Byline: Richard B. Woodward
The parking lot at the Santa Fe Institute, in New Mexico, features rows of vehicles typical of American academia-S.U.V.'s and minivans, a few older-model BMWs and Mercedeses, a Toyota Prius, and an inordinate number of Subarus and Hondas. At this unique think tank, where an elite caste of scientists from around the world converge for days or months to analyze interdisciplinary problems in physics, biology, computer science, archaeology, linguistics, and economics, many of the cars also carry wilted bumper stickers (defoliate the bushes) left over from the last election.
Standing out from the crowd is a red Ford F-350 diesel pickup with Texas plates. Equipped with a Banks PowerPack that boosts the 7.3-liter engine to more than 300 hp, it has a stripped-down profile in back, like a wrecker's, with no winch. Should everyone else be left floundering in two feet of snow, a common winter event in the hills above Santa Fe, it's a good bet this rugged conveyance could bull its way through and, if need be, haul other cars down the hill to safety.
The owner of the truck, the novelist Cormac McCarthy, would also seem not to belong here. He is the lone fiction writer at the institute, and his books, although they constitute one of the towering achievements in recent American literature, are often horrifically violent. Blood Meridian, ranked by Harold Bloom with the greatest novels of the 20th century, is a philosophic Western about a band of maniacal killers. At once brutally spare in terms of motivation and operatic in its soaring language, the book is based on documented events from southwestern history and is calmly realistic about the centrality of war, suffering, risk, and bloodshed in human existence. Even McCarthy's "Border Trilogy," begun in 1992 with All the Pretty Horses, the cause of his status as a best-selling author after decades as a cult figure, is not without graphic scenes of torture and sanguinary gunplay.
His grisly, male-dominated literary universe can hardly be said to overlap much with the hygienic concerns of scientists, especially not this international, predominantly liberal group, with whom the novelist, a quiet 72-year-old southern conservative, shares little in either background or education. (He never finished the University of Tennessee, whereas virtually all the academics here have at least one Ph.D.)
But at a place that prides itself on fostering brainy, unconventional thinkers-the S.F.I. is perhaps best known as the hub for complex-systems theory-McCarthy is actually right at home. He has been a mainstay among the rotating researchers for more than four years, and during that time if you strolled through the terraced-style headquarters, past the glass atrium and computer terminals, you were likely to hear him tapping away in his office on …