Thursday, October 20, 2011

Outer Dark: the Young Cormac McCarthy

When you read early novels of a great writer, it is easy to say that you can see what that writer would later become. How he or she would hone away the difficult parts that don't seem to fit, and get at that rock hard layer that would make him or her a great writer.

This is the case with bad writers too. You can often see, in their first work or two, the element or element(s) that will derail them. Maybe it is a slavish devotion to a theme that is not totally mastered. Perhaps an ideological stance or a dedication to a particular narrative form. After a novel or two, the lack of range becomes the wall. The writer can't climb it, and that is it.

Cormac McCarthy's early novel, Outer Dark, shows all the elements of a writer on his way up; reading it, and seeing how he pared away the dead weight and got at the issues that matter illustrate later on illustrate how a novelist can go from Outer Dark, a decent novel about incest, murder, poverty and cruelty, and transform those issues into something distinctly American and even universal in works like Sutree and Blood Meridian.

So Outer Dark should be read even though it is unsatisfying in many ways, especially the ending. There is the feeling the McCarthy is trying to get himself out of a box that he has constructed throughout the novel, and the quickest way is just to punch a hole at the bottom. I suggest reading some of his great, more mature works, and then reading this novel. Then you can see the process of great art getting honed over time. You can see a writer listening to his own inner voice, getting at the heart of the matter that matters most to him as an artist.

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