(Note: This piece contains “adult” language. If you’re squeamish about vulgarity, better skip this one.)
Before Cormac McCarthy won a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize, before No Country for Old Men won an Oscar, and before The Counselor was panned as the worst movie of the year with the worst scene of the year—back when most of McCarthy’s novels were out of print and he was known as a writer’s writer (i.e. he hadn’t sold many books)—I chose him as the subject of my dissertation.
At this point I’d like to tell you that the reason I was drawn to McCarthy is that his novels foreground a Morpheus-ological Trinity, a Neo-Matrix in a Deconstructionist critical approach. I’d like to tell you that, but it’s just not true. The truth is that I thought McCarthy’s novel Suttree was one of the funniest books I’d ever read. And one of the best. That novel—about a lapsed Catholic on a spiritual quest—grabs me and speaks to me like no other.
I now realize that choosing a dissertation topic is like choosing a friend, someone you’re going to spend a lot of good and bad times with and who’s going to help you learn about yourself. My “friendship” with McCarthy has been a hoot, and one thing I’ve learned is that our shared Catholic upbringings led to a need to overcome a lot of repression.
By the time I’d read McCarthy’s first five novels, I knew how he’d earned the label “Southern Grotesque.” There’s a scene in Suttree when the title character engages with his prostitute companion in a game of “vying to elaborate the most outrageous perversions.” And McCarthy himself seems to have played that game as part of his writing process. His novels include voyeurs, pedophiles, brother-sister incest, father-daughter incest, “silkbedizen pizzlelickers,” and a character we might call a “fruitophile” or accuse of “fruitiality,” sometimes referred to as the “moonlight melonmounter.”
In Child of God, McCarthy’s protagonist, Lester Ballard, is a cross-dressing necrophile. A whole novel about a necrophile. I was once invited to guest lecture on Lester Ballard for a Southern Studies class at Ole Miss and was told parking legally on campus would be challenging, but my host (Tom Rankin) said if I got a ticket, he’d fix it. When I did indeed receive a citation and notified Tom, he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. I’ll just tell the police that you were on campus to talk about a guy who has sex with dead people.”
By the time I began writing my dissertation, I was ready to follow McCarthy’s own lead in the sense-of-humor department and see how many bawdy puns I could get away with. And I did sneak some in, including my tome’s title “The Extremities of Cormac McCarthy.” I was feeling less repressed already.
After I finished a draft, I remember that a big moment for me was Spell Checking the document. This was before AutoCorrect. My computer was a primitive IBM that needed five 5¼” floppy disks to boot it up. There was no mouse, only F keys, and back in those days Spell Check programs had glossaries that were incomplete and, as it turns out, prudish. With my wife, who had word-processed the entire document, present and her computer-expert nephew at the keyboard, we began the orthographical search of my two-year-long doctoral study with an air of formal ceremony. We watched intently as the search stopped on the following words, each highlighted in yellow: “Shit,” “goddamned,” “shit,” “goddamned,” “shit,” “shat,” “shit,” “shit,” “shit,” “drunkern shit,” “goddamned,” “goddamn broncpeeler,” “Fuck,” “shit-for-brains,” “chickenshit,” “goddamn,” “cacodemons,” “othersuttree,” “cunt,” “cunt,” and “donkeyengine.” It was a veritable parade of profanity taken from quotations of the novels. The third time “shit” was highlighted, my wife’s nephew looked up. At the seventh occurrence, he asked incredulously, “This is your dissertation?” McCarthy was a friend, all right—like those friends from childhood that your parents regarded as too-knowing bad influences.
By this point, McCarthy had helped me make real progress in wriggling out of my Catholicism straitjacket, but there was a final maneuver to master—reading my scholarship in public. I should tell you that during all of my scholastic career I was regarded by teachers as a well-behaved model student, mocked by peers in the eighth grade as “Holy Bill.” Similarly, as an English professor I was respected as serious and even-keeled. So colleagues were surprised when at a conference at my own university, I read an essay entitled “The Excremental Vision of Cormac McCarthy.” I hope you can imagine the guilty fun I had searching out every one of the many scatological references in McCarthy’s body of work. And the delight I took in sharing my findings with a packed audience expecting the usual scholarly presentation. I argued that McCarthy attacked human pretensions and pride in the satirical tradition of Swift and Rabelais and offered evidence that included the following:
In addition to the scores of times the word “Shit” is used as an expletive in Suttree, there are also many references to animal turds and two humbling references to found “human stool.” Suttree remembers the story about how his Uncle Milo drowned when he went down with a “bargeload of birdshit.” The ghetto-like area of Knoxville where Suttree lives is known as McAnally Flats, a name that has the word “anal” embedded in it. The ragman refers to all of life as “that crapgame.” His reference implies an existential emphasis on chance but also further suggests that “crap” is somehow the essence of life. Finally, in Suttree even the sun is considered as perhaps just “a bunghole to a greater hell beyond.”
I met McCarthy once. I expected him to be taller. But his deep voice did not disappoint. A voice for speaking forbidden words. A voice for violating taboos.
After I presented my papers in public, my exorcism was complete. I was a free man. And I owe it all to you, Cormac. Thank you. You’ve been one hell of a good friend.