Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, violent stories often befuddle readers. He has written books about sadists, cynics, necrophiliacs, cannibals, and serial killers, yet his books, for all their apparent grotesqueness, resonate with a moralistic worldview. McCarthy’s books have become exceedingly popular in the past several years, thanks in part to Oprah Winfrey’s imprimatur and the genius filmmaking of the Coen brothers. McCarthy’s reputation has flourished to the point that he regularly appears on Nobel Prize watch lists. One might conclude that McCarthy’s commercial and critical popularity reflects the sense of morbid millennialism that infects a generation facing the prospect of terrorism, climate change, and situational genocide. In No More [End Page 396] Heroes, however, Lydia Cooper examines McCarthy’s subtext to argue that his works represent a fictional, functional moral universe where good and evil strike a balance.
Cooper focuses her analysis on the relatively rare occasions when McCarthy’s narration shifts from third-person into first-person or when the text otherwise indirectly indicates a character’s interior state of mind because these occasions permit “readers to engage empathetically with the character’s moral thoughts, perceptions, or intentions” (2). Her argument hinges on empathy, both the character’s ability to empathize with other characters and the reader’s ability to empathize with the character. McCarthy ordinarily denies empathy to develop an atmosphere of alienation in his novels, which makes the rare occasions of available empathy important.
McCarthy’s Appalachian novels represent characters, according to Cooper, who have rejected humankind but who nonetheless long for meaningful connections to other people, an impulse that they express in depraved ways, such as murder. She examines brief moments of interiority when, for example, the narrative voice of Child of God (1973) shifts into necrophiliac murderer Lester Ballard’s perspective. McCarthy’s transitional novels Suttree (1979) and Blood Meridian (1985) are comparatively confessional, both for their relatively extensive interiority and for their underlying themes of sin and redemption. The books complicate the traditional understanding of redemption, which may be a hollow signifier depending on the situation. The border trilogy novels, she argues, ambiguously follow a redemptive quest structure in which the primary characters “John Grady and Billy are savior figures” who ultimately fail to achieve sanctification (105). All of these novels invoke the language and imagery of Christianity, and the moments of narrative empathy invite the readers to recognize the otherwise depraved characters’ sublimated humanity. However, as Cooper also argues, the novels resist the simple moralism that might convey unambiguous meaning.
Cooper reads No Country for Old Men (2005) as a folktale because the characters conform to types, not individuals. Anton Chigurh, who has an otherworldly ability to escape capture, brings a folkloric quality of magic to the novel. As he commits cruel and atrocious acts, he describes an amoral social order, one in which chance, such as the flip of a coin, determines life and death. Sheriff Bell’s normative morality fails in this book to account for inexplicable evil. She believes that The Road (2006), however, offers a distinctly moral vision. The father’s unflagging devotion to his son, his altruistic self-denial, and his commitment to the vague goal of his journey signal his heroism in a conventional sense. Only the book’s postapocalyptic setting in a severe landscape populated with roving cannibals and nihilistic [End Page 397] prophets convey McCarthy’s usual bleakness. The father doubts his own vision of goodness, but he feels a conviction that he must convey a sense of hope in his son, who he believes may revitalize the devastated world. He communicates this message through storytelling, “a ritually practiced act with sacramental significance,” and the emphasis on storytelling as a form of heroism undercuts the seeming depravity of McCarthy’s fiction (140). The works take on a metafictional or oracular significance as bulwarks against man’s inhumanity. Cooper goes so far as to suggest that cannibalism, a recurring motif in McCarthy’s work, symbolizes language. “Dead flesh,” she writes, “symbolizes the dead sign, language stripped...