his actions provide the best available moral response to the corruption and injustice presented in McCarthy’s fiction. That moral response resembles Aurelian Stoicism, the mode of Stoic practice advanced by the second-century ad Roman Emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. John Grady’s philosophy of life is reaffirmed and refined through his experience of the world’s harsh realities and the evil that men do. By the end of The Border Trilogy’s first installment this anachronistic cowboy emerges with two significant insights. First, John Grady’s Stoic attitude to life is validated and, second, he becomes willing to play the part of a tragic hero, both in accepting that the tragic nature of existence includes beauty and loss, and in demonstrating a preparedness to stand within his own moral center.
Russell M. Hillier

5. “Like Some Supplicant to the Darkness Over Them All”: The Good of John Grady Cole in Cities of the Plain

The fifth chapter extends and develops Chapter Four’s interpretation of John Grady’s significance in All the Pretty Horses by supplying a close reading of Cities of the Plain. After comparing the trilogy’s two chief protagonists Billy Parham and John Grady, the chapter defends John Grady’s continuing centrality for the trilogy. Hillier considers the historical process of McCarthy’s composition of the trilogy and how its structural and formal principles identify the trilogy as a novelistic epic. While Hillier continues to discuss John Grady’s role as a Stoic and tragic hero, he also explores his behavior as being consonant with the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard’s belief in the will to good, rather than, as some scholars have suggested, Nietzschean eternal recurrence and the will to power. John Grady’s representation of a good life illustrates how arduous it is to strive to live an honest and decent life, free from moral compromise. The chapter examines many aspects of this unjustly underrated novel, including: the nature of John Grady’s heroic action; the fascination of Magdalena’s character and her relation to Dostoevskian saintliness; the social, political, and metaphysical forms of systemic evil in this novel and across The Border Trilogy; the form that the novel’s particular incarnation of evil takes in the character of the pimp Eduardo and his relation to Dostoevskian and Miltonic villainy; McCarthy’s creative appropriation of Shakespearean tragic intertexts; and the significance of the key motif of light and darkness for the novel, the trilogy, and McCarthy’s corpus as a whole.
Russell M. Hillier

6. “Nothing is Crueler Than a Coward”: No Country for Old Men and The Counselor as Tragic Fables of the Contemporary Southwest

Chapter Six considers McCarthy’s treatment of the contemporary history of narcotics along the USA–Mexico border in his latest Southwestern works No Country for Old Men and The Counselor. Behind their neo-noir veneer, McCarthy’s novel and screenplay are perhaps anachronously moralistic and embody the qualities of the fable. In both narratives McCarthy combines an acute understanding of the exacerbating socio-political circumstances of the history of border drug trafficking across the approximately four decades standing between these two didactic tales. Both narratives warn against moral compromise and failure. In No Country for Old Men the three principal protagonists—the welder, hunter, Vietnam veteran Llewellyn Moss, the cold-blooded killer Anton Chigurh, and the Terrell County lawman Sheriff Ed Tom Bell—mask their complicity in worsening conditions through their specious discourse and hypocritical attitude to life. In turn, the action of The Counselor, which takes place in our own twenty-first century, provides an informed and devastating critique of the escalation of violence and corruption on both sides of the border. McCarthy’s screenplay probes the rottenness that lies beneath glittering, diamond-bright surfaces, be it in the dangerous and exciting world of narcocultura, the Counselor and Reiner’s elegant, excessive, and sybaritic lifestyles, Westray’s sharp, sophisticated rhetoric, or the sleek and enchanting Malkina’s seductive beauty and words. Both the novel and the screenplay are morally urgent warnings to McCarthy’s reader and his audience not to be or become implicated in this corrosive problem.
Russell M. Hillier

7. Coda—The Good of Story in The Road

The book’s coda turns to McCarthy’s late novel The Road, which concerns a father and son, starkly designated as “the man” and “the boy,” as they journey south through a shattered, inhospitable world. Throughout the novel the narrative voice often merges with the father’s consciousness, granting readers a window upon the father’s inner effort to discover value or meaning and “seek out the upright” in an apparently meaningless world. In part, the man relies for his moral compass upon the good of story, and orients himself by summoning up texts from his former life, such as Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, The Book of Job, and the moral fable of Baucis and Philemon recounted in the Roman Silver Age epic poem Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These intertexts may be writ small, but they mean large. It might be judged of McCarthy, as Dr. Samuel Johnson once judged of Milton, that his art has the power to carve a colossus even on a cherrystone. Like the man’s choicest, most felicitous recollection from his childhood, the novel teaches us, these tales and other like them are, after all, what remains to us “to shape the days upon.”
Russell M. Hillier


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