When Oprah met Cormac.

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June 6 2007 5:39 PM

When Oprah Met Cormac

He's no Salinger.

Oprah Winfrey. Click image to expand.
Oprah Winfrey

Did you catch the Onion-quality headline under which the New York Times ran a Celia Dugger story on Bono's debt-relief advocacy? May 15, 2007: "Rock Star Still Hasn't Found the African Aid He's Looking For." Yeah, well, Bono put on his Bono specs and went on The Oprah Winfrey Show yesterday to speak with America's eternal angel. He followed Michael Moore, who had donned a pair of eyeglasses perhaps a touch too narrow for his face to promote Sicko, his forthcoming indictment of the U.S. health-care system. But these two slick activists were the mere undercard for the media naif at the centerpiece of the episode, Cormac McCarthy.

Did you know that McCarthy—whose most recent novel, The Road, is Oprah's most recent book-club selection—had never done TV before? Oprah did, as evidenced by her proud boasts that she had scored "an interview that people thought would be impossible to get" and "his first television interview ever" and, my favorite, "his first television interview ev-ah!" The segment promised to be a bit like a prophet coming down from the mountain and a bit like Bill Gray, the literary recluse in Don DeLillo's Mao II, consenting to have his soul snatched by that Swedish photographer. In fact, it was a bit like your shy-ish grandpa acting gracious with the whippersnappers at a birthday brunch and a bit like Dylan coming out of hiding after his alleged motorcycle crash: He, too, must move units.

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Oprah played an embarrassing short film inspired by the novel (about a father-son trek through the post-apocalypse) that even featured shots of singed pages of its text—a sight that called to mind the elementary-school assignment in which you reproduce the, like, Magna Carta on typing paper and steep the sheet in tea and have your mom take a kitchen match to its edges. Then the proper interview began. It proved to be absurd, of course, but not quite so much as one might hope. Oprah wore a sky-blue V-neck and lipstick of a fuchsia shade perhaps deliberately de trop. One rather hoped that her guest—the maestro of high-literary horse operas and a man whose last really good book was Blood Meridian—would show up for their Santa Fe rendezvous looking like so much tumbleweed. Instead, he resembled J. Peterman's idea of a wise ol' ranch hand: bright blue work shirt, handsome chinos, and boots that I don't think I can afford. Cormac—may I call you Cormac, now?—slumped tolerantly in his deep leather chair, hand on head.

Oprah asked questions, many of them not stupid, and she slipped into her pretentious Jessye Norman intonation when reminding her audience that the book had won the Pulitzer Prize. Stay-at-home moms from Roxbury to La Jolla doubtlessly went gaga for this; others of us were simply happy to be reminded of a fine line by William Gass: "The Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses."

Cormac crinkled and twinkled—avuncular, patient, not entirely unsassy. He spilled forth the twang and soft grit of his voice in a seducer's hush you wanted to lean into. If he ever abandons his skepticism about pursuing publicity—"I don't think it's good for your head," he told Oprah—he'd be a natural on CBS Sunday Morning. The byplay was flirty enough to put you in mind of those moments that pass, every evening around 7, over book-party chardonnay or publishing-course sherry: The gray eminence delivers patient answers to a dewy literary bud as if her questions—Do you write every day? Or just when inspiration strikes?—had never before nuzzled his hairy ears. She smiles understandingly and waits for a chance to call him out for blushing. "What do you want us to get from this book?" Oprah asked Cormac. "You should be thankful for what you have," he said, causing me to wonder if a collaboration with Mitch Albom is coming down the pike.

What do Bono and Michael Moore and Cormac McCarthy have in common in this context? Have they materialized in our family rooms so that we can do our part—for Africa, for health care, for Lit-ra-chur—without giving a dime or breaking a sweat? If Jerome David Salinger descended from his own private ashram in New Hampshire to greet Oprah with a hug, would she waste our time by asking questions about "identifying" with Franny Glass? What does she want us to get from this show?

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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