The Orchard Keeper (1965) – Cormac McCARTHY

Cormac Mc Carthy is an author that has interested me greatly for a long time now – I blame No Country For Old Men, which is an excellent film, and you should all see it if you haven’t already. Picador have also reissued his backlist into these gorgeous new covers, making them almost irresistible. I’m aware that The Road is probably, now, his most well-known novel, but I figured I’d start at the beginning, and slowly make my way through his stuff, working up to The Road. Of course, by the time I get there, he may have written another one…

In a small town in rural Tennessee, two men hurtle towards each other, neither aware of the relationship that already exists between them. Marion Sydler is a rum-runner, trading alcohol during a period of prohibition. John Wesley Rattner is a young teenager who unwittingly gets caught up in the rum-running business. Years ago, though, Sydler murdered Rattner’s father in an altercation, something neither man knows.

Hands down the best part of this novel is McCarthy’s grasp of the English language (though some digging around on the internet seems to indicate he is a direct successor to William Faulkner, who I have now added to my list.) I’m struggling to think of an author so in command of the language – his descriptions of both landscape and humanity are collections of words you’d never have thought could or should go together, and somehow, he just makes them work. The sense of place this allows is palpable – each and every scene is vivid in one’s mind, from the colour of the sunlight to the individual leaves on each of the trees. I had intended on highlighting this through a quote, but I couldn’t find just one example. It’s all great.

Characters, too, are given the McCarthy treatment. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is a dearth of female characters, but his men are strong, gruff and isolated. The plot thread dealing with the trade of alcohol highlights the tense relationship between these criminals and the police, and the isolation felt in the wide spaces McCarthy describes simply accentuates the sense of wilderness, of frontier living that these characters so clearly inhabit. The old man, who features heavily in the lives of the two main characters, is withered and tired – he moves slowly and carefully, though it is clear there is a spark of life lingering underneath this exterior. There is a particularly poignant scene near the end where he is forcibly removed from his dog, and his reaction is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Sydler and Rattner remain closed off to the reader – there is never a hint of their own feelings about their actions. This makes Syddler in particular come of as a raving loony who cares not for anyone else, and since that’s all we have to go by, perhaps that is what we are invited to think. Perhaps he is a precursor to the insane man Javier Bardem plays in No Country for Old Men.

This sense of bleakness and violence – this Southern Gothic feeling for which McCarthy has become well-known – is perhaps no more evident in the murder around which the plot revolves. Sydler’s decision to kill Rattner’s father is the result of a fairly trivial car incident, but the violence and force with which he carries out the murder is so intense, so visceral, it’s hard not to feel that, perhaps, it was unwarranted. But on the road, where no one else can see you, and indeed, where no one else lives, there is no law, no rules governing the relationships between men. McCarthy’s suggestion that we would all revert so quickly to violence is terrifying.

Unfortunately, though, McCarthy’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. His over reliance on descriptors and sense of place means the plot itself does suffer. Fractured in the truest sense of the word, each chapter – indeed, almost each paragraph – is disconnected from the previous, and it is up to the reader to play catch up in trying to fill in the blanks. I had to turn back every now and then to try and work out if I’d missed something vitally important, but as it turns out, that’s simply the way of the book. One cannot help but wonder if a reread might be in order some time in the future to try and piece together exactly how everything joins together.

It’s hard for me to write a concrete, concise essay explaining how I felt about The Orchard Keeper. It is clear that McCarthy has a gift for manipulating the English language for his own purposes, as long as that purpose is describing landscapes. His inability to channel this into a more meaningful plot and set of characters is disappointing, though not enough to put me off eventually picking him up again.

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