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  • Writer's pictureMark Morton

John Prine and Cormac McCarthy

Since 2020, two people have died--people I never met in person--whose deaths made me very glum. One was John Prine, a country-folk songwriter and singer whose lyrics always move me because of their beautiful simplicity--like these opening lines from "Christmas in Prison":

It was Christmas in prison

and the food was real good

we had turkey and pistols

carved out of wood

and I dream of her always

even when I don't dream

her name's on my tongue

and her blood's in my stream.

There's humor in those lines ("turkey and pistols carved out of wood"), as is so often the case with Prine's lyrics, but there is also profound depth -- "her name's on my tongue and her blood's in my stream." And yet those last two lines don't contain any words of more than one syllable. Prine was such a good lyricist, poet, writer, he always made it look easy. He made the artful seem artless.

Prine died from COVID-19 when he was only 73. Cormac McCarthy, the other person whose recent death made me glum, died in 2023 at age 89. McCarthy's writing style could not be more different, I think, from Prine's. It's convoluted, meandering, maddening, and I need to look up every tenth word in a dictionary. Some of his sentences are longer than some short stories. And yet he's one of my favorite writers. Apart from perhaps William Faulkner, I don't know of any prose stylist like him. Here's a passage from his Blood Meridian in which he describes the approach of a band of Comanche warriors--if you haven't read it before, or if it doesn't seem like your cup of tea, stick with it and let it wash over you:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

I think it's amazing that the English language can accommodate writers as different as Prine and McCarthy. Or maybe it's better to say that it's amazing that two writers can do such different things with the same language, both creating strings of words that we can only marvel at.

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