In both style and challenge, Cormac McCarthy is unique among modern American writers. Utilizing a writing style that eschews unnecessary punctuation to a degree that should render his prose unreadable, McCarthy compensates by employing terse, direct sentence structures filled with dreamy symbolism. That combination has made McCarthy’s prose iconic. The stories he produces blur the line between literary fiction and genre fiction like thrillers and westerns. He explores thriller and horror tropes using poetic language and symbols with biblical weight, stories about criminals and horrific violence that read like dark fables.
What makes McCarthy—a Pulitzer Prize winner and the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant—so great also makes him intimidating. His novels do not ease you in. They start dreamy and challenging and remain that way throughout. They insistently force you to work to see images and events you’d rather not see. At the same time, a series of successful and celebrated film adaptations of his novels has pushed him into the pop culture zeitgeist like few other writers, landing him on many people’s “must-read” lists. If you’re intrigued, here are the five best Cormac McCarthy books.
Blood Meridian is often regarded as a dark satire of the Western genre, but it’s more like an unvarnished depiction of what our Western myths were probably like in reality. Instead of the clean, bloodless gun battles and the noble struggle against savages, McCarthy shows us violence, cruelty, and plenty of savagery. It feels like a dread-inducing campfire tale, but McCarthy’s control is absolute; in a story that forces you to look at many terrible things, one of the most powerful and dreadful deaths happens off-page. It’s a brutal story, filled with stark, beautiful writing (the sermons of The Judge, a demonic member of the gang, are especially powerful in their dark, violent poetry) and horrifying moments.
Nearly 40 years after its publication, the true impact of McCarthy’s 1985 novel is just beginning to be quantified. While much is made of McCarthy’s terse style and lack of what most people would consider standard punctuation, not everyone gets why these stylistic choices matter. Put simply, what McCarthy achieves in Blood Meridian is the replication of oral storytelling in prose form. Lesser writers achieve this with a deluge of dialogue tags and verbal tics. McCarthy goes beyond a superficial approximation of someone telling you a story to get at the fundamentals of how we tell each other stories when we’re not worried about grammar, punctuation, and structure. Yet he maintains literary control over this story of The Kid, who falls in with a violent gang wandering the nightmarish emptiness of the American West.
McCarthy’s 1992 novel (winner of the National Book Award) is typical of his style in terms of prose, using his idiosyncratic punctuation rules to render lush, dream-like prose. John Grady travels to Mexico intending to become a cowboy after he’s forced off his family’s ranch in Texas. The story and imagery is more romantic than pessimistic, and there’s a lovely sense of introspection that makes the story feel more intimate than much of McCarthy’s later work. It’s also the first book in an unofficial trilogy that includes The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, so it naturally leads you deeper into his oeuvre.
What sets All The Pretty Horses apart from much of his other work and makes it an ideal starting point is the lighter tone. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy book. Since he’s following his own rules for language and sentence structure, it can take some time to fall into the rhythm. And McCarthy, like his main character, is a fluent Spanish speaker and weaves the language into the narrative for extra challenge. Once you get used to his style, the prose becomes a delight. The experience is very much like listening to a stranger tell a great story—McCarthy’s genius lies in generating that sense of uneasy surprise you experience when listening to the unexpected.
3. The Crossing
The second in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy isn’t a sequel to All the Pretty Horses in the literal sense; it’s set in the same time and space and explores the darker side of the same themes. Billy Pawson is 16 and travels to the hills of Mexico from his family ranch in Texas when he traps a wolf. When he returns, he finds his family’s home has been robbed. He and his brother set off to retrieve their horses and find themselves on an adventure in the lawless Mexican wilderness.
McCarthy’s universe is one in which death and loss lurk everywhere, and we avoid them solely by chance. Billy tries to make good decisions, and his goal is a noble one, but his journey takes him deeper and deeper into darkness because that is the nature of the universe. At the same time, McCarthy’s prose sings in The Crossing, treating banal, mundane moments and events like the tiny miracles they are, and imbuing death and brutality with a beauty that is as disturbing as it is terrifying. It’s a succinct summary of McCarthy’s worldview.
McCarthy’s brilliant 2005 novel was made famous by the Oscar-winning film adaptation starring Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Kelly Macdonald. The story explores many themes, but chief among them is helplessness. There’s the futility of trying to control the world and events around you, explored through the story of Llewelyn Moss and his attempts to survive implacable hitman Anton Chigurh after stealing cartel money. And there’s the helplessness surrounding growing old, explored in the story of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who tries to understand the violent, chaotic events unfolding in Moss’s wake.
The age of the characters is significant, as McCarthy leaves behind the teenagers and young adults of his earlier work. Regarded by many as McCarthy’s best work, No Country for Old Men has every element you’d expect to find in one of his books: The dreamy prose, the dense paragraphs, the possibly-supernatural antagonist, and the brutal, explosive violence. What elevates this book from the merely brilliant is how tightly these elements are used to explore the themes. Chigurh may or may not be the devil or death himself, but he’s definitely the chaos that Moss mistakenly believes he can outwit and control. The Sheriff’s slow realization that the world has evolved into something he doesn’t recognize is rendered with heartbreaking clarity.
5. The Road
McCarthy’s 2006 novel is probably his best-known—it won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a film in 2009 starring Viggo Mortenson. But even those who endured the film’s unrelentingly bleak depiction of the apocalypse won’t be prepared for this book. McCarthy takes a classic science fiction trope—The Dying Earth—and refashions it into a fierce nightmare as he follows an unnamed father and son through the end of the world. In a place where nothing grows, every moment of survival is a struggle, and McCarthy makes the reader feel all of it. Where other stories focused on survival keep it at arm’s length, McCarthy’s looping, lyrical sentences bring the exhausting nature of survival without hope home with force.
The Road is the perfect pairing of genre material and McCarthy’s style. While he’s explored Western and Thriller stories effectively, the sci-fi elements in this novel were tailor-made for his sparse-yet-poetic writing. A world without hope is a living nightmare, and no one writes living nightmares better than McCarthy. At the same time, this is a book where McCarthy leans into his tendency to be a fabulist. Unnamed characters and an unspecified cause of the apocalypse could be signs of lazy writing with another writer, but in The Road they symbolize, among other things, the fading of the light. You don’t need names or history or explanations when there is quite literally no future. This is an incredible achievement, and should be on everyone’s must-read list.