Camping with Cormac McCarthy

Opinion September 1, 2011 2 Comments

Weathering storms and earthquakes last week

“This is like the most boring hurricane ever.” – overheard in the Chestnut Hill Starbucks on Sunday morning.

I’ve started two vacation traditions in the last two years: tent camping and reading Cormac McCarthy.

If you’re familiar with McCarthy, you’ll probably know why he’s an interesting read for someone braving the elements in a tent. To those for whom McCarthy is not familiar, he’s a man known for writing about other men (mostly) faced with staying alive in difficult circumstances. For these men, a tent would be a luxury, never mind a camp stove and a working toilet.

Last summer, I read McCarthy’s “The Road,” a tale of an unnamed man who fights to keep his young son alive in a world destroyed by a man-made apocalypse, all the while struggling to find a reason to survive in a world with no apparent future.

This summer I read most of (but have not yet finished) “Blood Meridian,” the story of The Kid, a young man who runs away from his Tennessee home to Texas. He eventually, through a series of  accidents, finds himself in the company of a bloodthirsty and lawless band of American marauders – based on the historic Glanton Gang – who are paid by the scalp to kill American Indians for money in Mexico in 1849.

It’s a novel the literary critic Harold Bloom counted as one of the finest written in the 20th Century.

(A note of caution: “Blood Meridian” is not for the easily offended or disturbed. Even Bloom said in an interview that he found the violence of the book overwhelming the first time he tried to read it.)

McCarthy’s words are interesting to contemplate when you’re sitting in the quiet of a campfire under an open night sky. And I found the lessons of McCarthy even more compelling during the events of last weekend’s hurricane.

First, every time I take a break from McCarthy, I’m immediately struck by a gratitude for the creature comforts I have. When I’m camping, I’m glad for a tent and a sleeping bag. I’m always glad to live in a time and place far more civilized than those in McCarthy’s novels.

Even more than that though, it is something to sit with one of the most basic themes that runs through McCarthy’s novels – that nature and life is not only tough, but it is random.

The men who populate McCarthy’s novels never survive or die because of any inherent skill or lack thereof. To McCarthy, life and death is random, a flip of the coin to Anton Chigurh, the ruthless, robotic killer of McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” (Javier Bardem’s character to those of you who saw the movie).

No matter what we think we are capable of, or how we envision our future, events will unfold that are beyond our control. Those events can and will shape our lives.

As I sit and finish typing this column, I’m lucky that Hurricane Irene did not do more to shape my life. I escaped with nothing more than a puddle in my basement and a 24-hour power outage that didn’t even prevent me from being able to take a hot shower.

The same cannot be said for those who suffered far worse – from property lost to lives taken, all in an instant that came unexpected and unimaginable moments before.

Perhaps its too facile to recognize what you have and be grateful, realizing that in many ways it could be much, much worse. But when we can go about our business and brush off the dust of a destructive storm moments after it passes overhead, I think a little appreciation is not at all out of line – it’s just common sense.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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  • Grkeller

    Hi, really liked this post. I have a similar tradition, over the last 10 years or so I’ve reread McCarthy’s Suttree about 5 times, all while tent camping. Just reread it again down on a beach in Basque country. Amazing book!

    • http://profiles.google.com/pmazz04 Pete Mazzaccaro

      Thanks. Next two books on my list, if I get to them, are Child of God and Suttree. I’ll probably read e versions on a Nexus 7, though.