As my friend Leslie Garrett lay dying of cancer that clutched him by the throat, news came that his old comrade and competitor, Cormac McCarthy, had just realized his greatest professional triumph--winning the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses. The award catapulted McCarthy to the front ranks of American letters. Less last book, In the Country of Desire, meanwhile, was dying like its author--a slow, painful wasting in obscurity.
McCarthy wrote a letter to Leslie in those last days that alluded to his own success. The letter lay on a nightstand amid the dust and gloom and smell of medicine surrounding Les in his modest Fort Sanders apartment.
It should have been you, old friend; such honors mean nothing to me. Thats what the letter said in so many words. Maybe it was a magnanimous gesture from one Knoxvillian, one seeker of truth, to another... maybe. To this day, their divergent destinies stand, for me, as the definition of irony, fate and tragedy. Such notions rain down this time of year.
Leslie died on June 3, 1993, and while its odd to memorialize the day of a mans passing, rather than the day of his birth, Leslie always comes to mind as I knew him that spring six years ago. He was never so alive as in the season of his death. I still see him; his slight, wasted corpus wrapped in the comfortable old housecoat he wore from dawn to midnight. I see the thinning gray hair, the hawk-bill nose, sallow cheeks and watery brown eyes that widened to fill with light when a good story came to his alert mind. I see white, slender hands fanning the air to draw pictures as he talked--fists jabbing or cupped fingers dabbing color into the narrative. Occasionally he would rise from his chair or bed to act out scenes from the past, to make sure I got them right, as he growled and gasped his memories.
He told amazing stories those last weeks, and their skeletons still rattle on the backs of used typing paper, corners of matchbooks, reporters notebooks and paper napkins. When Leslie started talking, I would grab the nearest writing instruments and take notes. They mention his blighted Philadelphia childhood with a cruel and dissolute mother, and a father who was an amiable genius, if an outlaw. They refer to gangsters and sportsmen his daddy brought home for wild parties. A kindly librarian who changed his life. Paper fragments hint at tales from service days in the Navy, of wanderings from New Orleans to San Francisco to New York to Paris in search of some community he could claim. Stories of his doomed marriage to a simple Christian sweetheart from Florida, who could never appreciate his thirst to write. Of the marriage to a Vegas showgirl, years later, who, approaching from the opposite end of the spiritual spectrum, likewise couldnt figure him out. Of his brother, a boxer, who saved him following an overdose of pills and an attempted self-hanging....
Leslie was a haunted man who couldnt stop telling stories. Even when cancer was squeezing the life out of him the stories wheezed out, like notes from a sqeezebox. Like tunes seeking their key, most stories found their way back to Cormac. They met in a bar on Ibiza--an island off the coast of Spain that was a wild and sensuous gathering place for artists in the late sixties. Both were flush with success.
McCarthy had just won the Faulkner Prize for his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. Leslie had won the Maxwell Perkins Award for his first, The Beasts. We circled each other like lions with claws extended, Les told me, but I knew Id found a friend for life. They roamed Ibiza together, Les, Cormac and his wife, Annie McCarthy, in their yellow Jaguar convertible. They called themselves The Three Musketeers, and they lived the high life.
McCarthy warned Les that if he didnt leave Ibiza it would kill him as a writer, and it did... almost. While McCarthy was crafting the several solid novels on which his reputation stands, Les was languishing--battling demons from his childhood and demons newly sprung--mental illness, addictions, failed jobs and relationships. In the seventies, Leslie came to Knoxville, McCarthys hometown, seeking a quiet place to write. One of the most courageous struggles I ever witnessed was Les doing battle with poverty, illness and despair in the early nineties as he wrestled his last novel into submission and saw it published. In the Country of Desire was a dark story of broken lives, written by a genius. Leslie knew it was a powerful book, and when he learned that McCarthys novel, All the Pretty Horses, would be published the same year, he was thrilled. Les was not a modest man--gifted artists rarely are--and this is how he colored the coincidence:
There are only two great writers at work today. Me and Cormac. And were going mano a mano, hand to hand, just me and him.
Ill not forget that clenched fist; those fiery eyes.
I wish thats how the story ended.