If there is a literary late bloomer, it is Cormac McCarthy. For much of his writing career, Cormac lived in obscurity and squalor. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. But despite his strong reputation, 30 years later, McCarthy’s books never sold more than 5,000 hardcover copies. That included his Blood Meridian, now regarded as one of the best books of the 20th century. Yet, with the movie adaptations, The Road and No Country for Old Men, McCarthy is well-read and prominent. It’s hard not to imagine that the hard years in between must have inspired his novels’ oppressive environments. But under their wretched settings, the stories are rich and deep, connecting with the familiar through the bleakness.

McCarthy’s appeal is peculiar—often, his work begins dark and marches forth for darker corners. Bloody, full of cruelty and stark, unrelenting misery, McCarthy’s novels paint men in ways we wish to forget: painfully broken creatures whose words are destroyed by those carrying a bigger stick. The ostensible protagonist of Blood Meridian, the boy, is introduced as emaciated and homeless, and exits an indescribable mess.

But beneath McCarthy’s dogged, grimy realism is a heart. What began as the sparse, grey nightmare of The Road unveils itself as a love letter from father to son. What started as a thriller in No Country for Old Men becomes a tragedy of men caught in greed’s grip, dispatched by the efficient hitman, Chigurh. And Blood Meridian revived the western as a coming of age story told through a young boy and a mercenary band raising hell across the Mexican-American border.

McCarthy’s themes of life and death, love’s complexity, of how the best laid plans fall apart, speak beyond the sum of their parts. His eclectic gathering of genres, from southern Gothicism to the western and the post-apocalyptic, brings his realism to familiar realms. How many children pretended to be cowboys? How many of today’s young adult novels set themselves in the post-apocalyptic? McCarthy stripped these well-worn settings to their violent cores, and spun something new from the old. It is this turning of the cliché, drawing the reader in past the horrific, to something worthy.

Cormac McCarthy’s has spent the time since his rise to prominence on the movies, The Sunset Limited and The Counselor. His literary career is a triumph; an exemplar of the struggling artist whose work eventually receives widespread recognition. Fans may pine for more, but after 50 years of writing and two masterpieces, perhaps he has earned some time off.

-Will Hertel