Oprah chooses bleak Cormac McCarthy novel for book club

by Julia Keller

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

29 March 2007

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy

CHICAGO—He’s bleak. She’s chipper.

He sees dark clouds. For her, it’s strictly silver linings.

She says, “Live your best life now!” He says, “Life? Who needs it?”

She’s one of the most famous people in the world. He could take the bus seat right next to you and you wouldn’t look up from your newspaper.

When novelist Cormac McCarthy joins Oprah Winfrey on a forthcoming installment of her show, they will constitute one of the oddest and most unlikely cultural pairings since Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe.

On Wednesday, Winfrey announced that McCarthy’s novel, The Road (2007), is the latest pick for her book club. McCarthy, 73, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, did not appear on Wednesday’s program, but said through his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, that he will show up on a future episode for what Winfrey called “his first television interview ever.”

That left admirers of the notoriously reclusive author, whose solemn, elegiac prose reads as if chiseled on the side of a sheer rock face, flummoxed and stunned.

“Wait a minute until I can pick my jaw up off the floor,” said John Wegner, English professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, and former editor of the Cormac McCarthy Journal Online.

“It’s a little surprising that his coming-out party will be on The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Wegner added.

Dianne C. Luce, president of the Cormac McCarthy Society, said, “Oh, my goodness. Those poor women don’t know what they’re getting into.” McCarthy’s novels, she added, are “very bleak.”

They are indeed, but Winfrey has never shied away from unusual selections for her book club. For every tender, heartwarming, life-affirming novel by a Maeve Binchy, there’s a Night by Elie Wiesel.

McCarthy’s story, however, with its steady throb of violence and pain amid post-apocalyptic wandering, may represent a challenging new threshold, even for Winfrey. He writes about lives hollowed-out by rage and longing. His sentences have a brooding, biblical cadence about them. The themes are not for the faint-hearted.

“Some of the violence in Cormac McCarthy does put off the general reader,” said Luce, an English professor at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, S.C. Of The Road, she said. “There’s an absence of safe domestic space in this novel. There’s cannibalism and, of course, rape, and the world itself is dead. It’s about nuclear winter. Humans are the only species left, and they’re surviving by killing and eating each other.”

Yet ultimately there is a feeling of redemption in McCarthy’s work, a final catharsis that can make the painful, difficult journey of reading him positively transcendent. “It does provide a very poignant picture of a love of a father for a son,” Luce said.

McCarthy’s world—one scraped clean of frills or silliness, one redolent of secrets—seems the opposite of Winfrey’s, with its glamour and its constant self-disclosure.

Even Winfrey acknowledged the risk in choosing McCarthy’s knotty, powerful novel. “It’s unlike anything I’ve every chosen as a book club selection before because it’s post-apocalyptic,” she said on her show in announcing the pick. “It’s so extraordinary. I promise you, you’ll be thinking about it long after you finish the final page.”

Wegner, one of the few scholars to have actually spoken with McCarthy, speculated that the author said “Yes” to Winfrey for the simplest of reasons: “He wants people to read.”

But if Winfrey tries to draw him out about his personal life, Wegner warned, she may face a silence as stony and forbidding as the New Mexico topography. “If she asks him any touchy-feely questions, I don’t think he’ll have much to say. I would be shocked if they talk about his personal life.”

Whatever his motivation for McCarthy agreeing to be on the show, it isn’t money, say longtime observers of McCarthy’s work. He turns down speeches, awards, teaching gigs and other familiar trappings of the contemporary writer’s life, preferring to live in the desert Southwest and do his work. Like fellow literary recluses such as J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, McCarthy is more familiar through his absence than his presence.

He was born in Rhode Island, but grew up mainly near Knoxville, Tenn., where his father worked as an attorney for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He briefly attended the University of Tennessee, but left to do what he’s done ever since: write.

McCarthy, who has been married three times, finished writing his first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), in Chicago, he told The New York Times in 1992. That remains the one of the few substantial interviews he’s ever given. In 1981, he received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Novels are the mainstay, but he’s also written screenplays and plays. In 2006 his play, The Sunset Limited, was staged at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Six years earlier, his novel All the Pretty Horses was turned into a movie starring Matt Damon.

The Road details a stark, haunting landscape—“everything dead to the root”—through which trudge a father and son. The lack of standard punctuation marks to indicate dialogue or contractions is initially off-putting, but soon you get the idea: Punctuation would just clutter things up. This is a place where everything has been stripped down to essentials:

You think we’re going to die, dont you?

I dont know.

We’re not going to die.


But you dont believe me.

I dont know.

Why do you think we’re going to die?

I dont know.

Stop saying I dont know.


Winfrey’s book club readers may be startled. But then again, they are used to jolts: They found out that an earlier Winfrey pick, James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, is largely fictional. After her fans read The Road, with its bleak vision of the world’s future, they may hope that it, too, is mostly made up.


(Chicago Tribune staff writer Patrick T. Reardon contributed to this report.)

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