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His Oprah moment

Yes, `The Road' is bleak, but Cormac McCarthy's book also has a core of humanism, a combination just right for Winfrey's club.

June 04, 2007|Eric Miles Williamson | Special to The Times

That Cormac McCarthy received the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for his most recent novel, "The Road," was no surprise: He had been previously awarded top honors by the National Book Critics Circle and the National Book Awards for his 1992 novel, "All the Pretty Horses." What did surprise the literary world was that Oprah Winfrey picked "The Road" as her most recent Oprah's Book Club choice.

McCarthy, who will appear Tuesday on Winfrey's show in a rare interview, is considered an American literary giant by critics and readers, his books (notably "Blood Meridian" and "Suttree") taught in college courses alongside the works of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain. The literary establishment was surprised at Winfrey's choice because it views her selections as lowbrow and repeating a familiar formula: Victim overcomes adversity, dignity prevails over evil, the underdog overcomes overwhelming odds and triumphs in a small but morally significant way. Oprah books have become a cliche, at least among the folks who think themselves her betters. The literary establishment believes that if Winfrey likes a book by a living writer, that writer must be awful. That's why Jonathan Franzen didn't want to appear on Oprah's show when she chose his novel "The Corrections."

The problem with this attitude is the misguided presumption that Winfrey is predisposed toward "happy" books at the expense of "literature." This is not necessarily the case. What she seems to prefer are moral books, and this is why she tends to overlook so many "literary" authors. American literary authors have all but abandoned the general reading public, noses upturned. To Winfrey, though, an author's literary style, erudition or linguistic experimentation is of secondary importance: She's primarily concerned with the social aspects of literature, how literature can help our culture. If the work doesn't have a useful moral foundation that has the potential to make the world a more civil and pleasant place, it's not going to be one of her selections.

What often passes for high "literature" today is writing that is impenetrable and onanistic: self-enclosed systems of game-playing that only the author and a small band of professors and masochistic devotees understand (or claim to understand). Of course Winfrey would never pick William Gass' "masterpiece" doorstop of a novel "The Tunnel." Why should she? Who can read it? And Thomas Pynchon? He might be smarter than the rest of us mortals, but that doesn't mean he's communicating anything to us other than the unpleasant reality that he can't seem to stop writing volumes of brilliant gibberish, and the world will be none the worse when John Barth's books are all out of print.

Even McCarthy has fallen prey to the allure of putting difficult prose style before the story he is telling. His fourth novel, "Suttree," for instance, is a brilliantly written book that tells the episodic story of a man's derelict life in Knoxville, Tenn., where McCarthy was raised (born in 1933 in Rhode Island, he and his family moved to Knoxville when he was 4). Great though the novel may be, without a dictionary nearby and a little imagination -- since McCarthy sprinkles the book with neologisms -- no casual reader stands a chance. His early books shoved average readers away as the young author tried to one-up his primary literary influence, the extremely difficult Faulkner.

During those years, McCarthy lived a bare, reclusive life, often holed up in cheap motels with his typewriter, the cliche of the starving artist. He has rarely granted interviews, which makes his appearance on "Oprah" all the more startling. While many authors keep themselves continually in the public eye giving readings, making statements to the press, going on the lecture circuit and teaching at universities, McCarthy keeps to himself. Writing, for McCarthy, is not a spectator sport. Writing is a solitary enterprise, and he has guarded his solitude with ferocity, often at the expense of comforts most people would consider baseline necessities of life.

Starving artist

Now in his 70s, McCarthy is married to Jennifer Winkley, his third wife, and they have a young son together (he also has a son by his first marriage). His first two wives didn't have the comforts that McCarthy makes available to his current family, thanks to the awards and success of recent years. His second wife, Annie DeLisle, experienced first-hand what it's like to be the wife of a serious artist who's more dedicated to his work than to her. In a 1992 interview she described how the couple often lived in near poverty even though McCarthy received lucrative offers to discuss his work at universities. He'd turn these down, she said, because he felt he had said enough about his books in the works themselves. McCarthy did receive some grants -- most notably Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships -- that helped along the way.

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