Today (July 20) is Cormac McCarthy’s birthday. He’s 83. We send birthday wishes his way by reposting Sophia Nguyen’s persuasive discussion of McCarthy and the book/film of The Counselor, which originally appeared in Bright Lights on January 5, 2015.
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Fittingly, the first screenplay Hollywood ever bought from Cormac McCarthy told a story about talent sold to a seedy underworld. The Counselor, about a lawyer embroiled with a drug cartel, would go on to have one of the worst opening weekends in box office history (Box Office Mojo). The Chicago Tribune complained that the dialogue was burdened by “excessive capital-W Writing”; “The Counselor is not faux McCarthy,” Time concluded, “It’s just bad McCarthy.” Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir called the film “the nihilistic erasure of meaning,” in addition to “turd-like” and “mainstream atrocity.” To O’Hehir, it was a film exemplary of Hollywood’s “devil’s candy”: promising its participants some “magical combination of artistic legitimacy, cultural currency, and commercial success,” but fundamentally – even hellishly – unworthy.
Perhaps McCarthy wrote The Counselor with supply-demand curves in mind. In 2009, he told the Wall Street Journal: “If you look at the Greek plays, they’re really good. And there’s just a handful of them. Well, how good would they be if there were 2,500 of them? But that’s the future looking back at us. Anything you can think of, there’s going to be millions of them. Just the sheer number of things will devalue them … Just the appalling volume of artifacts will erase all meaning that they could ever possibly have.”
These were dire words for an interview primarily promoting the movie of The Road, but in their way, fitting: as Joshua Rothman aptly puts it, The Road is a genre novel asking “what would remain after the collapse of culture” (Rothman). With scarcity as the sole determinant of worth, even meaning, it’s difficult to imagine on what terms new art could justify itself.
The Counselor bears the marks of a career built on imagining borders as contact zones: the U.S. and Mexico, high and mass culture, books and films. Triangulated with the novelist’s other, less-noted firsts – his first play, The Stonemason, in 1994, and his first publication in the New Yorker, in June 2013 – the screenplay reflects McCarthy’s understanding of the pressures on writerly labor, and the artistic materials available: the vast landscape of culture and the sweep of history.
The Counselor is McCarthy’s first work set in the present: drug-running replaces horseflesh; the bolito renders scalping obsolete. With Manifest Destiny a speck in the rearview mirror, its generic traits are more crime thriller than revisionist Western. Like No Country for Old Men before it, the story gets sparked by the flint and steel of bad luck and greed, bringing on the inevitable slew of dire consequences. But the screenplay also has a strong jeremiad bent. Its doom-saying about the digital economy foregrounds an allegory about the erosion of agency.
No Country’s Llewellyn Moss, discovering a suitcase of cash at the scene of a shootout, consciously registers his moment of choice: “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead” (18). With far less self-awareness, the Counselor also considers his present opportunity a one-time deal, but his temptation is unseen and unseeable, lacking physical form. Price fluctuations and layers of middlemen make the projected profit from the drug deal even hazier. Vaguely outlining the complex network of money guys and corporations involved, his co-conspirator Westray concludes that it’s “hard to put a cold dollar” on the Counselor’s cut (53). The screenplay omits the scene of its protagonist taking the drug deal – The Road, too, lived in the aftermath of an off-stage catastrophe – such that no character or event can jolt the Counselor from his downfall. That sheer coincidence triggers the cartel’s wrath amplifies this powerlessness: it’s not an illegal activity, but a favor for a legitimate, pro bono legal client, that falsely implicates the Counselor in the drug shipment’s disappearance. For all that the Counselor is the titular character, he suffers the indignity of being utterly tangential to the theft for which he’s blamed, compounding the horror of his end. No Country’s Chigurh executes Llewellyn, and then his wife, for taking the suitcase. An age that torques the relation between cause and effect, transgression and punishment, leaves the Counselor to grief-stricken helplessness. Llewellyn goes out with a bang; after a series of fruitless meetings with cartel leadership, in which he’s repeatedly told he’s too late, the Counselor is last seen carrying a poster of his murdered fiance’s face.
The Counselor’s trip to Juarez joins the ranks of the Kid’s frontier campaigns, or the man and his son’s trudge to the sea. The “failed promise of the future,” writes Bill Hardwig, enervates these characters’ dogged journeys (47), and their destination serves as an excuse for survival rather than a meaningful goal. In The Counselor, obfuscated plot mechanics evacuate characters of agency, even as greed seems to provide self-evident stakes. The scope and requirements of the Counselor’s involvement in what gets nicknamed “the caper” (32) are never clarified. Nor, for that matter, are Reiner and Westray’s. Neither demonstrate any particular skill. Secondary and tertiary characters – some identified only by occupation, like the Wireman; others completely anonymous – carry out the tasks of carjacking, surveillance, decapitations, and banking. Such haplessness partially serves to contrast with their female adversary’s overwhelming competence. But even Malkina, the kingpin of her own criminal enterprise, never explains why, or whether, the cocaine shipment has been successfully diverted. In this game, even most competent players can be startlingly uninformed, and startlingly complacent about their ignorance: “perhaps we should know if electronic money earns an extra day of interest when it crosses the International Date Line” (155), one character reflects idly. The digital system’s invisible, instantaneous movements render its surface eruptions – the gunfights and car chases – baffling. (Even the film’s actors and director cannot fully explain the plot. On the audio commentary track, enticingly titled “The Truth of the Situation,” all opt to praise what they call McCarthy’s intentional ambiguity.)
These tangled webs of responsibility extend a theme of The Road, in which the boy is racked by a nightmare that he can’t satisfyingly convey: “I had this penguin that you wound up and it would waddle and flap its flippers … And it came around the corner but nobody had wound it up and it was really scary.” His insistence that “the winder wasn’t turning” proves to be the telling detail (36-37). His terror is of movement without discernible cause, of mindless advancement, of a manmade object moving beyond what can be understood or controlled. The Counselor’s signature weapon, the bolito, operates on a similar principle of unstoppable unwinding: it is a mechanical gyre, a motor-activated noose made of “some unholy alloy” that an assailant slips around his victim’s neck, before walking away (26). Kenneth Lincoln describes No Country for Old Men as “an old morality tale in a new context of precision weapons” (144). But the closest thing The Counselor has to a central moral comes in Malkina’s parting monologue, cautioning against willful ignorance: “I suspect that we are ill-formed for the path we have chosen. Ill-formed and ill-prepared. We would like to draw a veil over all that blood and terror. That have brought us to this place. It is our faintness of heart that would close our eyes to all of that, but in so doing makes it our destiny” (183-184).These lines rework one of Sheriff Bell’s nostalgia-sodden monologues in which he predicts, “I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I don’t care what shape it takes.” Yet where Bell wants to “pull everbody back in the boat,” Malkina ruthlessly orients herself future-ward (295).
By the time she delivers these lines, Malkina has successfully contrived to be the only character left alive. The Counselor’s pre-apocalyptic tale organizes itself around the fear of a monstrous feminine sexuality as a metonym for the unfathomable and all-consuming new economy. In the film’s most notorious scene, she has sex with the windshield of Reiner’s Ferrari. This spectacle stages a gleeful conflation of Marxian and Freudian fetishism that Reiner, stunned, recounts as “too gynecological to be sexy … she scares the shit out of me” (94). A skilled hacker with expertise in banking systems and electronic security, Malkina relies on VPNs and computer viruses as her weapons of choice. Her own shoulder blade sporting the tattoo of an Egyptian cat, Malkina casts her heist as a hunt: “To see quarry killed with elegance is very moving to me. It always was,” she says. “But grace. Freedom. The hunter has a purity of heart that exists nowhere else … You can make no distinction between what he is and what he does” (183). In his novel The Crossing, McCarthy had entwined Billy Parham’s coming-of-age with his doomed romance with a she-wolf who fails to adapt to new rules governing the landscape: “She would not cross a road or a rail line in daylight. She would not cross under a wire fence twice in the same place. These were the new protocols. Strictures that had not existed before. Now they did” (CR 25). When she crosses into Mexico and is confiscated by a dog-fighting ring, Billy’s plea that the wolf is ignorant – and thus innocent – of the concept of trespass falls on deaf ears: “the boundary stood without regard” (CR 119). In this newly brutal ecosystem, Malkina represents a new species of apex predator. Like her pet cheetahs chasing jackrabbits in Patagonia, Arizona, she has fully adapted to alien environments, and thrives by crossing borders physically and virtually. She too, is an exotic import, indifferent to the idea of natural habitat and flourishing in a globalized world mediated by communications systems.
In The Crossing, the she-wolf’s pregnancy renders her more sympathetic, her dead pups symbolizing the murder of the pre-Anthropocene order. Malkina’s five-month-old pregnancy, showing only in the final scene, is a dark portent reminiscent of The Road, whose most shocking moment of savagery is inflicted by a pregnant woman, sacrificially roasting her infant on a spit. Earlier, the man’s single flashback to the moment of catastrophe successively frames an explosion and then his pregnant wife. When the clocks stop, he sees “a dull rose glow in the windowglass,” then her, “standing in the doorway in her nightwear … cradling her belly in one hand” (52-53). Then the memory of distant cities aflame is coextensive with the memory of the woman giving birth: the “improbable appearance of the small crown of the head” rhymes with the window view of “the gathering cold, the fires on the horizon” (59), dangers that will wreck the safety of the home. Reiner likens being in love with Malkina to being in love with “easeful death” (95) – echoing, perhaps, how the man recasts his dead wife as “his pale bride,” enticing him to “languor and death … siren worlds” (18). In both, the yearning for a long-departed domesticity is necessarily a morbid desire, femininity made inextricable from danger.
Noting women’s “extraordinarily high rate of attrition” in McCarthy’s novels, Nell Sullivan argues that his “filiation theme” requires the “foundational presence of at least one woman, a womb to produce fruit” (81, 90). Malkina’s pregnancy serves her purposes alone. Where the man decides to leave his wife’s photo on the road – thus, in Sullivan’s words, “removing the mother’s literal image from the text” (95) – Malkina authors a new story for her unborn child: “The virtues of a dead father – his very identity for that matter – are limited only by the mother’s imagination,” she says (181). Malkina wields maternity as the ultimate symbol of agency. The gestation of her son, nicknamed “the heir” (177), realizes her closing prophecy of “the slaughter to come … beyond our imagining” (183-184).
Understanding where McCarthy sees himself living in this brave new world requires an account of how he arrived there, a story that begins with his first play. Following four generations of a black family of stonemasons in 1970s Louisville, The Stonemason has its own counselor figure in Maven Telfair, whose description of the law as a “pretty pragmatic business” marks the outer bounds of her cynicism. What she affectionately describes as her husband’s “romantic notions” (38-39) are the engine of the play. Ben Telfair, who learns masonry under his grandfather, Pawpaw, waxes poetic on the craft: “The beauty of the stonework is simply a reflection of the purity of the mason’s intention” (91). The stonemason’s trade must be congruent with the earth itself; gravity confirms the efforts of the virtuous laborer, pulling his mortar-less stones to rest more soundly in their place. The Stonemason furnishes The Counselor’s photo negative, as if the screenplay emerged from the corrosion of the play’s idealism. The family farm in Kentucky gives way to the anonymous international city. The physical certainty of stone dissolves into the motion sickness induced by invisible, illicit transactions.
The Counselor presents an allegory of the degradation of literary labor, the genre novelist succumbing to the temptation of Hollywood: a man enters into a joint venture only lucrative because commodities are criminalized and borders are militarized. Like a movie producer sweet-talking a novelist, Reiner tells the Counselor that, “I always did think a law degree was a license to steal. And that you for one hadnt really capitalized on it” (32), persuading him to exploit his capabilities. But once the Counselor joins the cartel, his partners withhold their expertise. Whether he asks Westray about offshore bank accounts before the deal goes bad or getaway cars afterward, the other responds, “I cant advise you” (59, 138). In parallel, Laura asks Malkina whether it is “so bad” to have a naïve worldview, and Malkina answers coldly, “I dont know. I cant advise you” (97). This motif culminates in el Jefe informing the Counselor, “these are the worlds of other men and your understanding of them was never more than an illusion anyway” (151). Where Ben Telfair knows to apprentice himself to a master, the Counselor embodies McCarthy’s concerns about the danger of an unknown, if alluring, business.
Figuring himself as the Counselor squares neatly with the popular understanding of McCarthy as a reclusive genius. For decades, his sole substantive interview had been with Richard Woodward for the New York Times, in 1992, and the paper’s review of All the Pretty Horses that same year marveled that McCarthy had “shunned publicity so effectively he wasn’t even famous for it” (Bell). Mark McGurl’s introduction to The Program Era declares McCarthy the most “out on the range” postwar novelist, seeking neither “the economic refuge of the university” nor sidelines in journalism or short stories (216). With Guggenheim and MacArthur grants feeding the early decades of his career, McCarthy could plunge into the marketplace. The 1990s saw McCarthy go from niche favorite to bestseller, able to live on book sales (McGurl 30).
The new millennium saw further changes in McCarthy’s relationship to audience. With the No Country for Old Men and The Road movies released in quick succession, media appearances became more frequent, each publication and talk show introducing him as a difficult “get.” In June 2007, McCarthy went on Oprah’s Book Club. That October, he was interviewed and photographed with Joel and Ethan Coen for Time. November: No Country for Old Men hit theaters. December: Texas State University acquired his papers. The crowning event was McCarthy’s appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony in February 2008, when he saw No Country defeat the other major awards contender, Ian McEwan’s (and Joe Wright’s) Atonement. Jim Collins highlights this as a signal year not just for McCarthy but for “the cine-literary,” a phenomenon born out of the increased interdependency of mass media and literary reading. When No Country won Best Picture, the Oscars broadcast intercut close-ups of McCarthy’s face with shots of the Coen brothers onstage, underscoring their co-authorship of the film. This “perfect visualization of cine-literary culture,” Collins writes, also furnished a new image of literary genius, “there on the Red Carpet as the source and guarantee of the film’s success” (117).
The Counselor’s Blu-Ray also includes the certifying presence of the novelist. The actors all attest to their excitement about meeting the writer, and also their surprise that he attended every day of shooting. When McCarthy appears on screen, he explains how he came to write the screenplay, describing it as a break from his novel-writing. He claims to have been surprised at how easily the writing came to him, chuckling, “Well, this was an easy way to make money” (McCarthy, “The Truth of the Situation”). This testimony conjures an image of Faulkner arriving in Los Angeles, with the Oxford dust still on his shoes. Contrary to his implication that he’d never considered screenwriting, some of McCarthy’s most famous books – All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and No Country for Old Men – were written first as screenplays, and subsequently novelized (“A Guide to the Cormac McCarthy Papers, 1964-2007,” The Witliff Collections). Still, The Counselor’s narrative of cine-literary greatness must begin with professed newness to the film world, so that it may satisfyingly end with his integration. In the featurette, this arc gets echoed in footage of McCarthy interacting with the cast and crew, intercut with scenes of the Counselor being warned by his friends that he cannot participate in the drug world without becoming part of it.
The Counselor further credentials itself as a cine-literary property with the publication of the full screenplay a few weeks in advance of the film’s release, its front jacket somewhat redundantly telling viewers that The Counselor is “Now a Major Motion Picture.” Where the Blu-Ray offered Ridley Scott’s director’s cut, the Vintage edition presents the “writer’s cut,” its back jacket promising to “reveal Cormac McCarthy at his finest.” But perhaps the shortest version reveals the most: an extract called “Scenes of the Crime” published in the New Yorker’s 2013 summer fiction issue. McCarthy’s debut was also the magazine’s first-ever screenplay, marking an unprecedented convergence between the New Yorker’s disposition as a publication and McCarthy’s as a writer. The New Yorker’s newfound interest in popular genres caught up to McCarthy’s, just at the moment he set his sights westward, to another American cultural institution: Hollywood.
Since the Harold Ross era, when little distinction was made between genres – humorous sketches and journalistic profiles, prose and verse – up through the Tina Brown regime’s launch of special double issues, Thomas Leitch says, “The New Yorker defined its short stories in contrast to its own earlier stories. The ideal New Yorker short story became exactly the story the audience would least expect to find in the New Yorker” (145). The 2012 summer fiction issue had been devoted to science fiction, and 2013 recapitulated this turn, of serious artists and critics excavating a popular genre – this time, noir and hardboiled mysteries. “Scenes of the Crime” appeared alongside stories of a similar make: Dashiell Hammett too made his New Yorker debut that week, slotted beside Jhumpa Lahiri and Annie Proulx. Only an editorial outlook ruled by what Leitch calls “straight-faced disavowal” (145) would call its genre-gentrification project “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as if to suggest that an interest in genre is in itself deviant.
“Scenes of the Crime” earns its New Yorker laurels first by being a screenplay, and then by flouting all conventional and seemingly essential screenwriting structures (most notably: dialogue). Stripping away the The Counselor’s most lurid details, the extract presents the barest sketch of a deal gone south. Characters remain unnamed, their motivations undeclared, their actions impenetrable. Additionally, McCarthy’s strategic erasures work overtime to strengthen the piece’s resemblance to his previous work. The narrowed setting of “Scenes of the Crime,” limiting itself to the U.S.-Mexico border, belies how The Counselor ranges to Boise and Amsterdam, locales far-flung from McCarthy’s favorite desert haunts. Moreover, with the excision of the movie’s women, “Scenes of the Crime” complies with McCarthy’s reputation for masculine narratives. Even the most minor members of the drug operation disappear: the New Yorker version banishes the screenplay’s female medic, leaving “a plastic bucket on the floor filled with bloody gauze” to remain; a sexless “worker, in coveralls and rubber boots” substitutes for the two girls who scrub out the truck bed (133, SC 69). Exaggerating the characteristics for which he’s best-known, these edits make a more effective movie trailer-in-words, and advertise the deep persistence of McCarthy’s vision in the film. Put simply, the New Yorker extract performs McCarthyness.
“Scenes of the Crime” disappoints as a cine-literary object, insofar as it obfuscates, rather than expands, a reader’s understanding of the film itself. Instead, “Scenes of the Crime” exposes McCarthy’s maneuvers in the marketplace: he exploits the New Yorker’s eager appropriation of pop, and leverages its institutional power, to capture the audience whose recognition could act as fixative for the movie’s patina of highbrow literariness. “Scenes of the Crime” demonstrates McCarthy’s remarkable canniness about reception – and his self-consciousness about how past work inexorably drags the new into its orbit.
Leslie Fiedler writes that a common trope of revisionist Westerns signified the cowboy’s fall by putting him into a B-movie and forcing him to play a screen version of himself (147) – Cities of the Plain ends with Billy Parham unable to find work other than as an extra on a film set (264). The writer’s promotional interviews and New Yorker publication show no particular despair at having to “perform McCarthy,” but some anxiety about Hollywood remains. McCarthy imagines the movies as his Mexico, the making or breaking of a man: an adjacent but irretrievably foreign country, promising gold, glory, and even the possibility of claiming some territory as his own.
At the core of The Counselor is McCarthy’s unease about the mass and matter of art. In his New York Times interview, McCarthy said, “The ugly fact is that books are made out of books … The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” An early exchange between Westray and the Counselor provides some sense of the materials – what sort of mortar and stone – McCarthy finds at his disposal for his screenplay. Westray tells the Counselor, “Maybe I should tell you what Mickey Rourke told what’s-his-face. That’s my recommendation anyway, Counselor. Dont do it.” In this moment, the Counselor needs no counsel, and he easily completes the dialogue: “This arson is a serious crime” (60). Their conversation refers to a scene in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, a 1981 thriller about a lawyer, Ned Racine, whose lover, Mattie Walker, convinces him to murder her husband for the insurance money. Ned ends up in prison, Mattie gets away with the cash, and the film closes on a shot of her lounging on an exotic beach, served a cold drink by a good-looking young man. Similarly, The Counselor ends with Malkina dining out with a male escort.
Itself a riff on the James M. Cain novel and Billy Wilder film Double Indemnity, Body Heat exemplifies what Fredric Jameson names “the insensible colonization of the present by the nostalgia mode,” where signifiers like Art Deco fonts and small-town settings strive to “distance the officially contemporary image from us in time” (20). McCarthy has called his characters in The Counselor “post-modern gangsters” (McCarthy, “The Truth of the Situation”), but his scenes are studded with details meant to assert, not deflect, local specificity. The painstaking descriptions of each stage of the shipment’s movement try to root the text in realism – as does the mention of immigrants crossing into the States, “men and women, carrying suitcases, carrying laundrybags over their shoulders” (13). McCarthy’s screenplay seems to aspire to a kind of socially conscious realism in the mode of Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), even espousing a version of Traffic’s tagline, “No One Gets Away Clean,” in Westray’s reminder that “the consumer of the product is essential to its production” (112). McCarthy’s allusions to border politics – exemplified by the Counselor’s off-handed question, “if the drug wars stop this will dry up, right?” (56) – may attest to only a vague interest in sociopolitical realities, but he heavily emphasizes digital-age contingencies. Scenes between Malkina and her hacker colleague, Lee, are larded with techno-jargon, name-dropping Trojan Horses and Stingray phone trackers with the same insistence that other scenes conspicuously feature a Kawasaki ZX-12, or a “black late-model Cadillac Escalade” (40). This reflex resulted in the proliferation of firearms in No Country, or the taxonomy of thoroughbreds, ponies, and criollos in All the Pretty Horses – now, such gestures demonstrate McCarthy’s grim determination to make contact with the contemporary.
McCarthy’s attitude toward postmodernism’s relentless gesturing gets figured in the cartel’s Coverall Man and Workman, who open an unexpected extra oil drum in the shipment and, finding a corpse, say only, “You have to have a sense of humor in this business.” Impressed, the Buyer watches them load it back into the septic-tank truck to “ride around some more,” perhaps indefinitely (157). What they shrug off as a grisly gag, McCarthy sees as a body: putrid, horrifying, and real. To him, the genre does not operate as a set of stylistic moves, its permutations pursued quasi-mathematically – nor is it an endless string of empty jokes, told by those in the know. Rather, genre furnishes the conceptual resources to explore ideas about man’s choices at the border zone and humanity’s fate as it approaches the apocalypse. McCarthy can’t consciously accept Jameson’s view of genre, in which “the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history” (20). Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy show that he allies himself with what Richard Slotkin labels the “demoralized” anti-Westerns of Sam Peckinpah (591), which deploy standard genre devices to undermine the “myth of regenerative violence,” or with the neorealist Westerns of Clint Eastwood, which portray the gritty underbelly of cowboy life (628-629). Slotkin calls for writers “to alter the practice of myth and thereby (potentially) … initiate an adaption of its basic structure” so that readers truly confront American history (656). McCarthy has engaged with this challenge throughout his Southwestern novels, but he struggles to adapt to the perceived exigencies of Hollywood. The Counselor implicitly asks what a myth for the new millennium must be made of in order to endure. Does it rest on a foundation of history or just an amalgam of styles?
The screenplay’s debate about the identity and integrity of its conceptual materials further surfaces in its motif of diamonds. Showing the Counselor gems of exceptional clarity, the Dealer explains that people covet them out of a desire to “partake of the stone’s endless destiny” (20). Defying their own mortality, they crave access to timeless material from deep within the earth. The Dealer’s claim that “the perfect diamond would be composed simply of light” (15) articulates McCarthy’s fantasy of the substance of literature: as both light and the mineral that captures it, radiantly permanent. On the opposing side stands Malkina, who sees diamonds and Picassos purely as a means of compressing wealth. They can be bought and sold, their worth reappropriated and converted, ad infinitum; they “weigh nothing” (TC 178). McCarthy cannot be so cavalier; The Counselor performs his oscillations over the question of what imbues writerly work with value. Jameson believes that every cultural position on postmodernism simultaneously stakes out a political position on multinational capitalism (3); the inverse of that maxim plays out in The Counselor, the postmodernism question erupting from McCarthy’s struggle to square his interest in slick contemporaneousness with his lifelong ambition for resounding, scalar geo-historical authority. We have come a long way from the stone farmhouse.
Reiner’s favorite quote is, “The smallest crumb can devour us.” Westray says that it comes from Henry Miller, explaining, “You learn to let nothing pass. You cant afford to” (52). (Ironically, in Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, the line gives an opposite warning: “Whatever we cling to, even if it be hope or faith, can be the disease which carries us off. Surrender is absolute: if you cling to even the tiniest crumb you nourish the germ which will devour you” (69).) The aphorism has appeared twice before in McCarthy’s work, verbatim. In the mouth of Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, “The smallest crumb can devour us” is a sentiment simultaneously paranoid and megalomaniacal, the natural conclusion to his insane proclamation that, “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent” (195). When the line resurfaces in The Stonemason during Ben’s confession, the sentiment simultaneously declares love desire for control and filial piety:
MAVEN: Do you think you have to tell me everything?
BEN: Because. Because the smallest crumb can devour us.
MAVEN: Is the world really such a hostile place?
BEN: I don’t know. I know that I see failure on every side and I’m determined not to fail. (125)
The idea that man must have a habit of suspicion reaches far in McCarthy’s back catalog – so, too, is the creeping fear that a source of sustenance can be a source of peril. On the trail, fellow travelers share campfire meals, but this hospitality can cover violent ulterior motives. The Road’s most euphoric and most horrific scenes all turn on the discovery of food: when the man and child open the cellar door, they may find a hoard of canned goods or human beings penned for meat. When “the smallest crumb can devour us” resurfaces in The Counselor, it is not as ironic, glib, postmodern self-quotation, but as a mantra of McCarthy’s private artistic faith – a rosary revisited throughout his career.
Malkina reflects, “There are times when I imagine that I would like my innocence back. If I ever had it. But I would never pay the price which it now commands on the market” (182). She, rather than the callow Counselor, is the film’s maker figure, its dark portrait of the artist. The question that consumes McCarthy asks what nourishes his writing, what forms the substance of his work, and what new literature requires for its meaning to endure. Will the writer trip up in his genre-balancing act and be devoured? Malkina picks up a menu with relish. “Should we think about ordering? I’m famished” (189).
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