Cormac McCarthy and the art of minimalist punctuation

Thursday, 11 October, 2012

Some writers make their money by inserting commas; others by leaving them out. Cormac McCarthy, who was 79 in July, is one of the latter. His prose is extraordinarily beautiful and all the more so because he is sparing with punctuation: “They’d had their hair cut with sheepshears by an esquilador at the ranch and the backs of their necks above their collars were white as scars and they wore their hats cocked forward on their heads and they looked from side to side as they jogged along as if to challenge the countryside or anything it might hold.” In McCarthy’s hands the word “and” takes on a whole new weight.

When 16-year-old Billy Parham has his first encounter with wolves in The Crossing, we experience the writer’s prose in all its stark beauty:

Cormac McCarthy “They were running on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in a silence such as if they seemed of another world entire. They moved down the valley and turned and moved far out on the plain until they were the smallest of figures in that dim whiteness and disappeared.”

Cormac McCarthy’s poetic writing rolls the reader across dusty ranges, down mountains and along dry riverbeds. His command of language allows his protagonists to meander from English into Spanish with the same nonchalance that they traverse the border between the USA and Mexico. For those giving out literary prizes today, the name of Cormac McCarthy needs to be given consideration.

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