Cormac McCarthy, the acclaimed fiction writer whose books were regarded as American masterpieces by critics and legions of fans but who refused to offer insight into what had inspired them or what they might mean, has died.

Widely regarded as one of America’s greatest modern writers, McCarthy died on Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., according to his publisher, Knopf. He was 89.

Often set in the backwoods of Tennessee or the great wide open of the Old West, McCarthy’s novels took violence to a nearly hallucinogenic level as he spooled out stories of murderous bounty hunters, drug deals gone fatally wrong and life in a post-apocalyptic netherworld.

His work — especially his early novels set in the South — was sometimes compared to that of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. During the course of his career, he won virtually every meaningful award, including a Pulitzer Prize.

While his early novels won praise from critics, they also sold poorly. But his standing in the literary world soared with the 1992 publication of “All the Pretty Horses,” the first book in what came to be known as the Border Trilogy.

His 2005 novel ”No Country for Old Men” was adapted into a screenplay for the Coen brothers’ movie of the same name, which won the Academy Award for best picture. And “The Road,” an allegorical tale of a father and son wandering through the gray gloom following an unexplained cataclysm, won the Pultizer Prize for fiction in 2007.

But it is the cinematic, ultra-graphic “Blood Meridian,” a full-throttled story of violence as a team of bounty hunters sweep across the Texas-Mexico borderlands to cash in on a government offer to pay $100 for every Native American scalp they can collect, that is regarded as McCarthy’s masterpiece. Some critics hailed it as one of the great American novels.

In a 2005 review, The Times described “Blood Meridian” as perhaps the most “violent and graphic book in American literature.” Yet it succeeds, the review concluded, as a cautionary tale about humankind confronting an existence that is somehow beyond good and evil.

McCarthy had a strong aversion to punctuation, and often stripped his books of quotation marks, commas and hyphens. He found the semicolon to be particularly loathsome — “weird little marks that block up the page.” While some purists complained, many critics found his writing so seductive and self-propelled that readers would instinctively know what was a quote or when a sentence came to an end.

He was also steadfastly private, not in the reclusive manner of J.D. Sallinger or Thomas Pynchon, but more along the lines of Bob Dylan, who preferred to let his printed words speak for themselves.

McCarthy refused to go on book tours, granted few interviews and turned down handsome honorariums on the lecture circuit. He was dismissive of many of his literary contemporaries and preferred the company of the scientists and deep-thinkers he met at the Santa Fe Institute, the New Mexico think tank where he frequently wrote.

When a reporter from the London Telegraph finally tracked down McCarthy eating dinner at a Lubys diner in Texas, hoping for an interview, McCarthy slowly folded the newspaper he had been reading and answered politely, but firmly.

“I’m sorry, son, but you’re asking me to do something I just can’t possibly do.”

McCarthy did agree to talk with Oprah Winfrey in 2007 in what would be his first and only television interview , a concession he made when she added “The Road” to her book club list and proclaimed him “America’s greatest living writer.”

Dressed crisply and looking like a college professor, McCarthy was both funny and self-deprecating. But when Winfrey asked about his writing process, he was vague and steered the conversation elsewhere.

“You start the day with the hope that today I’m going to do something better than I ever had,” he said. “And, you know, that lasts a few minutes.”

Born Charles McCarthy Jr. in Providence, R.I., on July 20, 1933, he was the third of six children in an Irish Catholic family. The family moved frequently before settling in Knoxville, Tenn., where his father worked as an attorney for the powerful Tennessee Valley Authority.

Details about his youth are sketchy, beyond that he liked to fish and explore the woods and caves near the family home. At some point he changed his first name to Cormac, apparently for the ancient Irish king Cormac MacArt. He never said why.

He attended the University of Tennessee for two years before joining the Air Force and then returned to the university after his discharge, but then dropped out for good in 1959. He took a job as an auto mechanic in Chicago, married a former classmate, had a son and worked on his first novel, “The Orchard Keeper.” His marriage fell apart, but his love for writing remained intact.

Dismissive of offers to lecture or teach, McCarthy seemed to prefer near poverty.

Yet in 1965, after winning a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he impulsively bought a ticket aboard a luxury liner headed to Ireland and fell in love with Annie DeLisle, a singer performing on the boat. The two married in an old Norman church in Hampshire, England, bought an aging Jaguar XK 120 and headed to Paris, and then Geneva before settling on the island of Ibiza off the Spanish coast, where he completed his second novel, “Outer Dark.”

When the couple returned to America and moved into an old farm in Tennessee, McCarthy split his time between rebuilding the sagging structure — erecting a chimney from stones he gathered in the nearby hills and cutting and planning wood for the siding — and writing “Child of God,” the story of a demented woodsman, murderer and necrophiliac. The couple later divorced, and McCarthy moved to El Paso.

“We never had a lot when I was married to him,” DeLisle said years later. “But it always seemed we had as much as we needed.”

The change in geography took McCarthy’s writing in a profoundly new direction.

Novels such as “All the Pretty Horses” and “Cities of the Plain” were filled with dust and mayhem. Gone were the twisted souls of the Deep South, replaced with stoic ranch hands, rustlers and gunslingers whose lives and fates played out in the harsh mid-day sun. “No Country for Old Men” was set in 1980, though the cat-and-mouse story of a heroin deal gone terribly bad contained the same sort of lawless characters and unchecked violence as his earlier books.

“If you’re in the drug business, you know when you get up in the morning that there’s some chance somebody’s going to get killed,” he explained to Vanity Fair in 2005.

“The Road,” though, was something completely different.

“The clocks stopped at one seventeen. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. I think it’s October but I can’t be sure. I haven’t kept a calendar for five years. Each day is more gray than the one before.

The darkened mood of the book never lifts as a father and son shuffle across the ashen landscape, with little hope of finding a place left untouched. They head toward the coast, pushing a cart along a broken road, avoiding the cannibalistic few that have survived. They carry a gun and two bullets — less for protection than taking their own lives, should it come to that.

“More than an allegory or fantasy, ‘The Road’ is a frighteningly credible novel,” art critic Sebastian Smee wrote. “In some ways, I wish I had not read it.”

The book, which became a best-seller, a multi-award winner and eventually a movie, was filled with riddles that became a source of fascination and conjecture among readers. McCarthy offered little clarity.

“A lot of people ask. I don’t have an opinion,” he told the Wall Street Journal when asked about the cataclysm that shades the book. “But it could be anything — volcanic activity, or it could be nuclear war. It’s not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do.”

He described the book as a love story and that much of the dialogue between the man and the young boy was lifted from conversations he had during camping or fishing trips with his own son: “Papa, what would you do if I died? I’d want to die too. So we could be together? Yes, so I could be with you.”

Though McCarthy generally refused to sign copies of his book, he switched gears with “The Road” and gave his son John 250 signed copies of the book.

“That way, when he turns 18 he can sell them and go to Las Vegas, or whatever,” he said.

In 2019, McCarthy put his Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter on the auction block. He’d purchase it for $50 and estimated he had typed 5 million words on the machine. Expected to go for as much as $20,000, it fetched $245,000. McCarthy quickly replaced the typewriter with another Olivetti that a friend found at a bargain store for $11 and kept writing.

After a decade and a half of near silence, McCarthy returned in 2022 — his startling word play and muscular voice still in full bloom at 89 — with “The Passenger” and a thin companion book, “Stella Maris.” The former was the story of Bobby Western, a onetime physics graduate student and Formula Two race car driver who is now a salvage diver in New Orleans. When his work takes him into the depths to explore a jet that has crashed into the sea, he discovers a passenger is missing, as is the craft’s black box.

The puzzles and mysteries multiply quickly and Bobby becomes a hunted and haunted man, drifting through the city, huddling with the philosophically inclined roughnecks, thieves and lost souls he is drawn to. As McCarthy’s characters often do, Bobby comes with a deep moral flaw. He is in love with his sister and she’s dead — killed off on the first page, hanging from a bare tree on a bitterly cold Christmas day.

“It had snowed lightly in the night and her frozen hair was gold and crystalline and her eyes were frozen cold and hard as stones,” the book opens.

The sister, Alicia, reappears in subsequent sections of the book. A schizophrenic, Alicia is a startling brilliant mathematician, uncommonly beautiful and equally in love with her sibling . Most often she’s in the company of phantoms, apparitions and clownish hallucinations, including a dwarf whose has flippers rather than hands.

In ways, “Stella Maris” is a Rosetta stone that unravels some — though certainly not all — of the mysteries and dead-ends that vex readers of the “Passenger.” Icy and drained of human emotion, it consists of a transcription of her therapy sessions at a psychiatric hospital where she’s arrived with a bag containing $40,000 in cash that she tries to give to a secretary.

“What a glorious sunset song of a novel this is. It’s rich and it’s strange, mercurial and melancholic,” wrote author Xan Brooks for the Guardian. “McCarthy started out as the laureate of American manifest destiny, spinning his hard-bitten accounts of rapacious white men. He ends his journey, perhaps, as the era’s jaundiced undertaker.”

McCarthy was married three times and had two sons, Cullen and John.

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