Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy (1968) Vintage (1993) 242 pp
Late last year I read Cormac McCarthy’s third novel, Child of God; if it wasn’t the most disturbing book I’d ever read, it was sufficiently disturbing to make me forget whatever was. Now I’ve read his second novel, Outer Dark (1968). Though I’ve read what some consider to be among the most shocking and violent of books — McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, McCarthy’s The Road — I don’t believe they transgress boundaries of comfort as much as these early McCarthy books. Child of God and Outer Dark are shocking, not because they are more violent than the others — in fact, they aren’t — but because they describe taboos even in today’s liberal society. That is not, certainly, to say they are bad books. Both are exceptional — but this review is about Outer Dark.
The first chapter of Outer Dark is one of the best first chapters I think I’ve ever read. I can say that without worrying about inflating your expectations for the book as a whole because it’s safe to say that it doesn’t quite get as good again. In fact, the first chapter could stand completely alone. After one of McCarthy’s strange italicized paragraph introductions, during which we really don’t know what is going on or who is doing it, McCarthy takes us into the tattered home of Culla and Rinthy Holme. Rinthy is on the bed about to give birth. I’m going to stand aside and let McCarthy introduce the characters in his subtle yet clear way:
Three days after the tinker’s visit she had a spasm in her belly. She said: I got a pain.
Is it it? he said, standing suddenly from the bed where he had sat staring out through the one small glass at the unbroken pine forest.
I don’t know, she said. I reckon.
He swore softly to himself.
You goin to fetch her?
He looked at her and looked away again. No, he said.
She sat forward in the chair, watching across the room with eyes immense in her thin face. You said you’d fetch her when it come time.
I never, he said. I said Maybe.
Fetch her, she said. Now you fetch her.
I cain’t. She’d tell.
Who is they to tell?
You could give her a dollar. Couldn’t you give her a dollar not to tell and she’d not tell?
No. Asides she ain’t nothin but a old geechee nigger witch noway.
She’s been a midnight woman caught them babies lots of times. You said your own self she was a midnight woman used to catch them babies.
She said it. I never.
He could hear her crying. A low bubbling sound, her rocking back and forth. After a while she said: I got anothern. Ain’t you goin to fetch her?
It had begun to rain again. The sun went bleak and pallid toward the woods. He walked into the clearing and looked up at the colorless sky. He looked as if he might be going to say something. After a while he licked the beaded water from his lip and went in again.
I thinks it’s perfect. The precarious circumstances are alluded to only. The tension is built with little dialogue, but it’s exact. In those first few sentences we know that Culla has been avoiding the inevitable. Somehow he appears to have hoped this baby would never be born, that time would stop and not allow the consequences of his shame take flesh. We don’t know how it happened, but, whether consensual or not, Rinthy is carrying her brother Culla’s baby. Which is why Culla wills time to stop and why he won’t call anyone to help. He can’t stop time but he’s going to do what he can to keep this secret.
A baby boy is born. Culla knows that, just as he couldn’t avoid its birth, he can’t avoid the day when his incest is revealed by the presence of the child. So, while Rinthy naps exhausted on the bed, Culla takes the child out in a storm to find a secret place to abandon it. There’s an awful image when Culla lays the child down and it kicks off its blanket, feet peddling in the air.
The next scene, particularly the thumping way McCarthy writes it (or perhaps that was only my heart mixing with my reading), is a mightmare rush through the pine boughs. It is raining harder and harder, with lightning flashing all around, and Culla seems to be running in circles until he finally rushes into a glade.
When he crashed into the glade among the cottonwoods he fell headlong and lay there with his cheek to the earth. And as he lay there a far crack of lightning went bluely down the sky and bequeathed him in an embryonic bird’s first fissured vision of the world and transpiring instant and outrageous from dark to dark a final view of the grotto and the shapeless white plasm struggling upon the rich and incunabular moss like a lank swamp hare. He would have taken it for some boneless cognate of his heart’s dread had the child not cried.
It howled execration upon the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleaguered with all limbo’s clamor.
Say what you will about McCarthy’s language and syntax, be it poetic, Biblical, or overblown (all of those in this case), I think it works well in this passage. The image of that child shouting at the storm is the powerful way McCarthy ends this first short chapter.
What remains after that powerful opener is something quite different. The book becomes a road fable, reminding me at times of The Odyssey. After Rinthy discovers that Culla lied about the natural death of their child, Culla leaves to find work and Rinthy leaves to find the child. As they wander they run into a host of individuals, some very good, some bad, and three particularly evil. Throughout the novel, beginning with that strange itallicized introduction, we see these three malicious men have their way with the region in which Culla and Rinthy wander. So, as I’ve found to be the case with most of McCarthy’s work, McCarthy is exploring the boundaries of what is ugly in this world.
He does this with some of his key techniques. As is the case in most of his books, there is an element of play in the evil. In No Country for Old Men, for example, we have Chigurh’s conversation with the store clerk, asking him to call a coin toss. Chigurh never says, “Call this coin incorrectly and I’ll kill you.” The surface is innocuous: “Call it.” But that’s a very thin surface, and the malice is made worse when there is play and spurious innocence. It also creates that wonderful readers’ stress where we don’t want to read on because, this being McCarthy, we know it could end badly even for our favorite charater; but we also don’t want to stop because it’s just awful to leave that character in that situation. We must read on to get the character out of it, even if it means death because at least then the terrible moment is over. Here is what we encounter in Outer Dark:
He removed his hands from his pockets, locked his fingers and pushed them out before him until the knuckles cracked, raised them over his head and gripped the back of his neck with them. Kindly a pretty evenin, ain’t it? he said.
She looked up at a sky heavy and starless above them and laden with the false warmth of impending storm. It’s right dark, she said.
Now it is that, he said. Yes. t is a dark’n. He was looking all about him as if to see was it darker in some places than in others. You ain’t afeared of the dark are ye?
No, she said. I don’t reckon.
Shoot, he said. I bet you’re afeard of the dark. I bet you won’t blow out that there lamp. And me standin right here.
She watched him.
If you was to get scared I’d be right here. Bet ye.
Besides the play, there’s also that element of chance. “Bet ye.” “Call it.” So much of the ugliness is encountered by mere chance, and there’s a lot of it:
I’ll work it out, she said. I can work if I ain’t never had nothing.
Nor never will.
Times is hard.
Hard people makes hard times. I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away.
For the most part, this book comes close to maintaining the high energy of that first chapter, and I found it was almost as compelling to read as McCarthy’s other fast-paced novels Child of God, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At other the pace slackened and it became, in its meandering, a little boring. This went on for only a few pages at a time, and perhaps they were great pages, but I was always wanting the next scene. The stakes felt so high that I didn’t want to stop for long. So, maybe it’s because I just wanted to move on, but the stop-and-go pace of the novel didn’t work for me. I didn’t feel that the slower parts were necessary. We get enough food for thought and beauty of language in small doses like this:
Late in the day the road brought him into a swamp. And that was all. Before him stretched a spectral waste out of which reared only the naked trees in attitudes of agony and dimly hominoid like figures in a landscape of the damned. A faintly smoking garden of the dead that tended away to the earth’s curve. He tried his foot in the mire before him and it rose in a vulvate welt claggy and sucking. He stepped back. A stale wind blew from this desolation and the marsh reeds and black ferns among which he stood clashed softly like things chained. He wondered why a road should come to such a place.