Sunday, December 3

Where to start with: Cormac McCarthy | Books

Fifteen years after he won the Pulitzer for his last novel The Road, it was confirmed earlier this month that Cormac McCarthy would be publishing two new books later this year. The first of the long-awaited novels is due out in October, allowing plenty of time to catch up or re-familiarize yourself with the great US author’s back catalogue. Booker-shortlisted novelist Chigozie Obioma, who has been a fan of McCarthy’s since picking up a copy of The Road from a friend’s shelf in 2010, suggests some good ways to start.

The entry point

The work of an eccentric writer such as McCarthy is best approached by reading the book that comes closest to being mainstream: All the Pretty Horses. The first of the Border Trilogy, it won McCarthy a national book award in 1992 and has been adapted into a popular film starring Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz. Set in the American south-west, it tells the story of two friends, John Grady and Lacey Rawlins, who decide to travel to Mexico and end up in trouble when they try to recapture a stolen horse. 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, who is both developed and alluring – a rarity in McCarthy’s fictional universe.

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

The best one

McCarthy is intent on revealing the violence inherent in nearly every human endeavor. This is especially true in Blood Meridian, which is about a band of war veterans traveling through 19th-century America wreaking violence. Like much of McCarthy’s work, the novel is near-plotless, so its beauty lies in its acutely lyrical language, weaving a tapestry through landscape and characters.

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The classic

While Blood Meridian is widely considered McCarthy’s greatest work, The Road has been recognized as a classic in its own right, particularly within post-apocalyptic fiction. In the aftermath of an unexplained global catastrophe, an unnamed man and his son trek through the burnt landscape that was once America. The bleak, searing setting and relentlessly visceral language might seem like a journey into an impenetrable darkness, but this devastating, tender novel will speak straight 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. Photograph: Dimension Films/2929 Productions/Allstar

The one to give a miss

I think all McCarthy’s work is brilliant, but if you’re going to miss one out it should be the middle book of the Border Trilogy, The Crossing. While the language soars as ever, McCarthy’s gaze here is much narrower. Much of it revolves around the journey of Billy Parham, who is trying to cross the US-Mexican border with a wolf. The novel harbors environmentalist sentiments and is in some ways reminiscent of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. But the story is not his most exciting about him, and Parham’s lack of interaction with other humans will test readers’ patience.

The one that’s not for the faint-hearted

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

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The one who deserves more attention

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

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