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The Rio Grande near Santa Fe, New Mexico, home to Cormac McCarthy. (Photo: Nina B/Shutterstock)

Darkness Laughable: The Comic Genius of Cormac McCarthy

• July 02, 2014 • 8:00 AM

The Rio Grande near Santa Fe, New Mexico, home to Cormac McCarthy. (Photo: Nina B/Shutterstock)

As one of our greatest living writers has his work lifted into the ivory tower, let’s reflect on how it’s the light, not the darkness, that keeps us going back for more.

The Penn State University Press recently announced that it would publish the The Cormac McCarthy Journal starting in 2015. This is a rare honor for any writer, much less a living one, to achieve. The elevation of a glorified society newsletter (of The Cormac McCarthy Society) to a university press title speaks volumes about the enduring themes that McCarthy continues to engage with Faulknerian ambition and Homeric prose. It’s a tribute befitting a man many consider our greatest living writer.

Readers even passingly familiar with McCarthy’s work—especially his “Tennessee Novels”—will likely conjure up images inexplicably (if not offensively) violent and dark. This stands to reason. Those early novels are indeed unrelenting in their despair and morbidity. Yet, more than any other quality, what keeps us coming back to McCarthy’s work, what more than justifies its own academic journal, is an underappreciated saving grace running throughout this brilliant corpus: McCarthy is funny.

Consider Child of God, McCarthy’s third and darkest book. This is the kind of novel that elicits so many horror-induced gasps that people can hear you read it. The story begins with Lester Ballard crumbling to the floor after sustaining a whack to the skull from the blunt end of an axe bit. Unable “to hold his head right after that,” Ballard teeters off into the blue mist of the surrounding hills to commit acts of rare decrepitude. Serial necrophilia ensues as the caves outside Sevier County become graveyards of violated corpses. When Lester is leveled by that axe bit, McCarthy notes that blood seeps from his ears and “an awful pumpknot” protrudes from his head.

His ability to imbue violence with humor not only rescues the most morbid scenes from pointless grotesquerie, but it lends insight into the human condition, reminding us that violence harbors a kernel of humor.

But Child of God is a funny book—or at least it has its funny moments. Despite his taste for the macabre, McCarthy understands the deeper structure of humor much in the same way that he understands the deeper structure of language. His ability to imbue violence with humor not only rescues the most morbid scenes from pointless grotesquerie, but it lends insight into the human condition, reminding us that violence harbors a kernel of humor. We can appreciate the humor because we have absorbed its essential prerequisite: a deeper understanding of the social milieu in which it happens. Given the backwardness of Sevier County, this is hardly reassuring. Nevertheless, we are most primed to smile knowingly when we’re deep into the game and the blood is flowing.

The connection between violence and humor might be more than anecdotal. Anthropologists and historians speculate that humor may have evolved as a sort of social cohesion strategy. Tight bands of early hunters—men whose work was inherently violent—used it to preserve tribal unity. Because some hunters outperformed others, the weak were able protect their share of the catch—and in turn a basic egalitarianism—by using humor as a form of gentle mockery. They checked the ego of the superhero hunter by telling him he was a greedy Stone-Age bastard without explicitly saying so. They tapped a fundamental prerequisite of humor—the incongruity between normal and abnormal—to single out an individual and throw an elbow into his ribs. “The result,” writes Robert Kelly in The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways, “is not a group of disgruntled would-be misers and dictators, but individuals who are assertively egalitarian”—and, one might add, still committed to whatever narratives hold them in tribe.

McCarthy—whose work is nearly obsessed with hunting—uses humor in a similar way. He deploys it to keep readers within his narrative orbit, no matter how dark it may be. At just the moment we’re tempted to put down the book and pick up some beach reading McCarthy lures us back with a sparkling dose of lightness or satire. I’m not talking about knee-slapping, laugh-out-loud amusement, of course; McCarthy’s brand of humor is sly and unexpected. It operates in a matrix of folklore, frontier, and trickster traditions—traditions that thrive on the premise that even our most tragic flaws, no matter how grotesquely manifested, are slightly ridiculous and comical and, as such, worthy of the most enduring literature.

In Child of God a kind of absurd drollness dominates. An illiterate dumpkeeper, we learn, “spawned nine daughters and named them out of an old medical dictionary gleaned from the rubbish,” thereby sending into the world—or at least the hills of Tennessee—girls with names such as Urethra and Hernia Sue. An “idiot” child bites the spindled legs off a bird given to him as gift because “he wanted it to where it couldn’t run off.” (His mother quickly advises, “get that mess out of his mouth fore he gets sick on it.”) A man tells a tall tale about losing a boxing match to an “ape or gorilla” that nearly kicks his face off. Even Ballard, the murderous necrophiliac, indulges in a little sideshow satire through his subversively comic, obsessive-compulsive relationship with a rifle, an essential backwoods totem that becomes what the scholar Mark Winchell calls “a modern day parody of the frontier.” You don’t laugh out loud during these scenes; you smile (even if only a little, and wryly) from within.

MCCARTHY’S WORK FREQUENTLY ELICITS comparisons to Melville, especially Moby Dick. The juxtaposition holds up especially well when it comes to the writers’ respective ability to produce dialogue imbued with cheerful but muscular levity among men on the hunt. Consider the playfully insulting encouragement that Stubb hollers to his forlorn mates as they row a skiff toward a foundering whale in “The First Lowering”:

Pull, pull, my fine-hearts alive; pull my children; pull my little ones…. Why don’t you break your backbones my boys? What is it you stare at? Those chaps in yonder boat? … Pull, then, do pull; never mind the brimstone—devils are good fellows enough. So, so, there you are now; that’s the stroke for a thousand pounds; that’s the stroke to sweep the stakes. Hurrah for the gold cup of sperm oil, my heroes! … Why don’t you snap your oars you rascals. Bite something, you dogs!

Now consider McCarthy’s account of the Judge, Blood Meridian’s purportedly immortal stone-bald protagonist, as he gleefully urges his equally forlorn men to urinate into a daub of sulfur and nitre so he can fashion an impromptu explosive to deter a band of charging Delaware’s:

We hauled forth our members and at it we went and the judge on his knees kneading the mass with his naked arms and the piss was splashin about and he was cryin out to us to piss, man, piss for your very souls for cant you see the redskins yonder, and laughin the while and working up the great mass in a foul black dough, a devil’s batter by the stink of it and him not a bloody dark pastryman himself.

Whether pissing or pulling, saving souls or hearts, seeking sperm oil or scalps, Stubb and the Judge—barking their orders bullhorn-like across a seemingly borderless and evil ocean and desert—confirm a vibrant parallel between Melville and McCarthy, one that highlights the humor that holds their thematically heavy works in thrall to each other across a century and a half of time.

MCCARTHY’S DELICATE INTEGRATION OF violence and humor culminates in his fourth novel, Suttree. Cornelius Suttree is a mysterious configuration of a man. All we really know about him is that he abandoned his wife and child—as well as a life of privilege—13 years earlier to live in voluntary poverty among the human flotsam squatting in shacks along the Tennessee River. Suttree, despite his laconic nature, is by no means emotionally vacant. At one point his fierce melancholy sends him, like Lester Ballard, into the distant hills of Gatlinburg, where he wanders for days and “stood among the screaming leaves and called the lightening down” to illuminate “the darkened heart within him.”

6845487But Suttree is no Ballard. To the contrary, he’s at heart an empathic soul, a person the down-and-out immediately seek when “painted in a corner,” as one family was when they refused to report their father’s death because they want to keep collecting his unemployment checks. Deciding to finally secrete the body at the bottom of the river, they consult Suttree for technical advice. He initially demurs, but, moved by their plight, eventually changes his mind. When the body eventually floats up, “draggin all them chains with him,” a resigned Suttree says, “fathers will do that.”

But the primary reason we care about “Sut” is his bemused tenderness for Eugene Harrogate, an adolescent street urchin who wanders into town wearing an old pair of pants as a shirt, his head poking through the ripped out crotch, after having sexually violated a patch of watermelons. It’s upon Suttree’s fascinating relationship with Harrogate—one that distantly foreshadows the Tobin-Kid relationship in Blood Meridian and the father-son bond in The Road—that the novel hinges and develops into something epic.

Harrogate—who declares, “I can figure out anything”—is a trickster in the Sut Lovingood mold. Suttree, who is anything but, enjoins us to bear witness to his friend’s risible schemes. Harrogate doesn’t disappoint. He blasts the riverine air with poisoned meat to kill bats that the city, fearing a rabies outbreak, has placed a bounty on. He rigs up a streetlamp to electrocute pigeons for food, fabricates a boat from two salvaged Ford hoods, jams up the coin returns of local payphones, and, perhaps most ambitiously, enters the cavernous underworld of the city to blast out a wall behind which he’s reckoned a bank vault.

Learning of Harrogate’s plot, Suttree says, “I don’t want to look. I don’t want to hear.” But hear it he does, while lying in bed thinking he’s experiencing an earthquake. Four days later, Suttree sees. He discovers “a sluggish monster freed from what centuries of stony fastness under the city. Its breath washed over him in a putrid stench.” Harrogate’s bomb short-circuited. He missed the vault and successfully dynamited the city’s main sewage line.

Yet another hunt. Yet another reason to laugh.

Harrogate moves on. Suttree abides. And McCarthy ends Suttree with, for my money, one of the finest paragraphs in contemporary literature:

Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn and in the castellated press of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.

As the work of Cormac McCarthy flies into the academic stratosphere, we’d be wise to remember that, for all the scholarly declarations that will ensue, the author’s wit is what ultimately keeps his hounds yelping in the wilderness, ravening for souls in this world.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

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