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Cormac McCarthy's Apocalypse

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This week, we're excited to feature a Longreads Exclusive from David Kushner (@DavidKushner), a contributing editor to Rolling Stone whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ and Wired. He's been featured many times on Longreads, and he's the author of Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto

"Cormac McCarthy's Apocalypse" is Kushner's 2007 Rolling Stone profile of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Road, No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses. Kushner explains how he first met the reclusive writer:

"I owe my Cormac McCarthy story to two people: Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, and my dad. My dad urged me to read Cormac's books when I began writing for my college newspaper. The sentences are amazing, he said. He was right, and I read every one of them. Years later, I was interviewing Randall for Rolling Stone when she told me that Cormac had done an edit of her most recent book on theoretical physics. Come again? I said. Cormac hangs out at the Sante Fe Institute, she explained, a science research center in the foothills of New Mexico. After meeting him there, he offered to read her book—and surprised her by sending back an edited copy of the manuscript. Hmm, I said. Can I interview him about you for the story?

"Randall laughed, and I knew why. Cormac had a reputation for being reclusive, and had only done a couple interviews over his career. It's a long shot, she said, but she'd give it a try. A few minutes later my phone rang. You're not going to believe this, she said, but he'll talk with you. I hung up and called my dad. I'm about to interview Cormac McCarthy, I told him, and my guess is that it will either last five minutes or three hours. In my experience, supposed 'recluses' are often not that at all, and some of my best interviews have been with the people who supposedly like to talk least. Sure enough, Cormac and I spoke for hours about everything from voles to video games. He had a serious passion for science, and an even more serious passion for the Sante Fe Institute. He wanted the world to see what he saw in the place. I suggested he tell me more about this in a feature for Rolling Stone. He agreed. Here's the result."

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Cormac McCarthy's ApocalypseBy David Kushner | Rolling Stone | December 2007 | 17 minutes (4,196 words)

Illustration by Katie Kosma

The world's most unlikely genius club meets in a sprawling adobe retreat amid the piñon scrub and juniper trees in the hills above Santa Fe. The lean physicist in baggy shorts and sandals sitting at a long table designed the first wearable computer, which he used to beat roulette in Vegas. The older scientist across from him, with curly white hair and the turquoise jeweled bolo tie, won a Nobel for discovering the quark. The attractive blond neuroscientist nibbling enchiladas nearby studies the modulation patterns of pigtailed macaques. Down the hall, a gangly Brit scrawls equations in squeaky orange magic marker on a windowpane. Even the fat tabby cat meowing for scraps has scientific cred; Dr. Zen, they call him, Director of Feline Affairs. This is the Santa Fe Institute, a sort of Justice League of renegade geeks, where teams of scientists from disparate fields study the Big Questions: Why financial markets crash. How terrorist cells form. Why viruses spread. How life ends. On any given day, you might pass Al Gore or David Foster Wallace at the éclair tray in the kitchen. After Google's honchos spent a few days wandering the Institute's sunlit halls, they were so impressed by its unique mix of brains and natural beauty that they aspired to turn their company into the "SFI of Silicon Valley."

But among this rarefied gathering of leading intellects, none is more respected than the spry old cowboy dipping his tortillas in beans at the lunch table. Dressed in a crisp blue shirt and jeans, he sits comfortably with his weathered boots crossed and listens intently as a theoretical biologist who has flown in from Berlin discusses something called evolutionary economics—the relationship between animal behavior and market-like forces. This is quintessential Santa Fe stuff, examining one phenomenon (biology) in the light and lexicon of another (economics).

The discussion soon turns to the topic of suicide. As a slide of a West African tribe flickers on the biologist's computer screen, the researchers dig into the idea that suicide attempts can be evaluated as a kind of expression of market forces—a threat to remove oneself as a source of benefits to others. The neuroscientist in the corner raises her hand and poses a question to the group: "Does anyone know another animal besides humans who commit suicide?"

Brains churn. Air conditioning whirs. For once, though, the scientists are stumped.

Then the cowboy chimes in, as he often does, with the answer.

"Dolphins," he says softly. "Dolphins do."

The only thing more unlikely than despairing dolphins is the bearer of the news: Cormac McCarthy, the most celebrated recluse in American literature since J.D. Salinger. Before he emerged to speak to Oprah earlier this year, the seventy-four-year-old author had granted only a handful of interviews in his four-decade career. He lives so far off the beaten path, he drives a flatbed truck. His self-imposed exile goes beyond the scraps of popular legend—sleeping in cars, bathing in lakes, too poor for toothpaste. He has never voted ("poets shouldn't vote"), doesn't read fiction ("it seems like an odd thing to do"), and forsakes book signings, e-mail and cell phones. For years, little was known about him beyond the breadth and power of his work. His violent Western No Country for Old Men has been made into one of the year's most acclaimed films, and his post-apocalyptic novel The Road won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Few living authors are as admired by their peers: When the New York Times recently asked more than 100 prominent writers, critics and editors to identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last twenty-five years," one of the authors whose work was cited most was McCarthy.

"Cormac is viewed as a recluse because he doesn't do the literature game," says Doug Erwin, head of SFI's science steering committee. "But he's not reclusive here—he's just one of the guys." Two decades ago, McCarthy showed up at the Institute and essentially never left. "Cormac rode up on a mule one day," jokes a friend, "and the mule died." He even moved from his home in El Paso, Texas, just to be nearby. Now, after dropping off his nine-year-old son at school in the morning, McCarthy rumbles up the winding drive to SFI, where he serves as a research fellow. He checks his mail. Pours a coffee. Then he spends the rest of the day falling into long conversations with the scientists and thinkers who pass by.

Originally published in Rolling Stone, December 2007

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