Most Americans became familiar with Cormac McCarthy after he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2007 to talk about his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Road. The novel is a post-apocalyptic story about a father and son on a long journey through the marauding remains of America, seeking sanctuary at the Sea. It’s a story full of sexual violence, murdered children, and casual cannibalism, yet at its heart it is about human connection, the love between parents and children.
For most McCarthy fans, The Road felt like a departure for the author. Until then, his novels had mined the recent or distant past. All the Pretty Horses, his most famous work until The Road – one that spawned a pretty terrible Matt Damon film – was centered in the mid 20th century American West, as was its follow-up The Crossing. Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s masterwork, trails “The Kid,” a boy fighting and killing his way through the remnants of the Mexican War. It’s a dense, tightly wound opus that is both deeply philosophical and visually stunning. Re-reading it makes you feel as though McCarthy had been practicing to write The Road for years. Like that post-apocalyptic world, the travellers of Blood Meridian journey through a scarred, similarly malevolent environment, one that is indifferent to human suffering.
The same could be said of McCarthy’s first novel The Orchard Keeper, which was published on June 1, 1965 by Random House. Set between the two world wars, the story takes place in the small mountain towns outside of Knoxville, Tennessee amongst a cast of hermits, bootleggers, and people just trying to get by in an increasingly industrialized and alienating civilization. It begins with Marion Sydler, an outlaw, picking up a hitchhiker outside of Atlanta and driving him back to Tennessee. Immediately, Sydler is convinced that he has made a grave mistake, but he also feels like he has no choice in the matter, as if the hitchhiker picked him. He was right to be afraid. On the roadside, the rider, Kenneth Rattner, tried to murder Sydler and steal his car. Instead, Sydler kills Rattner in self-defense and then dumps his body in a pit off the side of the road. The story unfurls around the consequences of that one act and its effect upon not only Sydler, but two other characters: Rattner’s son John Wesley, who is told by his mother to avenge his father’s murder, and an old man, Uncle Ather, who discovers the body, but does not report it to the police.
Although McCarthy was only 32 at the time of publication, his dense, coiling prose style is almost fully formed in The Orchard Keeper. Bereft of quotation marks, while also switching points of view every couple of pages, McCarthy demands that the reader pay attention to every line, every image. The characters struggle against their own base instincts, while also negotiating with nature itself. Memories of panthers stalking the hills haunt survivors, while a bar – the aptly named Green Fly Inn – hangs off the side of a mountain, barely tethered to the land. In each line you can hear traces of Faulkner and Hemingway but this isn’t Mississippi or Paris. It’s a rougher, more disorienting world where violence – both natural and manmade – can strike at any time.
Yet within that gloom, there is beauty. Not all is hopeless, lost. Even inside of a violent world, there is a chance for human connection, for empathy. In describing the Green Fly Inn, McCarthy writes, “At times, the whole building would career madly to one side as though headlong into collapse. The drinkers would pause, liquid tilting in their glasses, the structure would shudder violently, a broom would fall, a bottle, and the inn would slowly right itself and assume once more its normal reeling equipoise. The drinkers would raise their glasses, talk would begin again…to them the inn was animate as any old ship to her crew and it bred an atmosphere such as few could boast, a solidarity due largely to its very precariousness.”
While you don’t always find this sort of solidarity in McCarthy’s fiction, you do in The Orchard Keeper. It could be as simple as an old man like Uncle Ather telling tales of a long ago Tennessee to eager school children, or John Wesley forming a bond with the bootlegger Marion Sydler. Despite the criticism leveled against McCarthy for being too bleak, The Orchard Keeper shows a writer capable of seeing light within the darkness.
Over the last fifty years, McCarthy has emerged as one of our greatest novelists on par with Faulkner, Melville, and Morrison. His dense, richly detailed works examined the American landscape, scouring the American mythology of the South and the West, while examining the weight of our brutal history. Though the horror of his stories are off-putting to some, his lyrical beauty and supreme intelligence show him not as a writer looking to shock, but one hoping to understand what it means to be human.