Cormac McCarthy: The Orchard Keeper

For my seventh venture into McCarthy’s novels, I chose his debut (I’m apparently on a debut streak right now) The Orchard Keeper (1965).  For me, this was his most difficult yet, perhaps because much of the time I didn’t really feel like I knew what was going on and didn’t entirely trust that the obfuscation was with valid purpose.  More than any other McCarthy novel, I had to work very hard to follow the narrative thread (or, rather, to find the narrative thread after losing it several times). There were some pay-offs, though.  Well before I finished it, I already could tell it was going to be a book that I would enjoy thinking about more than I enjoyed reading it.  Was it worth it?  The answer, of course, is it depends.

The book begins with a disorienting italicized scene that sets up a metaphor.  A couple of African American cemetery workers (who do not play another role in the novel) are trying to cut through a tree when they discover that an iron fence has “growed all through the tree.”  At first glance, the meaning of the metaphor is obvious: something man-made is destroying nature.  Basically, that is the metaphor’s essence; however, as The Orchard Keeper develops, the layers of meaning multiply.  Yes, on one level it is man’s inclination to destroy nature.  But on another level, it is man’s inclination to destroy another man’s nature.  Thankfully, McCarthy was intelligent enough at this young age to not give way to meanings quite so simple.  Or, in other words, McCarthy has a story to tell; the meaning is almost — but not quite — incidental.

I think the best way to discuss this novel is to give a very short introduction to the characters and plot, even though the book takes a long time for us to get there.  The story takes place between the wars in an isolated community in Tennessee.  In the first part we meet a drifter who comes off rather menacing.  This is Kenneth Rattner, father to our central character (number one), John Wesley Rattner.  Later in the novel we learn that he was once (allegedly) a captain.  Hanging in his house above his wife and son is his portrait where he, “fleshly of face and rakish in an overseas cap abutting upon his right eyebrow, the double-barred insignia wreathed in light, soldier, father, ghost, eyed them.”  There is little of the military captain in the drifter we meet (whether there is anything to the miliatry captain at all remains in doubt for me).  He picks up rides and then, foreshadowing many of McCarthy’s most menacing characters, frightens his drivers with opaque statements. 

Another of our main characters (number two) Marion Sylder is one of the menaced drivers.  When both men are out of the car, Kenneth Rattner inexplicably attacks Sylder.  Sylder is able to defend himself and ends up killing Kenneth Rattner.  The fight and the aftermath show McCarthy’s already developed gift of developing tension in everyday interaction as he shows just how sudden violence strikes.  Sylder eventually takes the dead body to the spray pit in a decaying orchard.  Here we meet the last of our main characters (number three), Ather Ownby, the old man who oversees the orchard.

Interestingly, both Ownby and Sylder become surrogate fathers to the young John Wesley Rattner, though it appeared to me that Ownby and Sylder never actually meet face-to-face.  The young Rattner does not know that Sylder killed his father and that Ownby knows where the dead body is.  But, in fact, Sylder does not know he killed Rattner’s father, and Ownby has no idea whose body lies in the spray pit.  It is a complicated set up where no one but the reader knows what has happened.

Honestly, though I found the characters interesting and well realized, I wasn’t much taken in by this McCarthy story.  Despite the underlying tensions, the setup between these characters felt relatively tame.  To me the novel’s strengths lie in the atmosphere and in the history McCarthy tracks. 

Sylder is a bootlegger and runs illegal alcohol around the countryside (I may be wrong, but I believe the only times Ownby sees Sylder is when from the shadows of his hermit home he sees Sylder driving the country road past the orchard).  The temperance movement is in full swing: 

Long paper banners ran the length of the buses proclaiming for Christ in tall red letters, and for sobriety, offering to vote against the devil when and wherever he ran for office.

As he does in his later works, McCarthy injects into this scene a vast scope.  This is not just a period in history.  This is an epoch.  This is a legend. What it has to say has ramifications beyond the historical as we venture to the fringes and into the liminal space:

Sundays the Knoxville beer taverns were closed, their glass fronts dimmed and muted in sabbatical quietude, and Sylder turned to the mountain to join what crowds marshaled there beyond the dominion of laws either civil or spiritual.

Marion Sylder’s family, in particular, is used to create this epochal feel: “They were a whisky-making family before whiskey-making was illegal, their family mythical, preliterate and legendary.”  Of course, we know early on that Sylder’s time is limited, and therefore this myth is about to end.  Sylder also knows this and, in fact, one of the best passages in the novel is when a jailed Sylder explains this to the young Rattner who vows to kill the man who took Sylder into captivity.  Without attempting to call this a golden age or these characters heroes, this book is nevertheless a lamentation for this lost time.  The disorienting tone serves this purpose.

Also, the disorienting nature of the narrative brings to mind a dream (appropriate as the time period now exists only in a dream), and some of the images bolster this impression.  For example, in one of my favorite scenes from the first part of the book, a tavern that creaks like a boat seems to explode when its porch falls off.  The dream-like quality continues as McCarthy describes the aftermath:

There it continued to burn, generating such heat that the hoard of glass beneath it ran molten and fused in a single sheet, shaped in ripples and flutings, encysted with crisp and blackened rubble, murrhined with bottlecaps.  It is there yet, the last remnant of that landmark, flowing down the sharp fold of the valley like some imponderable archaeological phenomenon.

Now, that passage shows to a small extent what The Orchard Keeper proves again and again: young McCarthy already had a phenomenal vocabulary, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.  For those who dislike his later work because his vocabulary seems affected or forced, this is certainly not a book to read.  I am a fan of McCarthy’s language, but at times The Orchard Keeper was all complex vocabulary all the time.  Consequently, because even the most unimportant passage is raised to heights by the lofty language, it felt a bit flat and atonal.  Still, McCarthy is able to use it to describe some great scenes, like this one where the police are coming to take Old Man Ownby.  When they fear he will fire upon them, they fire away, and we get a great description of the scene from inside the house where Ownby is hiding on the floor.

The kitchen glass exploded in on him then and he got behind the stove.  There was a cannonade of shots from the woods and he sat there on the floor listening to it and to the spat spat of bullets passing through the house.  Little blooms of yellow wood kept popping out on the planks and almost simultaneously would be the sound of the bullet in the boards on the other side of the room.  They did not whine as they passed through.  The old man sat very still on the floor.  One shot struck the stove behind him and leaped off with an angry spang, taking the glass out of the table lamp.  It was like being in a room full of invisible and malevolent spirits.

So, the book is both frustrating and beautiful.  It lacks the cohesiveness of McCarthy’s later works, but it also shows his strengths were already highly developed.  The story itself is not satisfying, but the atmosphere it evokes is.  Therefore, whether the book is worth reading depends.  As a fan of McCarthy, I had to read it.  I may have been disappointed in one sense, but it worked to satisfy the hunger I feel for McCarthy’s work at times.  Its last lines make me hungry for more:

They are gone now.  Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone.  Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses.  No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains.  On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.

16 thoughts on “Cormac McCarthy: The Orchard Keeper

  1. Nice review Trevor. There are McCarthy’s I’m very keen to read, but this doesn’t sound like it will join them. As you may recall I do think he tends to overwrite and to allow his vocabulary to swamp his prose. His strengths make that worth it to me, and that flaw (for me) is connected to those strengths – I’m not sure his gift for language can be separated from his excesses.

    Here though it seems that he hasn’t yet learned to martial it all to a clear purpose. It sounds like the structure is a little lacking, or perhaps simply that there’s a strong plot but a plot that even so doesn’t matter. With No Country the plot and language reinforce each other. The same probably for The Road. Here perhaps not so much.

    It also seems a bit more obvious than later. Here he seems to be saying it’s all mythical. Later he seems happier to show that mythic quality.

    Or I could be being overly harsh. Do you have many left? I know how much you love McCarthy. You’re not running out of them are you?

  2. Trevor says:

    I certainly think that if the goal is not to read all of McCarthy’s work but just to read his best then this is one to pass on, Max. Relative to many other books, it is great if a bit frustrating for its purposeful opacity which, at times, seems unnecessary. But it also shows just how great McCarthy was to become. I agree with your statement that here he hasn’t yet learned to martial it all to a clear purpose, certainly not when compared to The Road where I felt his style really strengthened the whole book.

    I do think, though, that he is already able to show the mythic quality and isn’t just saying it.

    As for the remainder of his work, I still have Suttree and the last two books of the Border Trilogy. Also, I haven’t read but will read his plays, and not just for to satisfy my completionist tendency: they sound pretty good. And there are reports that he has three novels in the works. Hopefully he’ll get them done so we don’t have to wonder “what could have been” over some posthumous releases.

  3. Thanks Trevor and noted on the mythic quality (one of his many strengths).

    Perhaps one to revisit then when I’ve read some more of his other titles. Actually, that raises a good question.

    I’ve read No Country for Old Men and The Road so far. What would you suggest as the best one to try next?

  4. Trevor says:

    “As the best one” I don’t think I can say. However, for you Max, I would recommend Child of God. It is fantastic and dark and wonderfully written.

    That said, I really liked all of the others, too. Outer Dark has some wonderful writing (the first chapter is particularly great). and perhaps more than any of his others it reads like a dreamy myth, though I think it lacks some of the narrative thrust of others. All the Pretty Horses was wonderful, though people criticize it as being sentimental and that McCarthy purposefully wrote an “accessible” novel to win an award. I don’t believe it is sentimental, and I don’t understand how this one is accessible; it is dense and filled with McCarthy’s signature poetic prose and lengthy philosophies (his last two books are much much more accessible). And it doesn’t strike me as genuine to say it was written to win an award. Well, at any rate, I liked it a lot and still think about it often. The best I’ve read (so far) is Blood Meridian, but it is brutal and beautifully opaque. One I’d recommend later in a McCarthy read. I’m also a big fan of the two you’ve read, but I think McCarthy was darker and maybe better in the first half of his career, and it is sad more people don’t go back that far. Hard to say those aren’t as good, though, because I really love those two late books.

  5. Nathan says:

    I agree that All the Pretty Horses isn’t accessible or sentimental–I loved it and thought Cities of the Plain was of the same caliber.

  6. Kevin says:

    hi trevor, i had a similar experience with OK as you did; there are snatches of brilliances against the backdrop of a plot in shambles. at least that’s my prevailing impression. you know, it would be an interesting study to examine the evolution of McC’s methods, themes, and treatment, from OK to Outer Dark, because this latter work feels a helluva’lot more like a McC in full possession of his powers. How can a writer change/grow in such a short space of time? cheers, k

  7. Child of God’s on its way to my Kindle Trevor. Thanks.

    Looking back at your review of it I see it interested me then too. Thanks for the reminder.

    On a massively unrelated note, I keep seeing references to a book called The Hare with Amber Eyes. Do you know of it? Have any bloggers covered it that you know of?

  8. leroyhunter says:

    Interesting precis of McCarthy’s career in your comment to Max, Trevor. As luck would have it I started with Blood Meridian, which I think is a book any serious reader should tackle. I’ve followed your lead and gone back to his earlier stuff, Child of God will be next when I get to it.

    Max, sorry for butting in, but I have the Amber Eyes book on the shelf (as yet unread). The review that sent me out for it is here:
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2010/0605/1224271868868.html

    There are a lot of reasons there for it to appeal there, and having dipped into it I’m really looking forward. The hardback is a lovely production to boot.

  9. That’s not butting in at all Leroy, thank you for the link. Trevor, sorry for the diversion.

  10. Trevor says:

    No worries, Max, diversions are welcome. Indeed, this one made me look into a promising book I’d heard about but never really considered.

  11. Paul DELAYE says:

    Thank you very much for your blog. A French reader and McCarthy fan, I have just finished The Orchard Keeper, after a 4 month-struggle. I was so overwhelmed by the faulkner-like descriptions of the Appalachian landscapes, and sometimes put off by the author’s dizzying use of vocabulary and syntax that I had to gather other readers’ opinion to get a better understanding of the plot itself… Still, having read about seven of his books by now,I think it is interesting to watch one the very best American writers beginning to explore some of his favourite themes.Keep up the good work.

  12. Paul DELAYE says:

    And by the way, I agree: The Border Trilogy and The Road are some of his more accessible novels without trying to please everybody.

  13. juks says:

    interesting review. I thought this book was virtually plotless. The plot is so loose that it’s hard to follow. There doesn’t really seem like a focus. I understand the relationship between the boy and the outlaw is key, but it’s not really treated that way by McCarthy. In fact, almost everything in the book feels like sub-plot. But perhaps that’s the point. There is nothing significant about life as presented in the The Orchard Keeper. You live your life, then you die. The insignifance of life is juxtaposed against the towering beauty of the natural world; man is temporal, nature is eternal.

    I think if the book focussed on the old man, the man watching the orchards, and concentrated on telling a story about ageing and cultural obsolescence, i think it could have been amazing.

    As it stands, it’s a great work on the level of atmosphere, but i think the lack of a well developed story really hurts it.

    It’s still worth reading though.

  14. Ren says:

    Thank you for the review Trevor, you provided a little clarity on a few points. I finished the book this morning and as usual after every CMcC book it left me wanting more. A tremendous first novel, not the best but definitely on the must read list for devotees.

  15. Steve says:

    I believe McCarthy’s plots–including that of The Orchard Keeper and especially those of No Country for Old Men, The Road, and Blood Meridian–are easier to understand and appreciate as extended fables or metaphors. They don’t wrap up neatly. They lay out. They therefore can’t be so easily dissected as to say, for instance, that The Road is “about” fathers’ love for their sons and the inevitability of succession, or that No Country is “about” the ways that fate (including death or Death) overtakes us based sometimes on our choices and sometimes, apparently, regardless of our choices, or that Blood Meridian is “about” war and manifest destiny. Instead, they present these for our understanding and appreciation, and also puzzlement. All lives end in death, and if someone survives a novel–especially a McCarthy novel–it feels like grace.

  16. jackelvis says:

    I agree that All the Pretty Horses isn’t accessible or sentimental–I loved it and thought Cities of the Plain was of the same caliber. Here is the more details please visit us : http://mordo-crosswords-solution.blogspot.in/2014/07/orchard-menaces.html

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