The Orchard Keeper. Cormac McCarthy.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Orchard Keeper. Vintage, New York, 1965. F; 11/20.

A friend listing the books on his “to be read” shelf mentioned this. Classic fiction is sometimes surprisingly rewarding (Middlemarch, Mrs. Dalloway). I’ve read McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and The Road, and they were dark and pretty rich with serious emotion. This one, McCarthy’s first, felt heavily like Faulkner, especially like The Sound and the Fury: the South around 1930, acceptance of a rough life, violence, obscurity. Events evolve in and against an overwhelming wilderness and the emotional weight here permeates from that backdrop more than from what happens in the story, the characters, or any kind of moral ideas.

The characters and events are obscure (although less so than the early going in The Sound and the Fury) and McCarthy seems to be testing how tough the cord of our suspension of plot disbelief is. It’s often night. A rectangular early 1930s Ford moves illegal whiskey, its driver Marion Sylder picking up an anonymous drifter who tries to murder him but whom he kills and dumps into a concrete spray pit. The drifter turns out to be Kenneth Rattner, father of young adolescent John Rattner, who later rescues and is befriended by Sylder. Dead Rattner senior is maintained hidden in the spray pit by elderly Arthur Ownby who is young Rattner’s second mentor and the informal orchard keeper (ironically. He’s a grave-keeper). He (the “Old Man”) defends himself with a shotgun against government agents and escapes into the bush, but eventually gets caught by a wily federal agent and is put in prison. Young John is the only one to escape and he returns years later to find things much changed.

Particular details are authentic and darkly comical. A wonderfully dilapidated bar has a back porch hanging over a gully into which the proprietor sweeps garbage and bottles after closing. One night the drinkers on the porch hear nails pulling loose and many of them fall into the gully as the porch collapses. McCarthy’s southern dialogue is phonetic, without punctuation: “you cain’t hardly get there from here, he said. You ort to of come thew Sunshine, crost the river there…”

As the Tennessee characters work through plot events, we become aware that the natural world in their time and place is vertiginous and dangerously unpredictable: “the wind rising and gone colder until the trees bent as if borne forward on some violent acceleration of the earth’s turning” and that those characters’ perception is subject to nature’s momentum: “Groups of trees turned slowly like masted carousels, blending shadows and parting in darkness and wonder (italics mine).”

Themes whirling around in this dark world come up only gradually from its obscurity. Young John’s coming-of-age as a trapper, old Arthur’s doomed iron conservative endurance, Sylder’s petty lawbreaking, and the harsh authority of the police. People and events driven by a brutal surrounding adapt in their way to its will and carry on.

Just now I’m reading some of DH Lawrence’s essays and I remember his wild commentary on classic American fiction. He might have seen Faulkner and McCarthy as a bit Melville-like, pushing forward without knowing what it was a mysterious and wonderful horror that may find its way to redemption through the telling. I finished this novel with a respect-for-the-past reverence that didn’t fit for me with the dizzy confusion of reading it. It’s Lawrence-like too for a good storyteller to achieve artistic solemnity and disturb it at the same time. 8.2/9.3

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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