Where the hell?

Michael Wood

  • The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
    Picador, 426 pp, £14.99, August 1994, ISBN 0 330 33462 X

Cormac McCarthy comes to us with a tremendous reputation: not only the National Book Award but a critical chorus comparing him to Melville, Shakespeare, Conrad, Faulkner, Dostoevsky. There have also been voices crying hokum, but not many. The Crossing is McCarthy’s seventh novel, and you have only to open one of them to see what has set everyone reeling. Obsessions and hallucinations litter the pages, strange, silent shapes fall off mountains or patrol plains, everyone who speaks at all speaks like an oracle. There is blood everywhere. It’s eerie to hear a 19th-century cowboy paraphrasing Swift (‘They’d been skinned and I can tell ye it does very little for a man’s appearance’); eerier still to see a distorted after-image of King Lear set loose in a Western desert, ‘like some scurrilous king stripped of his vesture and driven together with his fool into the wilderness to die’. In another cultural register, Western fans will recognise a scene or two borrowed from The Outlaw Josey Wales, and people spit in these novels as if they were Eastwood dolls who didn’t know how to stop the machinery. ‘He leaned and spat.’ McCarthy never tires or writing this sentence, the prelude to every raw and cryptic cowboy comment. It signals the westernness of the West, the way the fringes in Mankiewicz’s film Julius Caesar, according to Roland Barthes, were the quick and surefire sign of Romanness. Everything is mythic in McCarthy, and at times he seems to smile at this himself. Not often.

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