McCarthy spent some time at the University of Tennessee and in the US Air Force in the 1950s before eventually marrying and settling in Tennessee. He published his first novel, The Orchard Keepers, in 1965. It was followed by Outer Dark, Child of God and Suttree. These early works were all set in southern Appalachia.
In the mid-1970s McCarthy moved to El Paso, Texas and 1985's Blood Meridian found the author switching the setting of his books to the Southwestern US. Often regarded as McCarthy's finest work, the novel tells the story of a teenager who finds himself riding with a vicious gang of outlaws who are being paid by the US government to bring back Indian scalps. The book unflinchingly depicts horrific acts of violence committed by Americans, Indians and Mexicans alike and, indeed, one of McCarthy's underlying themes appears to be that the West was won through bloodshed. Critics have noted strong gnostic elements in Blood Meridian.
Despite several awards and a number of positive reviews, McCarthy was not widely read until the publication of his sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses (1992). The book, the first part of what McCarthy calls "the Border trilogy," spent some time on bestseller lists and won the National Book Award. It was later made into a film. The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998) rounded out the trilogy.
Literary critic Harold Bloom has named him as one of the four major American novelists of his time, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Philip Roth.
McCarthy currently resides in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and his next book is due in 2004.