Where to start: Cormac McCarthy | Books

FFifteen years after winning the Pulitzer for his latest novel The Road, it was confirmed earlier this month that Cormac McCarthy will publish two new books later this year. The first of the long-awaited novels is due out in October, giving you plenty of time to catch up or reacquaint yourself with the catalog of the great American author. Booker-nominated novelist Chigozie Obioma, who’s been a McCarthy fan since she picked up a copy of The Road from a friend’s shelf in 2010, suggests some great ways to get started.


The entry point

The work of an eccentric writer like McCarthy is best approached by reading the book that comes closest to mainstream: All the Pretty Horses. The first of the Border Trilogy, it won McCarthy a National Book Award in 1992 and was adapted into a popular film starring Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz. Set in the American Southwest, it tells the story of two friends, John Grady and Lacey Rawlins, who decide to go to Mexico and find themselves in trouble when they try to get a stolen horse back. What makes the story more accessible than most of the author’s work is that McCarthy allows his characters to fully interact with each other. Grady even falls in love with a woman, both developed and attractive – a rarity in McCarthy’s fictional universe.

Matt Damon and Henry Thomas in the 2000 film adaptation of All the Pretty Horses. Photo: Columbia Pictures/Allstar

The best

McCarthy intends to reveal the violence inherent in almost all human endeavours. This is especially true in Blood Meridian, which is about a group of veterans traveling through 19th century America and sowing violence. Like much of McCarthy’s work, the novel is almost plotless, so its beauty lies in its overwhelmingly lyrical language, weaving a tapestry through landscape and characters.


The classic

While Blood Meridian is widely considered McCarthy’s greatest work, The Road has been recognized as a classic in its own right, especially in post-apocalyptic fiction. In the aftermath of an unexplained global catastrophe, an unnamed man and his son roam the scorched landscape that was once America. The dark, searing setting and relentless visceral language may feel like a journey into impenetrable darkness, but this devastating and tender novel will speak directly to your heart.

Michael K Williams in the 2009 film adaptation of The Road.
Michael K Williams in the 2009 film adaptation of The Road. Photography: Dimension Films/2929 Productions/Allstar

The one to miss

I think all of McCarthy’s work is brilliant, but if you miss one, it should be the middle book in the Border trilogy, The Crossing. As the tongue flies like never before, McCarthy’s gaze is much narrower here. Much of it revolves around the journey of Billy Parham, who attempts to cross the US-Mexico border with a wolf. The novel harbors environmental sentiments and is in some ways reminiscent of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. But the story isn’t his most exciting, and Parham’s lack of interaction with other humans will test readers’ patience.


The one not for the shy

Child of God has a classic McCarthyian plot: a degenerate, stripped of all family ties and alone in the world, adrift. Lester Ballard’s story is told through a third-person impersonator – as I’ve come to refer to McCarthy’s narrators, since they break all conventions of the third-person narrator. It is this voice that pronounces Ballard, a character who kills and abuses the rare inhabitants of the forests of Appalachia, a “child of God”. There are acts here that would shock even the most ardent McCarthy fan.


The one that deserves more attention

Suttree, McCarthy’s fourth novel, is, in my opinion, one of the most artistically satisfying of the modern era. It centers on the titular Suttree, a man who lives alone in a ramshackle houseboat on the Tennessee River, having abandoned his wife and son. He has no clear attachment to anything and the romantic relationships he has all end badly. McCarthy never allows his third-person narrator to delve into his characters’ psyches, instead introducing them through gestures. But it’s through these gestures that we get the full picture of a truly memorable character.

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma is published by Abacus (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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