Traces of Cormac McCarthy’s Knoxville
It was going on nine years ago that Dr. Wesley Morgan Jr. got the call that the author Cormac McCarthy’s house was burning. It came on a Tuesday evening in January 2009. From his office on the west side of Knoxville, Morgan rushed southward out of the city, across the Tennessee River and up into the first foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, where the road narrowed back through a hollow, reaching deep into the Appalachia thicket. Ahead there came a bright amber glow over the tree line, thick fingers of black smoke worrying the sky. The image looked to Morgan like something out of McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road, and he felt awful. For years he’d been lobbying the city government to protect the writer’s childhood home, a large white gable, but despite the support of preservation organization Knox Heritage, which labeled the house among its “Fragile Fifteen,” nothing ever came of it. The house changed hands several times, fell into ruin, and became a hangout for vagrants. Now all Morgan could do was sit back from the fire trucks and document the tragedy with his cell phone camera.
Morgan is someone who follows his passions and the motives behind them with equal fervor, like a good student of Jung. After earning degrees in physics and psychology at Georgia Tech, he went north to Knoxville to further his studies at the University of Tennessee, where he designed experiments on the ways one’s interpretations of narratives mirror back snapshots of the psyche, research that equipped him to understand how his favorite novels captured his mind. One night in the early sixties, his roommate, an ex-military corpsman and blood technician at the local hospital, asked for a ride out to a party in the mountains. “I’ve got this friend up there living in a cabin,” the guy told him. “He’s a writer—he’s awfully good.” Morgan begged off, but a year later came across a review in the Knoxville News Sentinel and felt a twinge of recognition at the name “Cormac McCarthy.” He bought the novel as a present for his mother but read it straight through before wrapping it. He recognized the book like a photograph. It felt as though he and McCarthy had seen the same landscapes, the same people. “It struck me that nothing was known about him,” Morgan said. “I thought, Why don’t I select a novel of McCarthy’s and see what I can learn about him?”
Morgan is now a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Tennessee, where he specializes in fetishes (or what he calls, “special things”), an expertise he performs at the clinical level as well as immersively as one of the foremost collectors of McCarthy ephemera. Fifteen years ago, he started a website called “Searching for Suttree,” so named for McCarthy’s 1979 comic masterpiece Suttree, a 471-page prose poem about its namesake’s life in the shantytown collectives of fifties Knoxville. The site began as a sort of literary survey, collecting maps, interviews, and etymology through which McCarthy’s Knoxville might be transmogrified into a walkable destination, like Joyce’s Dublin. But Morgan’s work turned up other discoveries, too, ones that made Suttree read with an almost autobiographical translucence, a glimpse into McCarthy’s reclusive life. Morgan scoured cemeteries in Knoxville and found headstones matching details of deceased characters; other characters’ addresses came up matching those in the phonebook; set pieces appeared lifted wholesale from newspaper clippings. Soon Morgan was taking road trips through the countryside, doing a kind of literary fieldwork, searching out people and artifacts of McCarthy’s life in Appalachia.
I’d been interested in speaking with Morgan ever since I first stumbled onto his website, like a lot of other Cormac McCarthy fans, after I read Blood Meridian, the author’s 1985 historical epic about a gang of scalp hunters marauding the nineteenth-century borderlands. Drawn to understand what sort of a person could create such a work, I was horrified and delighted to learn that, despite fifty years of researchers’ efforts, only the sketchiest biography of the author existed. With so many of the typical routes toward biography blocked, I figured Morgan might have some insights, ideas of how to reconcile the hugeness of McCarthy’s legacy with the mystery of his absence. Full as his books are of death cults and gothic flora and wheezed backcountry wisdom, it was easy to imagine McCarthy as a character of his own invention—stoic, intense, dedicated to handcraftsmanship. But what turned out to be harder, as Morgan’s work proved, was picturing him with any definition. So when I arrived in Knoxville in May, interested in seeing some of the landscapes and events portrayed in McCarthy’s fiction, as well as the places and things he’d touched while working on them, I asked Morgan if he’d take me to the site of the fire, and he agreed.
It had been many years since he had been out there, Morgan said, but he navigated us through the twisting roads by memory, country music coming over the radio at a burble. It was a cool spring day in the Smokies, the clouds low and swift and threatening, and we parked on the shoulder in front of the property, craning our necks out the window. A thin sliver of a brick structure was visible through a thicket of bamboo. “That may be one of the original chimneys left over from the house,” Morgan told me. He pointed out a small pond and some mossed-over stonework, which he said McCarthy had put in himself during high school. A chained gate blocked our getting a closer look, so we sat in the car and talked.
The day after the fire, Morgan had ducked the police line and walked through the rubble, kicking over warped appliances and shoveling up ash. A radiator stood suspended on the second-floor frame, like an enormous tightrope walker. When he returned to the site the next day, he called his friend and fellow McCarthy scholar Peter Josyph, and together they mourned. “Even though I’ve never lived here,” he told Josyph, “I feel it’s a significant loss in some strange way.” Morgan took a yellow firebrick home with him that day. Thinking back on it, he said, “It was the first cremation I have attended.”
Not a little deflated by the scene, I was half-meaning to ask what else there was to see when Morgan put the car in gear and began steering us into the interior of the mountains.
Cormac McCarthy occupies a somewhat stupefying place in the culture. From a certain angle he can look like one of the most distinctive prose stylists of the twentieth century—winner of nearly every award that benchmarks a major literary career (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, MacArthur “Genius Grant”), admired by readers as diverse in time and taste as Ralph Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, and Oprah’s Book Club, and endowed, as scholar Vereen Bell put it, with “the rare gift of a style that is photorealistic in its precision and yet . . . brings the real world back to us replenished.” But from another he can look like a parody of that distinction—“one of the great hams of American prose,” James Wood called him in the New Yorker, possessor of a style self-consciously demanding and often violently grim (inscrutable and gross, many readers have maintained) and instantly recognizable in spoof accounts like “Yelping with Cormac”: “See that false burrito. See it swaddled in tinfoil on the desk.”
Then, few great writers escape the mockery of what made them. Over his ten novels, McCarthy has studiously avoided the explanatory power of character psychology now so ubiquitous in realist novels, pressuring his readers instead to decipher meaning from observations of the natural world, often couched in metaphorical descriptions that stretch figurative sense into existential taffy. Page to any passage at random, as I have here with Suttree, and you’ll find some element of this poetics:
These simmering sinners with their cloaks smoking carry the Logos itself from the tabernacle and bear it through the streets while the absolute prebarbaric mathematick of the western world howls them down and shrouds their ragged biblical forms in oblivion.
He’s describing, from what I can tell, a group of drunks. But “prebarbaric mathematick”? It’s for this sort of juxtaposition—the smallness of the drinkers against the grandness of the syntax—that McCarthy is so often called bombastic, biblical, mythic.
But there’s a second layer of distortion with McCarthy. Since publishing his first novel in 1965, he’s given only a few interviews, none personal. “[He has] practiced the Joycean virtues of silence, exile and cunning more faithfully than any other contemporary author,” Madison Smartt Bell observed in 1992. The side effect of that silence has been a style of cold-reading we’re not well attuned to anymore, making it all too easy, given the solemn associations of famous people living quietly, to ridicule writing like the passage above as the ravings of a hermit, when maybe he’s just being funny. When the Paris Review ran a parody McCarthy installment of its renowned “Art of Fiction” interview, editor Lorin Stein later made sure to mention how they’d love to have McCarthy in for the real thing, if only he’d answer their yearly letter to do so. (McCarthy couldn’t be reached for an interview for this article.)
Born in Rhode Island in 1933, McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, where, as the legend goes, he lived in self-imposed poverty throughout the sixties and seventies while writing four strange, poor-selling novels about Appalachia: The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, and Suttree. Then, sometime between 1974 and 1977—it’s unclear when—he disappeared from East Tennessee, reemerging in the early eighties in El Paso, then Santa Fe, where he went on to publish five of the greatest and most popular Westerns of all time, beginning with Blood Meridian in 1985. Thus, McCarthy’s career is typically weighed in two parts: the early Appalachian books and the later Westerns. (His latest novel, 2006’s The Road, which takes place in the nowhere-everywhere of the apocalypse, can be mapped onto either.) The writing you find in the early books tends to be looser, funnier, wearing the idiomatic influence of Faulkner without embarrassment. In the Westerns, these polysyllabic bursts are replaced by a more ordered starkness, the ands rolling by with the ceaseless scenery: “They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it.”
Perhaps the most peculiar difference between the two periods is also the most obvious: the setting. If it’s not so uncommon for a writer to traverse literary landscapes, McCarthy does seem unique in being claimed by the native intelligentsia of two separate regions. In the late sixties, Guy Davenport wrote that in McCarthy, Appalachia “has found a new storyteller to depict the darkness of its heart and its futile defiance of its luck.” So too in the West, where he is considered the reviver of an aesthetic long cheapened. A poll taken a few years back by High Country News named the Border Trilogy, which comprises All the Pretty Horses and its sequels, as among readers’ favorite books about their home, alongside canonical texts by Lewis and Clark and Wallace Stegner.
All this critical sorting and swerving tells us a few things about McCarthy: that no one quite fathoms him enough to name his place in the culture; and that his absence has shifted the responsibility of this naming over to his obsessives, many of whom have become fixated on figuring out the best method to secure his legacy, a task which, the closer you get to it, feels less and less like scholarship and more like a Rorschach test. To many, he has become a ghost, a figment of study—which is strange since, of course, he’s alive, and writing. His existence today, at eighty-four years old, feels already posthumous.
“As you know, McCarthy seems to be a man who greatly values his privacy,” Morgan wrote when I first corresponded with him last spring. “On the other hand,” he continued, “I might have some things of interest to say about people, places and events that made their way into his novels.”
This seemed to be the policy that guided Morgan’s work (get closer to the words, not the author), one that is shared among the innermost members of the Cormac McCarthy Society, a mix of professors, bloggers, and guerrilla scholars who publish a journal, put on an international conference series, and act as a synapse for all diffuse McCarthy gossip. Of the many hundreds of articles published every year on McCarthy, many more speculative and sensitive items circulate privately here among members. (By the time McCarthy’s cartel thriller The Counselor hit theaters in 2013, a leaked first draft of the script had already become the subject of several threads.) Like Morgan, who acts as the de facto local correspondent for the society, most of the members are white men past middle age, who for one reason or another have tasked themselves with both preserving McCarthy’s legacy and respecting his indifference to it—a noble policy I suspect causes deep mental antagonism.
When Wesley Morgan goes out in search of McCarthy, he does so with the benefit of familiarity. He is a tall, lean guy in his late seventies, with thinning white hair and a soft Georgia accent. He wears frameless lenses and a thumper of a class ring. Most of the biographical details he’s uncovered over the years have come from court documents and archives. But many more have emerged after friendly run-ins with mutual friends and family members of McCarthy’s. After the fire, Morgan visited Knoxville Catholic High School, which McCarthy attended, curious to know if the old yearbooks contained photographs. No such luck. But in chatting with the school librarians, who’d also known Morgan’s children, he did turn up another preservationist find: several vintage copies of the high school newspaper, the Gold and Blue, which featured cartoons as well as a poem, “Autumn’s Magic,” by a Charley McCarthy.
Morgan told me about what he called, accurately if not a little coyly, “McCarthy’s first published work,” while we were driving south on the Gay Street Bridge, across the muddy expanse of the Tennessee River. Earlier that day, we’d met in a Panera Bread parking lot and Morgan had taken me on a driving tour of the three homes the McCarthy family had lived in when they first moved to Knoxville from Providence, Rhode Island, in the late thirties. McCarthy’s father, a descendant of Irish immigrants and former editor of the Yale Law Journal, had taken a position as counsel for the nascent Tennessee Valley Authority. The family was prominent in the community, Morgan said, and prominently Catholic in the Baptist stronghold. When FDR visited Knoxville later that year to dedicate the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, his caravan passed through the humble mining town dotted with churches and tippling houses that writer John Gunther would call “the ugliest city I ever saw in America.” Divided by the area’s cove-and-hollow geography, Knoxville was segregated into wards, united only tenuously by ideals of local control, which one politician described as “the top-of-the-voice screamology of East Tennessee.” Plantation slavery never took root in Knoxville, leaving the city spiritually dysphoric from even its neighbors in Nashville. Over the previous century, dwindling industry had plunged East Tennessee into a long depression that had the paradoxical effect of softening the ground for the TVA and Oak Ridge Laboratory to import thousands of workers. Morgan impressed this narrative on me as a way of characterizing McCarthy’s family as outsiders among a wave of outsiders, thrust suddenly into a rural place not used to them.
The six McCarthy kids all went to elite parochial schools, Morgan explained, an early point of rebellion for the eldest son, who went by Charley and Chaz, later C.J. and Cormac, name changes that have been variously interpreted as either a rejection of his father or an homage to the family’s Irish lineage. In the most substantive interview McCarthy has so far allowed, Richard B. Woodward’s 1992 profile in the New York Times Magazine, McCarthy described himself as the consummate loner in a high-achieving family, “not what [his parents] had in mind.” In an author profile in the Gold and Blue, the editor (his older sister Barbara) presented him as an aloof romantic with an inventory of hobbies: hillbilly songs, painting, stamp collecting, taxidermy, working on vintage guns. “I felt early on I wasn’t going to be a respectable citizen,” McCarthy told Woodward. And stories about him have invariably drawn on this dislocation—he was doted on by black maids, while “the people around us were living in one- or two-room shacks”—as the seeds of his fiction. Beyond his childhood window, during the war boom, shotgun houses “sprang up like mushrooms in the fields still growing corn stalks,” as one citizen wrote, only to decay a few years later when government work dried up. Knoxville absorbed, as historian William Bruce Wheeler writes, “the Appalachian South’s view of the past as the story of immutable, powerful historical forces against which human will and effort are impotent.”
In keeping with the spirit of his society research, Morgan preferred not to speculate on McCarthy’s origin story, resisting the temptation to read McCarthy’s work like a psychological map. Still, it’s long been a point of aggrieved insistence among McCarthy fans that he is closer to a realist than the focus on his so-called mythmaking would have it. Over the course of our drive, Morgan pointed out numerous “sites” from McCarthy’s books—the boat landing where Suttree lived, the now-abandoned Lakeshore Mental Health Institute where The Orchard Keeper’s Arthur Ownby was committed, the cave systems in which killer Lester Ballard interred his corpses in Child of God—locations Morgan had meticulously surveyed against McCarthy’s descriptions. At one point Morgan guided us up a twisted mountain road, until we reached a notch in the hills he called Brown Mountain Gap, the eraser smudge of the Smokies stretching out over the plunging view. “At the bottom of this hill is a creek that the locals call Red Branch,” Morgan said. “Which is in The Orchard Keeper.” All around us, the landscape was lifted from the page:
East of Knoxville Tennessee the mountains start, small ridges and spines of the folded Appalachians that contort the outgoing roads to their liking. The first of these is Red Mountain; from the crest on a clear day you can see the cool blue line of the watershed like a distant promise.
Red Mountain was, according to Morgan, Brown Mountain; our view that “cool blue line.” From where we stood, we were only a mile or so from McCarthy’s childhood home. As Morgan understood it, to read such descriptions was to inhabit something of McCarthy’s childhood, the coves in which he may have played, as he writes in The Orchard Keeper, “in the relative cool of the timber stands . . . littered with old mossbacked logs, peopled with toadstools strange and solemn among the ferns and creepers and leaning to show their delicate livercolored gills . . . ”
Being definitive about what McCarthy had seen helped Morgan get closer to watching the world out of McCarthy’s eyes. Curious as it might be, it was an effort of scholarship aimed at furnishing an otherwise opaque literature with the familiarity of nonfiction—and perhaps thereby lending insight into its practitioner. Provoked in part by criticism calling McCarthy’s West “unrecognizable,” Roger D. Hodge, the former editor of this magazine, undertook a similar kind of work in his 2006 Harper’s essay “Blood and Time,” tracing the events of No Country for Old Men back to his own family’s ranch on the Texas-Mexico border: “McCarthy several times refers to Harkle’s cattle guard . . . and as far as I remembered the only cattle guard along the highway anywhere near Lozier was ours.” Hodge doesn’t linger on novelty; he probes further, unearthing a pictographic history of violence stretching back more than four thousand years, one that bears an ancestral likeness to McCarthy’s own monuments of blood in the West. “McCarthy takes the long view,” Hodge writes, re-clarifying the author’s project, “and any reading of his work that fails to understand that, any reading that suggests that this most disciplined and rigorous novelist had any object in mind other than making a novel that will outlast our cities of the plains, has failed to reckon with his art.”
Small fact-finding missions like this have taken on their own kind of credibility in McCarthyland, even or especially when they turn up precious little about McCarthy himself. The essays, instead, use him as a borehole into some hard-to-pinpoint psychic ache, such as one’s relationship to the landscape of their youth. It is exactly McCarthy’s unknowability, in other words, that renders him a perfect essay subject; he’s a floating signifier. Vereen Bell, whose 1988 book The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy established McCarthy scholarship, feels that this invisibility is among McCarthy’s greatest feats, not of persona but of literature. “Despite the biographers and all the biographical intention they’ve given to his work, you can’t find Faulkner in his novels,” Bell told me, comparing the two writers. “He’s just not there.” Bell doesn’t understand this new breed of scholarship; all the efforts at finding McCarthy strike him as a bit deranged. Yet at the same time, as Bell and I spoke deeper into the novels, the subject of his own father, who was killed in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II, kept finding him. Being roughly the same age as the author, Bell wondered how McCarthy had been affected by the war, which had imprinted upon their generation, as he put it, “the presence of the significance of things.”
I spent much of my time in Knoxville hearing people’s thoughts on McCarthy, nearly all of them whorling around some personal preoccupation: their childhood, the Appalachian landscape, but especially the city of Knoxville, where McCarthy has become something of a patron saint. It’s a bewildering crossroads place, Knoxville: “a city of the southern mountains,” Wheeler writes, a place shaped by its hinterlands and one where the “transition to the modern age frequently has been painful . . . something terrible, frightening, and unwelcome.” In Suttree, it’s captured this way:
Suttree with his parcel of fish going past the rows of derelict trucks piled with produce and flowers, an atmosphere rank with country commerce, a reek of farmgoods in the air tending off into the light surmise of putrefaction and decay. Pariahs adorned the walk and blind singers and organists and psalmists with mouth harps wandered up and down. Past hardware stores and meatmarkets and little tobacco shops. A strong smell of feed in the hot noon like working mash. Mute and roosting pedlars watching from the wagonbeds and flower ladies in their bonnets like cowled gnomes . . .
That passage—all of Suttree, really—gives off faint and faintly mocking echoes of James Agee’s A Death in the Family, which was published around the time McCarthy is picturing here. Agee isn’t often mentioned among McCarthy’s influences, but walking in Market Square, where quotes from both writers have been etched into the marble walkway, it becomes obvious: McCarthy was a young writer in Agee’s city.
For many years, Knoxvillians regarded Agee’s as the book of their city, but lately a sort of cottage industry of Suttree fandom has emerged, the rough-hewn set pieces of McCarthy maybe more befitting the attitudes of the struggling postindustrial city. Writer and historian Jack Neely, for instance, hosts the Suttree Stagger, a perilous-sounding eight-hour bar crawl through the character’s favorite dives. Elsewhere downtown, Morgan pointed out a statue of a half-submerged oarsman locals took to be Suttree, itself just down the street from Union Ave Books, which has celebrated McCarthy’s July 20 birthday with readings and slices of watermelon, a tribute to a scene of awkward rural copulation. On the shoreline where Suttree anchored his houseboat, the city had recently cleared a few acres of brown fields for “Suttree Landing Park,” a strip of mowed sod and jungle gyms. When Morgan and I drove by, it lay empty, red cones marking off sections still unfinished.
As I took stock of these tributes and monuments, I was struck mainly by their newness, a nod to McCarthy’s late fame, I thought, but also maybe a channeling of that gritty period of Suttree’s city’s life now cemented over. As Morgan showed me, much of what’s described in the book is now gone: Most childhood friends I tried to find of McCarthy’s were dead; the McAnally Flats area, the “dim shires” where much of Suttree takes place, was bulldozed to make way for a freeway before the 1982 World’s Fair.
The day wore on toward evening, and Morgan and I settled into a rhythm, trading factoids and passages back and forth. Then, at some point, Morgan’s daughter called him over the Bluetooth in the car. She’d brought the grandkids over for a visit, she said, and wondered where he was.
“Oh, I’m out doing McCarthy stuff,” he said. He didn’t know when he’d be done. Avoiding eye contact with Morgan in the mirrors, I took the pause that followed as my cue, and we parted for the day.
Downtown, I walked along the Gay Street thoroughfare, just around the corner from Market Square, and wandered into Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern and Harrogate’s Lounge, a pinball hall named for Suttree’s friend (and watermelon enthusiast) Gene Harrogate. Inside the companion bars, which are connected by a breezeway, there is a ramen counter, two Cruis’n USA consoles, and several chalkboards cramped with a selection of craft beers. If there was anything related to McCarthy inside of the bars, I didn’t see it as I sat down for a drink.
“Do a lot of locals know about Suttree?” I asked the bartender.
“Not really,” he replied. (McCarthy is unaffiliated with the bar, apparently; but when they opened, his childhood friend Jim “J-Bone” Long, whose real name, phone number, and address appear in Suttree, brought him a t-shirt.)
A man to my left, in work boots and a polo, sipping from a tray of beer samples, said, “Almost no one here knows about McCarthy. Maybe The Road. But not that he was from here.”
Fair enough. The idea that an obscure, difficult book might make for an enticing hook for a bar also struck me as odd, though. I noted this, and the men agreed silently, before the bartender realized I was asking about their business model.
“People from out of town don’t really know, either,” he said. “Occasionally there’s a guy like you.”
McCarthy’s books came to me as transformative things so often do: several-times borrowed. It was during my junior year of college, my first semester back home in Colorado after a failed track scholarship out of state. Up till then I’d read very little—I was concentrating on my running. But with that protective apparatus newly scrapped, I’d become freshly aware of a hulking nothingness where my intellectual interests should have been, and I set about catching up. It was a cool older classmate who eventually lent me Blood Meridian, which I read straight through overnight, a reading experience that inhabited me with such intensity, I can still recall the shafts of lamplight I kept glancing up at in disbelief.
Something in my brain snapped, the plainness of my childhood landscape popping out into terrible 3-D. I was a child of the West and fast becoming a student of the West, and McCarthy was the West, an heir to Owen Wister’s dime-store novels, an eyeful naturalist like Terry Tempest Williams and James Galvin, a revisionist historian in the mold of Patricia Nelson Limerick. I began to read deeper, back into McCarthy’s other books, but also wider, out into his allusions, compared-to authors. Every lead tantalized. The author of the cover blurb, Michael Herr—I read his book Dispatches. He described McCarthy’s writing as “regeneration through violence,” which I discovered was a much-written-about concept, theorizing the ways the West redeemed its vicious expansion through narratives of struggle. And it was so that McCarthy became the center-pivot around which my mental irrigation spun.
After reading Blood Meridian, I turned in a thesis bloated with Western history, took a week off from school to trek locations from the book, and received a grant to do archival research on McCarthy at Texas State University’s Southwestern Writers Collection, which had recently acquired his drafts and letters for $2 million. It felt as though I’d stumbled into a race to understand McCarthy, and having long organized my life around sports, in which doggedness and film-study are coached into you as the sole means to success, I’d always taken mimicry of my heroes to an unhealthy level. It was all I could do not to buy a pair of cowboy boots. (I eventually did.)
But over the years I grew fatigued with the legend. I caught slight flaws in McCarthy’s West; I found myself reading him less; I evolved in my ideals of masculinity just enough to forgive my own deficits of handcraftsmanship, stoicism. But mostly, I started to find the work of writing solitary enough without having to retreat to the mountains, a place where, I discovered after two failed moves, I didn’t want to live.
In my research trips to McCarthy’s archive in Texas, as well as to his editor Albert Erskine’s papers in Virginia, I also began turning up scraps of evidence that, if they didn’t refute the legend, at least made the case that McCarthy wasn’t who we’d pegged him for. After The Orchard Keeper was plucked from the Random House slush pile in 1962 by a young editor named Lawrence Bensky, McCarthy responded to the editor’s eagerness to publish the unpublished author with a short, sullen note that ended: “I am not sure that revision on my part would achieve any greater degree of lucidity.” Shuttled over to Erskine, who knew the inside stitching of vexed artists, having worked on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, McCarthy’s editorial gainsaying only increased, becoming as frequent as change-of-address forms from Asheville, New Orleans, and Sevierville, Tennessee. This behavior wasn’t unpredictable from a young artist—McCarthy’s famous aversion to punctuation, I found, was a deeply held belief before he was ever published—but read from this perspective, it cast the stories his ex-wife had told of their poverty in a less romantic light. He’d given more interviews than was previously known, too, including a killed Esquire profile in 1982, and he cared at least enough about publicity to at one point write Erskine about the possibility of handselling books out of his own truck; he’d called around to the local bookshops and found them out of stock.
Before my trip to Tennessee, a mentor had given me Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, a book about the various biographers who’d made failed attempts to write about the life of Sylvia Plath, and I read it in Knoxville during the in-between moments. For a long time, Malcolm writes, “I thought that it was Sylvia Plath herself who was mischievously subverting the biographer’s project.” There were too many voices, worries over authority, authenticity. But eventually, Malcolm goes on, “the hushed cautiousness, the solemn weighing of ‘evidence’ . . . had given way to a high-spirited subjectivity.” During my trip, I’d assumed a similarly detached amusement toward Morgan and other society types, not because I found their fixation unseemly, but more because I found their efforts at critical distance a little dishonest, a judgement Malcolm was now helping me mirror back on myself. Because if I was honest, even after touring McCarthy’s Knoxville with Morgan, I still badly wanted to touch something of McCarthy’s—not a scene from his fiction, not his landscape, but something of his. This is perhaps where Morgan and I most diverged: I sought my corrective through the author’s image, not his writing. “The world likes to hold on to its fantasy, rumor, politics, and ghoulish gossip,” Malcolm writes, “not dispel them.”
The next morning, I drove out to the small town of Maryville, southwest of Knoxville—this time on my own. Before Morgan and I had parted, he’d given me two more leads to chase down. The first was a piece of public art McCarthy had made in the seventies, which seemed a relic of more certain provenance. The story was that in the summer of 2000, as Maryville began work on a construction project to widen West Broadway, the road crew met an obstacle: set into the front-walk of the shuttered Gift Garden & Café lay a ten-thousand-pound stone mosaic. A sister mosaic had earlier been demolished, but as the town prepared to raze the second, the artist, a local painter named Bill Kidwell, appeared on-site. Alongside Kidwell’s name etched in stone, he showed them, was his partner’s: MCCARTHY. For thirty years it had meant nothing, until Kidwell said his first name: Cormac.
As Kidwell explained it to the Daily Times, the local newspaper, the two friends had pieced together the mosaic over six hot weeks in the summer of 1971. They sourced the materials themselves, wading into the nearby Little River for colorful traprock and climbing Chilhowee Mountain for the best flat cuts of slate; the rarer stones came from Candoro Marble Works in Knoxville. But what Kidwell remembered most about that time was his friend’s sense of perspective: Near the end of its completion, one of the mosaics had been ruined by two elderly women, who helped each other over the worksite’s sawhorses, stepping through the wet mortar. Kidwell had tried to intervene, he recalled, but McCarthy held him back, laughing, just to savor the scene of it.
Maryville spent more than eight thousand dollars excavating and relocating the mosaic to the grounds of the Blount County Library, where I found it resting on a sloping corner of the lawn, back off the road, shaded by brush. No sign had been erected; the monument remained as anonymous as it had been for all those years in the sidewalk.
I bent down and looked closely at the mosaic, now badly chipped and bleached from exposure. It was impressive mainly for its size; it measured fifteen feet in diameter, for which the two men had been paid $7.25 a square foot. The design was circular, the inspiration Aztec—concentric rings of dark, rounded pebbles intercut with wending bands of more colorful, edged rock. Kidwell, who died in 2015, must have harbored ideas for how to commemorate such a thing, I thought, but asked by reporters he could only describe how he and his friend had passed their days of hot stoop labor. “We’d get our ear to the ground, really to the ground,” he said, “and we heard everything.”
As for the second lead Morgan gave me: In the years during the writing of Suttree, when McCarthy was in his late thirties and early forties, he lived somewhere outside Maryville on a ten-acre farm, which he’d bought in 1969, slowly converting the dairy barn into a house. A 1971 profile from the Daily Times confirmed the story: how he’d collected field stone for walls, retrofitted a stainless-steel washing tub for a sink, and hunted junkyards for stained glass. Morgan had driven by the house many times, he said, but never approached the current tenant for a tour. The address was somewhere along Light Pink Road, near a church; he gave it to me and wished me luck.
Leaving Maryville, I drove out there, becoming greatly lost in the mountains. It had started raining and my GPS was spotty so I pulled over to reconnoiter in the gravel lot of the Light Pink Baptist Church, somewhere outside Louisville. Over the week, Baptist church parking lots had become comfortable waystations, as the roads in this part of East Tennessee are difficult driving: crooked and narrow and shoulderless. Everywhere the raging greenness presses in on you, secreting from view the many homes otherwise promised by the forking driveways. If you accidently miss an address, you can’t simply turn around; you have to drive miles until you reach an intersection.
As I studied the road ahead, a strange thing happened: it began to slowly fill with foggy clouds, out of which appeared a large man and his dog.
“Who you hunting?” he asked, folding his arms over my open window.
I told him, and he smiled. “Never heard the name.”
I asked if he’d lived here long, thinking that a transient, quiet neighbor might have been easy to miss in this geography.
“I was born right there,” he said, pointing beyond the church. Then he paused, I think waiting for my follow-up, so I introduced myself, and we shook hands. He was Larry Breeden. I read him the address and he kindly told me how to reach it, just up around the next bend, which lay shrouded in a bank of clouds. I thanked him and, before taking my leave, complimented his dog, which caused him to reach down and pick it up, turning its head toward me to reveal across its face a long, poorly healed scar.
“Thisin here is Uno,” Breeden said. “He got but the one eye.”
I found my way without further incident, following Breeden’s directions, my mind sifting all the while through the density of our interaction, as if it were some allegorical tableau out of McCarthy (The old man took up his shotgun and peered out through the warped glass of his small window. And who is there?). Yet I was also wary of my own fetishizing of the Mountain South, a hazard I’d been conscious of but found hard to avoid.
At the house, I helloed from the road and a mastiff bounded out of the yard. Several cars lay scattered about the property, one of them a military jeep. It was a single-story place, low-slung and stone—no longer resembling much of its earlier incarnation as a barn—nestled back into a grove of cedar and walnut trees. A shirtless man in cargo shorts materialized from the open door, seeming to know what I was doing there as soon as I confirmed the address. His name was Jim Hust, he said, and he offered to give me a tour of what he called “ol’ Cormac’s place.”
Hust was a former football standout at Catholic High School, and now, at forty-three, worked in prosthetics, molding limbs for wounded veterans. He’d been renting the house for five years, aware from the get-go that it had been built by McCarthy. “I don’t have a TV,” he said, “so I read all the time. I reread most of the books when I moved in—but it’ll affect your psyche.”
What Hust said of the house, as he walked me through it, confirmed the stories: It had indeed once been a mere cinderblock barn. Over the years, McCarthy masoned a fireplace in every room (including the kitchen and bathroom) and rifled old roofing slate for flooring. He had oak boards rough-milled for siding and chunked the wall stone himself, learning plumbing, millwrighting, and electric as he went. At one point, he even drove into Knoxville to collect bricks from the childhood home of James Agee, then being demolished, and used them to build out a bathroom. He held big parties on the land, plying friends with beers for a few hours of mortaring, while he sang and played guitar into the night. At one of those parties was a guy named Steve Horton, a local musician who’d been invited out after meeting McCarthy in the Blount County Library, where McCarthy was researching fireplace stonemasonry. Horton owns the house now, having bought it after McCarthy left town, and he’s kept up expensive repairs on the place—replacing rotting beams, bracing a crumbling wall—feeling it a kind of homage to the writer. The hope is that one day a collector might pay to preserve it.
Hust took me into the living room, a cool shelter from the Tennessee heat. Before the fireplace was an enormous slab of oblong rock, weighing nearly a ton. We stood and admired it. The stone was magnificent, almost fearsome in its impressiveness, ponderous and gleaming and black, so big McCarthy had apparently transported it here using a septic-tank truck. When I met Horton the next day, excited to hear about its building, he told me that, as it turned out, the hearth had very nearly been the house’s undoing. Evidently in his attention to the design McCarthy had overlooked the nearness of the fireplace to the roof’s exposed wood beams, and sometime in the nineties they’d ignited, a fire sweeping through the upper reaches of the house. I wondered aloud how McCarthy could have neglected such a vital detail, and Horton laugh-coughed.
“He’s just a writer,” he said, “not a builder.”
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