The Orchard Keeper
by Cormac McCarthy (1965)
Vintage (1982)
246 pp

For my seventh venture into McCarthy’s novels, I chose his debut (I’m apparently on a debut streak right now) The Orchard Keeper. 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.

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