Monday, February 09, 2009

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, is probably his most obviously Southern novel. It celebrates the irascible independence of rural folks, their interconnectedness and yet their solitariness, the simple, rustic life, and it feeds off a low-level violence that always threatens to explode. In evoking the –even then – dying rural lifestyle, McCarthy is at his most Faulknerian – too much so, in fact, for Orville Prescott writing in the New York Times at the time of its publication in 1965: [there are] so many of Faulkner's literary devices and mannerisms that [McCarthy] half submerges his own talents beneath a flood of imitation.

The novel proceeds in a series of brief episodes, the focus or locus of which are not always explained, featuring three principal characters – John Wesley Rattner, a young boy whose father, a con man, has been murdered; Marion Sylder, a bootlegger, who murdered Rattner; and the boy’s uncle Ather, who, not knowing that it is Rattner, has been watching over his dead body after Sylder dumped it in his spray pit. The novel thus proceeds in a series of ironic interludes. Sylder and the boy become friends, neither realising the other’s connection with Rattner senior. They help each other, dangerously so when Sylder is running illicit liquor and being chased by Deputy Legwater, and the boy comes to idolise the man. ‘They ain’t no more heroes,’ Sylder tells him angrily when he comes to visit him in jail after his arrest. This effectively sums up the novel. Trouble rebounds around the three characters, amid escalating violence and the increasing threat of authority. In the process, McCarthy focuses on questions of loyalty and the ties that bind. As ever, the metaphysical is lurking in the background, presaged, in typically McCarthian style by references to the prehistoric life from which we evolved:

…the floor of the forest – littered with old mossbacked logs, peopled with toadstools strange and solemn among the ferns and creepers and leaning to show their delicate livercolored gills – has about it a primordial quality, some steamy carboniferous swamp where ancient saurians lurk in feigned sleep.

McCarthy will use this device again and again in his fiction, most notably in The Road, where it forms the essential bookends to his dystopia. Remember where we came from, he is telling us; remember we are nothing but the creation of the Almighty and our intelligence and our independence mean nothing against his power. Mildred Rattner, the boy’s mother and Rattner’s wife, spells it out:

Mildred Rattner pinched from loaf to loaf across the bread rack. When them as wallers in sin thinks they’s getting by with it, she said, that’s when He strikes em in His holy wrath. He jest bides His time.

This begins to lead us into familiar territory. We are dealing with humanity and human weakness. Thre is evil here. Before he murders Rattner, we are told: ‘It was not presentiment that warned Sylder to get shed of his guest but a profound and unshakable knowledge of the presence of evil.’ That sentence could have come straight from Flannery O’Connor. The Orchard Keeper was published in 1965 but it was written in 1962, two years before the death of O’Connor. Although their writing styles are dissimilar – McCarthy’s verbal flourishes would be out of place amid the cloistered violence of O’Connor, while her writing is invested with a humour that is largely absent in McCarthy – there is no mistaking the similarities in the treatment of theme and, in particular, the delineation of freak characters. The Orchard Keeper is a curious novel. It is hard to like because McCarthy goes to such length to keep his characters distant from the reader, and yet it lingers in the memory.

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