Cormac McCarthy and “The Counselor”

In his great how-to book “On Writing,” Stephen King says this about Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”:

The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, a fine novel. I believe Blood Meridian is another, although there are great whacks of it that I don’t fully understand. What of that? I can’t decipher the words to many of the popular songs I love, either.

Perfect. “Blood Meridian” is full of sentences that are hard to understand. Every page has words like “topers” and “tainture” and “roehawks” and “godless charivari.” It is also one of the craziest, scariest books you’ll ever read. A total ride. The story mostly follows an unnamed teenager (the kid) who signs up with the Glanton Gang, who hunted and scalped Indians along the U.S./Mexican border. It’s filled with Gothic brutality and bad guys. Judge Holden, “the judge,” is the novel’s classic villain, a fat, bald albino who, toward the end of the book, hunts the kid on horseback with a naked, crazy-eyed idiot leading the way through the desert by leash.blood_meridian_cover_by_ectmonster-d6359iw

Once, around the time his book “No Country for Old Men” was released as a great Coen Brothers movie, I thought McCarthy was going to be at a fancy party I attended in Santa Fe. (He lives here.) I was so nervous. I wanted badly to talk to him about the “No Country” novel, which I love, but Cormac McCarthy kind of terrifies me. I read his books and think he must be one of the smartest, meanest men alive.

His stories express profound ideas that are also fairly basic. And depressing. Here’s the judge, sitting naked at a fire one night with the Glanton Gang:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always there. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. . . .

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be?

Remember Anton Chigurh in “No Country,” flipping his coin? Same idea. McCarthy is often thematically combining man’s awesome capacity for violence with the random nature of existence. As an old man tells the kid: “You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.”

A dancing bear gets shot at the end of “Blood Meridian.” This is not close to the first animal killed in the book. Animal abuse is as rampant as the scalpings. There is a scene in which the judge buys puppies from a boy so he can walk to a bridge and drop them in the river, where they are shot by another man before they can drown. I do not read Cormac McCarthy to the baby.

He’s written a new movie. “The Counselor” is directed by Lord Ridley Scott of Prometheus and stars Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, and Javier Bardem, who won an Oscar playing Chigurh in “No Country.”

How is “The Couselor”? Insane. Salon calls it “The worst movie every made.” It’s great when critics hate certain movies (like “Cloud Atlas”), because then those of us who actually understand what the filmmakers are doing can feel especially smart. Aaahhhhh.

McCarthy calls the counselor character in the film (unnamed, like the kid) “the classical figure in tragedy. He’s a decent guy who gets up one morning and decides to do something wrong, and that’s all it takes.”

It’s a basic idea. One bad decision leads a nice, successful man to spectacular ruin. The theme prevails. There are some absolutely crazy scenes in “The Counselor.” Cameron Diaz fucks a car. A motorcyclist going around 200 gets his head chopped off by a wire. Innocent nobodies wander into gunfights and get killed. I loved — LOVED — Brad Pitt’s final scene in this movie.

Pitt is perfect as Westray. He looks awesome. He is smart, scared, and prepared. The counselor is not prepared. He’s a sap. He underestimates how bad things can get, and this is the worst thing to be in a McCarthy story.

What did they do? They somehow enabled a drug shipment, but the details are past-black murky. Who’s the biker? Don’t know. What’s with the body in the barrel? Don’t know. It is — intentionally, I hope — impossible to understand the plot of “The Counselor.” For me, that’s totally OK. This is a Cormac McCarthy story. You just have to hear the theme that the universe is cruel, and enjoy the fallout.

I guess what I’m saying is, there are great whacks of “The Counselor” that I don’t fully understand. But what of that? “We announce at the darkness we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives,” the counselor is told. The darkness doesn’t care. That’s all.


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