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  • Cormac McCarthy’s Violent Destinies: The Poetics of Determinism and Fatalism ed. by Brad Bannon and John Vanderheide
  • Nell Sullivan
Brad Bannon and John Vanderheide, eds., Cormac McCarthy’s Violent Destinies: The Poetics of Determinism and Fatalism. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2018. 349 pp. Cloth, $60.

Brad Bannon and John Vanderheide’s invaluable collection draws from a number of theological and philosophical perspectives to illuminate for the first time what the editors rightly identify as a “subfield of McCarthy studies”: the related themes of determinism and fatalism prominent in McCarthy’s canon (4). Though focusing exclusively on the novels, the volume provides a range of nuanced readings that demonstrate the breadth of “theological and philosophical interests” informing McCarthy’s literary expression of these two themes (7). The collection includes the now-requisite Rick Wallach foreword, Bannon and Vanderheide’s helpful introduction specifying definitions of “determinism” and “fatalism,” and eleven single-author essays covering McCarthy’s Tennessee and Southwestern novels, though the latter receive the most attention. The best essays, such as Theo Finigan’s and Rasmus Simonsen’s, offer fresh ways to consider determinism and fatalism in relation to McCarthy’s engagement with American identity and history, issues of particular interest to Western American Literature readers.

The three essays focusing on the Tennessee novels have important implications for most McCarthy texts. In a reading that could be extended to other novels, Woods Nash explores the nihilistic worldview of Child of God, whose endemic violence exposes the illusory nature of the Lockean social contract not just for Lester Ballard but for all the inhabitants of Sevier County. In his “Doom’s Adumbration: Suttree and the Problem of Fatalism,” John Vanderheide includes a heady discussion of Deleuze’s notions of stratification and assemblages in the process of individuation; the [End Page 97] payoff is a fine reading of how Suttree’s affluent-white-male identity allows him to escape both Knoxville and a foreclosed identity while secondary characters like Ab Jones, Harrogate, and Joyce succumb to the “fatality” of race, class, or gender. Brad Bannon astutely reads the Tennessee novels as a tetralogy demonstrating the notion of “teleological blindness,” an analogue of the Puritans’ “unknowable Providence” (246); he argues that the Appalachian characters’ struggle “to reconcile the strictures of regional limitations and physical inevitability with free agency” predicts themes developed in the Southwestern novels (243).

Several essays address the novels of the Border Trilogy either singularly or collectively. In his essay on All the Pretty Horses James Giles argues that McCarthy transcends the Western genre by balancing naturalism with romanticism in the characterization of John Grady Cole. Dennis Sansom reads the Border Trilogy as a primer on the tension between determinism and individual agency as McCarthy presents various teacher figures who provide important, if sometimes contradictory, lessons about existence and free will. In her cogent reading of the Border Trilogy, Petra Mundik gives an overview of Gnosticism and uses its central concept of heimarmene— “the cosmic forces of fate” (208)— to demonstrate how John Grady’s fate is foreshadowed throughout the trilogy.

Given its centrality to McCarthy’s career, Blood Meridian predictably receives extensive attention. In “Freaking Determinism: The Image of the Wild Man in Blood Meridian,” Tom Cull reads the idiot James Robert Bell as McCarthy’s figure for humanity, “an unevolved and agentless beast,” driven helplessly by forces beyond his understanding (270). Robert Kottage’s essay on tarot in Blood Meridian provides an excellent supplement to John Sepich’s work and argues that McCarthy purposefully uses an amalgamated tarot deck with cards postdating the kid’s time to highlight questions of free will in the novel. In his densely argued essay comparing Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, Adrian Mioc uses Nietzsche and Spinoza to demonstrate that Holden and Chigurh eschew an ethics of morality for an ethics of power, resulting in the harmonizing of “fatalism and determinism with freedom” (116).

While Cormac McCarthy’s Violent Destinies showcases many [End Page 98] insightful readings, two stand out for both their originality and timeliness. Rasmus Simonsen’s compelling “Guns and Material Determinism in The Road” uses “Thing theory” to examine Papa’s relationship to his .45...


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