the Road with Cormac McCarthy
first met Cormac McCarthy, in the middle of a replica Stonehenge,
built by a Sikh property tycoon - only in America of course.
We were there to celebrate the wedding of Dr Roger Payne, the brilliant
whale scientist who had, in the 1960’s, decoded how whales communicate
by singing across oceans. Roger and I had spent the last two years
filming a documentary of his life called “In the Company of
I had arrived late for the weekend celebration, in the last available
hire vehicle that Avis had at the airport; a Lincoln Town car. It
was the kind of lascivious five-meter-long, gas guzzling leviathan,
that drove Detroit to bankruptcy.
An unassuming man in his late fifties, Cormac was bemused by the fantasy
park surroundings our host had built. Despite a certain amount of
success in the States, he was a writer most of us had not heard of
at that time. He told me he preferred the company of scientists to
writers, that they were more rational, usually atheist and more connected
to the realities of America today.
On the Sunday night, with the skies darkening and and storm clouds
approaching, I offered him a lift back to Boston Airport – after
all I had the space.
We wound our way down towards Woodstock, the Lincoln lurching around
with the near 80-mile winds. Cormac described his life as a writer.
He told me that to date he had never sold more than 5000 copies in
hardback, that there were times when he could not afford the paper
for his old Olivetti typewriter. He survived on foundation money,
not critical acclaim or popular success.
Alcoholism, he thought was part and parcel of that existence –
most writers he said battled with it. One of his novels had been a
semi-autobiographical account of living on the margins in Tennessee,
drunk and in despair, embodying the dark underbelly of the American
We talked about the selfishness of American society and how it seemed
to create such unequal divides. He described “Blood Meridian”
(later to become one of my favorite books of all time), and how he
had tried to mirror the current American loss of community values
at the hands of self-interested individualism, with the conquering
of the great lands to the West. Had that brutal history of murdering
the Indians, fostered the selfish egotism, pervading contemporary
We drove in the dark, looking forward, our conversation intensified
by the lightning strikes and driving rain. Though his evocation was
sparse, it was deeply poetic. Lit by the warm glow from the dash,
and odd flares of sodium, his face was chiseled with deep sunk eyes.
We stopped at a gas station on the outskirts of Woodstock, its sign
ominously flapping back and forth in the wind, a Hopperesque moment
on our journey. The owner who was shutting up, warned us not to continue.
Had we not heard about it? Everyone knew. Hurricane Andrew –
the biggest storm to ever hit the East coast.
We decided to carry on anyway – wasn’t going back as hard
as moving forward? We wound our way uncertainly down deserted roads,
the odd ‘crazy’, (like us), still out and about. Cormac
was fascinated by the difficulty of filming whales – how the
hell did you repeatedly get in the water with ‘Moby Dick’,
larger than an ‘18-wheeler’ truck? Did you suspend your
normal perspective (and sense of preservation) in the service of an
almost obsessive quest? Whatever the answer, Ahab’s mad pursuit
of the white whale seemed a suitable metaphor for our current journey.
He talked about his love of the natural world and how it could so
easily be permanently desecrated. Climate Change was surely a reality,
especially on a night like this? There was a brutality to the human
existence he thought.
Just before dawn, blocked by a tree in front of us and a land slide
behind, we gave up. There seemed little point trying to carry on and
so we tried our best to sleep in the big car.
In the morning, the storm was passing. We walked across some fields,
a mile or so, to a small diner and shared a survivor’s breakfast
of coffee, bacon, eggs and grits.
Maneuvering around the wreckage of the hurricane, we finally made
it to Logan airport. Cormac headed to Texas and I to London.
So long, hurricane friend” - he gave me his number and address
(somewhere in El Paso) and said I should look him up, if I ever came
down that way.
The next few months, I worked my way through his books and watched
as “All the Pretty Horses” become a sensation. And later,
I watched as these poetic books became translated into epic cinematic
by Tony Miller