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The Stonemason by Cormac McCarthy

June 6, 2014


Digging deep into McCarthy’s works, one finds four scripts—two stageplays (The Sunset Limited and The Stonemason), one screenplay for television (The Gardener’s Son) and one film screenplay (The Counselor). When stripped down to dialogue, McCarthy’s works can be fairly heavy-handed. The Sunset Limited was that to me—very well-crafted dialogue, but just a little too much philosophy and not enough story. The Stonemason, in contrast, carries some weighty themes but they are couched in a good level of story and character development.

The story is about the Telfairs, an African-American family in Louisville in 1971. The protagonist, Ben, lives with his parents, his sister, nephew and his grandfather, whom he adores. Papaw is a hardworking stonemason, one of the last of his kind, and Ben spends every moment with him, learning the craft and picking the old man’s brain for all the wisdom it holds. Ben’s father runs the business, but not well—he has made compounding mistakes with the family’s money. And Soldier, Ben’s nephew, is falling in with the wrong crowd.

It’s a good story, with compelling dramatic conflict. And on top of that are insightful discussions about the meaning of work and the purpose and satisfaction it can provide, the connection between God and working with one’s hands, religion, morality, and the source of wisdom. And there are quite a few beautifully-crafted lines.

On justice:

The accounts get balanced anyway. In the long run. A man that contracts for work and then dont pay for it, the world will reckon with him fore it’s out. With the worker too. You live long enough and you’ll see it. They’s a ledger kept that the pages dont never get old nor crumbly nor the ink dont never fade. If it dont balance then they aint no right in this world…Yes. The arc of the universe is indeed long but it does bend toward justice.


And this wonderful passage on stone-working:

For true masonry is not held together by cement but by gravity. That is to say, the warp of the world. By the stuff of creation itself. The keystone that locks the arch is pressed in place by the thumb of God.


As a stageplay, it is a quick read. The Stonemason is not as compelling as his novels, but it still has McCarthy’s signature mix of dark mood and stunning language, perhaps with a little more reverence, particularly for stonework.

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