Friday, May 01, 2009

McCarthy's Orchard Keeper as Southern novel

I've written about The Orchard Keeper before, but here I want to talk about it specifically in relation to the Southern novel. It was published in 1965 and at the time McCarthy was thought to be a Southern writer. The Orchard Keeper can be regarded as a Southern novel. It clearly represents a battle between older ways of living, in which laws were laws of nature and not civil law, and the new. It is not only graced with a rural setting but the key characters – Ather and John Wesley in particular – live outside even that rural community, in splendid isolation in the mountains. But change is coming. It is set partly in 1933, the year that prohibition was repealed, presaging change ahead: no more the twilight, edgily glamorous world of bootleggers like Sylder, renegades against the system. Officialdom is closing in on him, as they are on Ather and even John Wesley, the youngest of the characters, the hope for the future.

But while this is all true, it is not sufficient to enable one to classify The Orchard Keeper as Southern. It is Southern only to the extent that its backdrop is recognisably so. Beyond that, there is a great deal at play in this novel which moves far beyond what one might construe as Southern motivation, symbolism or sensibility. This becomes immediately obvious in the opening section, a confused, vaguely mythological-feeling passage in which three unnamed and unexplained men are removing a tree which has grown up and around an old metal fence. The dreamlike manner of this passage, with its deliberate lack of clarity, may invoke Faulkner, but it presages a degree of experimentation throughout the novel that is unusual in the traditional Southern style. While Faulkner’s use of modernist techniques was breathtaking, as Melvin J. Friedman notes:

Faulkner’s inheritors are almost all rather sober storytellers who consider plot, character, setting and theme… before anything else. There is very little, in the telling, to distinguish a story by Flannery O’Connor from a Carson McCullers story, or a Truman Capote story or, for that matter, a Chekhov or a Maupassant story. Nor has the most recent generation of Southern writers markedly changed the face of fiction.

Early critics of McCarthy overlooked the degree of experimentalism in his works, typically dismissing it as faux-Faulknerian posturing. But the swoops in point of view, the unexplained shifts in time-frame, the introduction of completely unrelated, myth-like narrative strands, the disconcerting changes in voice and register, all of these are already present in The Orchard Keeper and, as his career has progressed, they have become increasingly evident. McCarthy is certainly not, like other Southern writers, afraid of experimentation. Besides this, there are further reasons why The Orchard Keeper should be considered on its own merits and not as part of a Southern canon.

The role of family


As discussed, the role of family life in the Southern novel is of primary importance. In an ideal world – an Eden – there is perfect harmony between family, community, nature and God. Family relationships are all-important. The decline of a character may be measured by the esteem in which his or her family is held. Characters who go against family are flirting with doom. For example, in an archetypal Southern novel, Madison Jones’s The Innocent (1957), the clash between old and new is played out in a rural family and the resultant rupture is painful and irrevocable.

In The Orchard Keeper, there are no happy families. In an ironic twist, John Wesley unknowingly befriends Sylder, the man who killed his father. Sylder, in fact, becomes more of a father figure to him: his urging of John Wesley not to endanger himself by going after Sheriff Gifford is a deliberate reverse echo of John Wesley’s mother’s plea to him to ‘find the man that took away your daddy.’ Although John Wesley is clearly fond of Uncle Ather, bringing him tobacco in jail, there is no sense in the novel of family as cohesive unit. This foreshadows what will happen in McCarthy’s later Southern novels: Lester Ballard is alone, family-less and shunned by society in Child of God; Outer Dark begins with the incestuous birth of Rinthy and Culla’s child; and in Suttree, Cornelius Suttree leaves (without any specified reason) his wife and young child. The corollary is clear: family units are broken in McCarthy’s universe.

In this, he differs from the traditional Southern approach. In The Sound and the Fury, for example, the disintegration of the Compson family is indicative of the inability to find and nurture love which is at the root of all Faulkner’s work. And in As I Lay Dying, the family’s emotional inarticulacy costs all of them dearly; even the taciturn Cash, who is as close as it is possible to get to a hero in this novel, is left with a broken leg and the loss of ‘sixty odd square inches of skin’ after a concrete cast, disastrously applied by his feckless father, has to be removed from it. This, then, is family breakdown as metaphor for spiritual decline. In The Orchard Keeper, however, although the family unit is broken, the individuals prevail. The ‘fierce pull of blood’, a phrase which McCarthy quotes directly from the opening page of Faulkner’s Barn Burning, may be important, but there are other, more important relationships in McCarthy’s world.

Nature as character

Although Southern novels are typically agrarian and celebrate rural existence, by and large there is no specificity to their location. Faulkner, of course, invented Yoknapatawpha County for his fiction. Similarly, James Dickey created the Cahulawassee River for Deliverance. Flannery O’Connor’s characters could inhabit anywhere in the South. For these writers, it is the concept of the rural that matters, not the detail. McCarthy’s descriptions of place in The Orchard Keeper, however (and, indeed, in all of his works with the exception of Child of God) are detailed and exact, to the extent that Wes Morgan has precisely identified a number of key locations in McCarthy’s fiction, and given convincing arguments for the location of many more, including, from The Orchard Keeper, the spray pit and the metal tank that Ather shoots out.

McCarthy’s description and depiction of location is so specific it becomes an integral part of the novel. This is perhaps typified most by the remarkable passage relating the collapse of the Green Fly Inn. The porch of this extraordinary edifice was built on stilts among the treetops, teetering precariously over a steep drop into the valley below. McCarthy’s description of it swaying in the wind, and the insouciance of the regulars as they adjust their postures to the shifting gravity, for all the world like sailors in mid-Atlantic, is brilliantly realised. Its inevitable collapse into the ravine below is wonderfully described. The whole passage is like an extended metaphor for the precariousness of man’s relationship with nature and the impossibility of taming it. Similarly, John Wesley’s house is shared with birds and bees and woodworm. Uncle Ather, the eponymous orchard keeper, does not so much keep the place – it ‘went to ruin twenty years before’ – as exist in a symbiotic relationship with it. The mood of the novel is of some form of Gaian natural law in which man and nature co-exist, but only, ultimately, on nature’s terms. It is instructive to remember this when approaching McCarthy’s later dystopian novel, The Road, in which nature has been all but destroyed and the living residue of the world comprises a pathetic few scrapping, scrabbling relics of what once had been. The suggestion that McCarthy is preaching some form of mystical environmentalism cannot be overlooked.


The question of God

However, as one reads through McCarthy’s oeuvre, it is not environmentalism that appears to be his primary consideration, but religion. This, of course, is typically Southern: questions of faith informed Southern writing from Anderson and Faulkner through to McCarthy’s generation (and beyond) and a religious message is more often than not to be found in Southern texts. As Charles P. Roland noted: ‘Above all, southern writers dwell upon the inherent weakness and sinfulness of man. In other words, their themes are essentially religious, however secular they may appear to be.’

It is clear that religion is integral to The Orchard Keeper and that religious symbolism and imagery abounds. Elizabeth Anderson explicitly describes Ather, Sylder and John Wesley – the three generations of man – as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The first words of the murdered Rattner – an Unholy Ghost, perhaps – are ‘Go on, damn ye,’ and his last, as he is murdered by the Christly Sylder, are ‘Jesus Christ, turn me loose.’ This personification of Sylder as a Christ-figure is replicated throughout McCarthy’s work – from Suttree in Suttree, to the boy in The Road. One can see precedents for this, of course, in Southern literature, going back to Doctor Percival in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August, but the personification of good (and, more importantly, of evil) in McCarthy’s work becomes so important as his career progresses that it is clearly more than a literary device. The Orchard Keeper may be less overtly religious than later novels, but the direction of his work is already clear: McCarthy’s career is to be spent debating the metaphysical. In so doing, his sense of the religious becomes increasingly troubled and troublesome. After the publication of Blood Meridian, he would stand accused of gnosticism, antinomianism and anti-humanism, but at this early stage of his career his fundamentalist approach to religion seemed to share more in common with the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor than the typical Southern writer.

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