The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 99, July 1995 - April, 1996 Page: 591

Book Reviews

Readers who enjoy history, folklore, and popular culture will hope that Harrigan
soon gives us another collection of his observations.
Sacred Violence: A Reader's Companion to Cormac McCarthy. Edited by Wade Hall
and Rick Wallach. (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1995. Pp. xxii+200. Con-
tributors, preface, editor's note. ISBN o-87404-233-x. $20.00, paper.)
Cormac McCarthy was born in New England and grew up in Knoxville, Ten-
nessee. When he moved to El Paso in the mid-197os, he had already published
three novels, received a MacArthur "genius grant," and attracted a loyal-some
might say cult-following. It was not until 1992, however, and the publication of
All the Pretty Horses, the first volume of The Border Trilogy, that he achieved popu-
lar success.
Sacred Violence collects eighteen papers presented at the first McCarthy Confer-
ence at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1993. Like other collec-
tions of the kind, it is uneven in quality. The most successful essays tend to be
personal and impressionistic: for example, novelist and historian Richard Mar-
ius's evocation of 194os Knoxville, a city he and McCarthy shared during their
youths and a setting that McCarthy brings vividly to life in his novel Suttree
(1979), or playwright Peter Josyph's wide-ranging and provocative meditation
on Blood Meridian (1985).
On the other hand, it is hard these days to find commentary on any literary
topic that does not view its subject through the lens of contemporary critical the-
ory. And Sacred Vzolence contains its share of essays with titles like "Deceiving the
Will to Truth: The Semiotic Foundation of All the Pretty Horses" and "Stylistic Vari-
ation and Cognitive Constraint in All the Pretty Horses." Yes, the content of these
pieces is just as opaque as their titles. (Sample sentence: "We could say, in fact,
that the figure of the evil archon in American letters is characterized by origi-
nary obscurity and subversion of any coherent principle to sustain its ontogeny
from moment to moment." [p. 125].)
I do not wish to be flippant. Theory can help to illuminate works of literature,
as in William Prather's excellent discussion of McCarthy's debt to Camus, but
theoretical rigor, with its accompanying jargon, is not usually conducive to clari-
ty. The collection's title derives from the ideas of French theorist Rene Girard,
whose best-known book is Violence and the Sacred (1977). While several contribu-
tors rely heavily on Girard's concepts, I am not convinced that they are relevant
to an understanding of McCarthy's fiction. Still, there is no denying that the per-
sistence and intransigence of human violence, sacred or profane, are central to
McCarthy's world view.
Despite substantial reservations about several of the essays and despite a large
number of annoying proofreading errors, I recommend Sacred Violence as a use-
ful volume. Certainly, all Cormac McCarthy devotees will want to add the book
to their expanding shelves of McCarthyana.



Tarleton State University


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