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Books Column: Cormac McCarthy — a great writer’s benign haunting of a fabled American town


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

A few brushes with the ghost of Cormac McCarthy (while he was still alive), as told by Ben Williams

The first time I heard Cormac McCarthy’s name, I was sipping a fine Scotch in South Africa, ensconced in the flat of a friend whose trajectory as a writer would soon usher him skywards to a rather stratospheric pinnacle or two. 

My reading specialty was the type of fiction my friend wrote — African fiction, rather than the American brand — so when he asked me if I’d heard of McCarthy, I said no, I hadn’t.

My friend regarded me gravely from across the table. The blue dusk outside had intruded into his darkened library, which was stocked ceiling to floor with books. “You’re in for a treat,” he said in a low voice, like he was imparting a secret. 

I’ve never forgotten the gravity — almost reverence — of that moment.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, and entirely unbeknownst to me, the very man in question, Cormac McCarthy himself, was on a first-name basis with — wait for it — my mother. He would regularly offer her a gruff greeting on his way into the office he kept in a rarefied corner of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the town they both happened to call home (and which I now do, too).

Writer Cormac McCarthy attends the premiere of “The Road” at Clearview Chelsea Cinemas on November 16, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)

“Hello, Melissa,” he would say in passing, and according to her, Cormac (as she called him, and directly in his presence, no less) would sometimes converse amiably on any number of subjects — the weather, for example — but never, ever about his work.

There are literary giants; and then there is Cormac McCarthy, who haunted Santa Fe — and America — like a ghost long before he died this month, just up the road from where I type.

Having visited his and my mother’s fabled high-desert town regularly before moving here — a sleepy place with pandemonium in its dark corners, and full of flying things and crawling things, not all of them necessarily mortal — I eventually began to pick up on stories surrounding the writer, as he moved (mostly) anonymously through the streets.

For instance: he was given to hang out in bookshops, including a number I like to hang out in. There’s Collected Works, the main downtown shop for new titles; there’s Op. Cit., the main one for used titles; there’s Gunstock Hill Books, the main one for — well, an unbeatable name for a bookshop, for starters. (Though spare a thought for the erstwhile Rattlesnake Books of York Road, Muizenberg.) McCarthy drifted in and out of them, browsing, chewing the social cud, vanishing when you turned your back.

Of course, his own books were for sale within these haunts, but everyone behind the counter knew the unspoken rule: don’t ask Cormac to sign them. Among the McCarthy myths highly prevalent in this town is that there lies a cache somewhere of his first editions, all signed by him as his children’s main inheritance. Well — that and a juggernaut royalty operation that should keep them going for a while, too.

He apparently relented only a few times on his “no signing” rule — including later in life, with the advent of publisher tip-ins, which are signed cards inserted into already-printed copies, but give a book an aura that, if theoretically elevated, still feels a bit cheap. Best to avoid these manufactured rarities, which are little more than marketing material. On the other hand, reader, if it should be your fate to unearth a signed copy of his first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), prepare for the world to beat a path to your door.

I never thought to seek McCarthy out, as I’d heard some people occasionally would, inevitably to their disappointment. An air of casual grace applied to encounters with him: if he bumped into you in a mutually-shared or neutral space, he would humour your nearness. But if you pursued him, his shunning of you would be the equivalent of a curse.

In the end, then, our paths did not cross, despite my familial connection. Instead, I enjoyed a few brushes with his benign ghost while he was still alive, via the chatter of flushed booksellers and, of course, through my mother’s stories of quotidian rendezvous. The air of this town seems thinner, now he’s gone, as though folks are having to conserve their talk. Santa Fe — much older than the country itself — is left diminished by old man McCarthy’s passing.

The author kept a little fire burning here, however small, however hidden. The fire danced, our own will-o-the-wisp, for the longest time, and then suddenly it was out. Only rumours and words remain.DM

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.


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  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Lovely posting about a great writer – never knew he lived in Sante Fe – a place I’ve always wanted to and am now determined to visit!

  • Patrick O'Shea says:

    Thank you for opening this door for me Mr. Williams, I shall enjoy exploring Mr. McCarthy’s writings. He sounds like a great character complete with Irish idiosyncrasies. You picked a great place to settle in, say hi to the Inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail for me.

  • Beverley Roos-Muller says:

    So near to the great Cormac, and so far…how tantalising! Each year I longed for the Nobel Literature prize to be awarded to him, and now that he’s gone, he will never be a very worthy laureate. His last book, Stella Maris, slim and tragic and exquisite, rests next to my beside pile along with a volume of Yeats – middle of the night reading when all is quiet and dim and thoughtful. Thank you for this tribute.

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