Embodied in such novels as “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked universe of violence, dust and poetry provides rich terrain for critical activity, and the intensity of his vision attracts an unusually passionate following. The filmmaker, painter and writer Peter Josyph is certainly among the believers, as his new book, “Cormac McCarthy’s House,” demonstrates.
Josyph takes an aggressively unconventional approach to McCarthy’s work, combining elements of travelogue, interview and memoir. The result, however, is an interdisciplinary mishmash that suffers from a crippling lack of focus. The author expresses disdain for “bona fide professional criticism,” but in its place he offers only free-associative speculations full of swagger and attitudinizing. We get a meandering conversation with a man who took some of McCarthy’s early author photos; a photographic tour of Knoxville, the setting of McCarthy’s novel “Suttree” (1979); and pages of letters between Josyph and a fellow McCarthy enthusiast that read like the longest, most boring barroom conversation ever.
The second half of the book is, unbelievably, even more unmoored from its ostensible subject, veering into a nearly incoherent account of the 100 paintings of McCarthy’s former house in El Paso that Josyph created for a traveling exhibition. One waits for some thread of relevance to surface from pages of nonsense that read like an adolescent’s idea of the tribulations of the suffering artist. “Working on a difficult canvas,” the author tells a friend, “is like stepping behind a barn to go ten rounds, barefisted, with some tough [expletive] who is twice your size.” This kind of stuff sounded ridiculous from Ernest Hemingway in 1950; can Josyph be serious?
At one point the author says that he himself has “suffered some very dull, narcissistic recollections of how McCarthy’s work has intersected a life,” but that doesn’t seem to deflect him. He suffers a moment of doubt when he admits that his “level of attention . . . could seem out of proportion, and beyond any meaningful connection, to the work on the page,” but then concludes that such processes “can’t be stopped.” This seems especially dubious given that McCarthy himself is such a disciplined practitioner of his craft.
McCarthy remains an intriguing figure, largely because few writers divide literary consensus quite so drastically. His stylistic mixture of biblical rhythm and colloquial grit and his welding of a classical sense of tragic inevitability to a hardscrabble American vernacular are capable of great power but can also seem ham-handed. There is plenty of useful conversation to be had about McCarthy and his fiction, but you won’t find much of it here.
Lindgren is a writer and musician who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.