My first experience with Cormac McCarthy was when I was 16 or 17 and my older brother’s friend Doug Lowney came over and read a passage to me from Blood Meridian. Since 16 year olds are idiots, and I was an idiot, I couldn’t really comprehend what he was reading to me. All I knew was that there was raping and scalping and killing and shit. I imagined a blue-grey morning and Vikings doing the slaughter, which was, as it turns out, exactly wrong. But the point is that it piqued my interest. I later purchased a copy of Blood Meridian which I successfully finished reading on my second or third try during my sophomore year of college. It’s a difficult book, what can I say? Since then I’ve read Suttree, No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain—I am a full blown Cormac McCarthy nut. I even have a two year old Oprah saved on my DVR at home that has an interview with him.
After finishing You Shall Know Our Velocity, I figured it was time for something a little more…gritty? I pulled his first book, The Orchard Keeper, off my shelf and within 40 pages came across a passage that reminded me of what I really love about McCarthy’s writing. It’s primal, it’s fierce, it’s forceful. The prose leaps out at you like a mountain lion, waiting for you to come around the corner of the trail so that it can tear your throat open and drink your blood. It is so good that I just have to share.
Whether he fell forward or whether the man pulled them over he did not know. They were lying in the road, the man with his face in the dirt and Sylder on top of him, motionless for the moment as resting lovers. Something in Sylder’s shoulder traveled obliquely down to his lungs with each breath to cut off the air. He still had one hand locked in the man’s neck and now he inched himself forward and whispered into his ear.
Why don’t you say something now, bastard? Ain’t you got some more talk to spiel for us?
He was jerking at the man’s head but the man had both hands over it and seemed lost in speculation upon the pebbles of the road. Sylder let his hand relax and wander through the folds of the neck until they arrived at the throat. The man took that for a few minutes, then suddenly twisted sideways, spat in Sylder’s face, and tried to wrench himself free. Sylder rolled with him and had him flat backward in the road and astride him, still the one arm swinging from his broken shoulder like a piece of rope. He crept forward and placed one leg behind the man’s head, elevating it slightly, looking like some hulking nurse administering to the wounded. He pushed the head back into the crook of his leg, straightened his arm, and bore down upon the man’s neck with all his weight and strength. The boneless-looking face twitched a few times but other than that showed no change of expression, only the same rubbery look of fear, speechless and uncomprehending, which Sylder felt was not his doing either but the everyday look of the man. And the jaw kept coming down not on any detectable hinges but like a mass of offal, some obscene waste matter uncongealing and collapsing in slow folds over the web of his hand. It occurred to him then that the man was trying to bite him and this struck him as somehow so ludicrous that a snort of laughter wheezed in his nose. Finally the man’s hands came up to rest on his arm, the puffy fingers trailing over his own hand and wrist reminded him of baby possums he hand seen once, blind and pink.
Sylder held him like that for a long time. Like squeezing a boil, he thought. After a while the man did try to say something but no words came, only a bubbling sound. Sylder was watching him in a sort of mesmerized fascination, noting blink of eye, loll of tongue. Then he eased his grip and the man’s eyes widened.
For Christ’s sake, he gasped. Jesus Christ, just turn me loose.
Sylder put his face to the man’s and in a low voice said, You better call on somebody closer than that. Then he saw his shoulder, saw the man looking at it. He dug his thumb into the man’s windpipe and felt it collapse like a dried tule. The man got his hand up and began with his eyes closed to beat Sylder around the face and chest. Sylder closed his eyes too and buried his face in his shoulder to protect it. The flailings grew violent, slowed, finally stopped altogether. When Sylder opened his eyes again the man was staring at him owlishly, the little tongue tipped just past the open lips. He relaxed his hand and the fingers contracted, shriveling into a tight claw, like a killed spider. He tried to open it again but could not. He looked at the man again and time was coming back, gaining, so that all the clocks would be right.