The only light in the motel room came in through the blinds from the street lights. This didn’t stop him from writing. Oh no. Because he’d been in a thousand rooms just like the one he was in now, he knew exactly what to do. He took out the high-wattage light bulb he always had and screwed it in. With a now-illuminated room, Cormac McCarthy began killing off his characters in the most brutal way imaginable.
And that’s how many of Cormac McCarthy’s early novels were written. In cheap, dark, Tennessee motel rooms. It doesn’t matter where you work, so as long as you work.
Sadly, McCormack died this week.
For a long time, McCormack and his novels about the cruelty of human nature were cult favorites. But with the publication of All the Pretty Horses, McCormack went mainstream – much to his disliking. Probably. His books are often described as macabre and surely would make you wince thrice. Put simply: they are not the types of books I’d listen to in the car with my wife.
Yet they stir something inside you. I don’t know exactly what it is but boy oh boy is it there. You’re half-scared / half-wondering who will die next and when and how. Everything within you is saying to put the book down. It’s time to go to bed. It’s time to work. Your family misses you. But you can’t.
William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Herman Melville – only some of the greatest writers to have ever lived – were McCormack’s inspirations and every one of his pages pays homage to them.
His books are different. There’s a lot of blood, yes, and “more corpses than commas,” but the most unique thing is the lack of punctuation. McCormack doesn’t use quotation marks to denote dialogue. You would think this would cause confusion, but it doesn’t. “There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks,” he said. “I mean if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”
Here’s an excerpt from one of his novels, Child of God:
Ballard came to the edge of the cutbank and looked up to where Kirby was sitting. He said: You got any whiskey?
Might have some.
Why don’t you let me have a jar.
Kirby stood up. Ballard said: I can pay ye next week on it. Kirby squatted back down again.
I can pay ye tomorrow, Ballard said.
Kirby turned his head to one side and gripped his nose between his thumb and forefinger and sneezed a gout of yellow snot into the grass and wiped his fingers on the knee of his jeans. He looked out over the fields. I cain’t do it, Lester, he said.
See. No quotation marks but you don’t get lost.
Writing dialogue is one of the first things they teach you in English class. You learn when to put the commas inside of the quotes, how to introduce a new character, and are told to make sure each character’s words have their own line.
McCormack broke all those rules and had massive success doing it. Why? Because the thing, the actual writing, story, and plot were terrific. McCormack mastered the fundamentals, so he could break every rule he wanted and people still read – and are still reading – his words.
I never once thought about how unimportant quotation marks are. I didn’t know you could write dialogue without them. How sad is that? Tradition was so engrained in my brain, I never thought to question those funny little lines before and after words from a character. Now I am.
How he wrote isn’t the only thing McCarthy chose to do differently. He didn’t go on book tours and rarely did interviews. He could talk until the cows came home about physics or the philosophy of mathematics but shied away from talking about his writing. What writer doesn’t want to talk about their work? Then again, what writer doesn’t use quotation marks?
I admire his knack for going against the grain, but his ex-wives who lived in poverty because of that habit didn’t. “We lived in total poverty," his second wife, Annie DeLisle said. On a dairy farm just outside of Knoxville, they’d take baths in the lake. Funny enough, that’s something a McCormack character would partake in. "Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week." That right there says all you need to know about Cormac McCarthy.
This great American novelist has passed, yes, but his words and habits and ideas will never die.
McCormack, both directly and indirectly, teaches one to question tradition and that there’s always room for something different, especially if it’s great.
Break the mold and break the mold and do it differently and break the mold.
If you’ve never read a McCarthy novel before, The Road is his most critically acclaimed. “No Country for Old Men” is a movie that McCarthy first wrote as a book with the same title. He published two new novels last year, The Passenger and Stella Maris, if you want to read something current. The New York Times wrote about his best books. Warning: his books are brutal. Some say the violence makes them hard to read, but that’s exactly why you should try.