Trailing Philip Roth by a few months and Toni Morrison by two years, Cormac McCarthy (who turns 81 this weekend) is one of America’s greatest and most decorated writers. His cultural stock has risen immeasurably in the last decade — whether it’s the Coen brothers adapting No Country for Old Men and winning Best Picture at the Oscars for it, or his recent (disappointing) original screenplay for the Ridley Scott-directed film The Counselor, McCarthy has made the transition from great novelist to phenomenon. He’s continuously successful, but he’s never changed, and doesn’t show any signs of letting his advanced age soften him. His entire body of work includes screenplays, plays, and short fiction — but it’s his novels that remain his greatest achievement, so to celebrate his birthday, we rank the five McCarthy novels you must read (and if it helps, the order in which you should do it.)
5. No Country for Old Men
One of those rare instances where the book and the film are both equally great, almost perfect, so placing this book in any different spot could be a case of clouded judgement. It isn’t his greatest work, but it’s a thrilling cat-and-mouse game through dry and dusty Texas and Mexico in the early 1980s, as well as a meditation on death and fate.
4. All The Pretty Horses
After 30 years of hard work, this 1992 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award winner, and first book of McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy,” brought the author the recognition he long deserved. It also showed that he could take the place that influences and informs his work the most (Texas), and craft a brilliant book out of it using any time period.
3. Child of God
This disturbing 1973 novel, set in the mountains of Tennessee, about a crazed, necrophiliac killer, might just be McCarthy’s toughest book to get through. But that’s also what makes it so great.
2. The Road
The 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner about a father and son traversing a post-apocalyptic landscape in hopes of making it south before they freeze to death is every bit as harrowing as you can imagine (if you’re one of the few people who hasn’t read this modern classic).
1. Blood Meridian
It’s hard to believe that McCarthy could have one definitively greatest novel, one that stands out above the rest, despite its lack of big awards, huge sales, or Oscar-winning movie adaptations. Yet switching his focus from the South and Appalachia — this story is set in the American Southwest in the middle of the 19th century — not only signaled a shift in McCarthy’s writing, but also produced one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Blood Meridian is a violent masterpiece, and the book that shows McCarthy as the link between William Faulkner and contemporary writers from Denis Johnson to Claire Vaye Watkins. McCarthy never bettered than Blood Meridian, but even more importantly, few American writers have even come close.