Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Revisiting McCarthy's Debut

Back in 1994, my freshman year of college at SLU, The Orchard Keeper was the only Cormac McCarthy novel in Pius XII library. Having read McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses about a year before, I checked it out but read only the first few pages, finding it a little dull and impenetrable. I was curious to give it another try after all these years and considerably more experience with Cormac McCarthy. Looking back, I'm glad I put it down. I wouldn't have been able to make much sense of it back then.

Not that I’ve got it all figured out now. The book doesn't hang together very well, though it has some fine passages. In this 1965 novel, you can see a lot of elements that McCarthy will return to later. There's the boy coming of age (with echoes of Telemachus)—here it's John Wesley Rattner; later it's John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses. Even their names echo each other. There's Kenneth Rattner, the shiftless and incorrigible sonofabitch—an early, more malign version of Suttree’s Gene Harrogate. There's the wandering old man, displaced from any world that makes sense; here it's Arthur (Ather) Ownby, later it's Billy Parham in the Epilogue of Cities of the Plain. In this novel, John Wesley sets animal traps, an activity that connects him to a lost tradition, much like the wolf traps Billy learns to set in The Crossing. There's inept small-town law enforcement like that in Child of God; of course, McCarthy takes a more sympathetic and nuanced look at a small-town sheriff in No Country for Old Men. McAnally Flats, the down-and-out section of Knoxville where Suttree is set, makes an appearance here, as does the detail of money being offered by local government in return for hawk carcasses. John Wesley makes a dollar in this way and later tries to give it back; Harrogate comes up with a harebrained scheme to turn the government policy into a major source of revenue.

Cats are all over Suttree, a mysterious motif that appears in this novel as well. Near the end of the novel, Uncle Ather gives his thoughts on cats, in a passage that may shed light on what McCarthy’s doing with the motif: “Cats is smart…. Smarter’n a dog or a mule. Folks think they ain’t on account of you cain’t learn em nothin, but what it is is that they won’t learn nothin. They too smart.” How many characters in Suttree does that description describe, including Sut himself?

There’s a moment here when Marion Sylder and John Wesley Rattner "moved on across the field, through vapors of fog and wisps of light, to the east, looking like the last survivors of Armaggedon," an image which inevitably calls to mind The Road. Sylder and John Wesley are an odd father-son pairing, since Sylder is a criminal who actually killed John Wesley's father (sort of in self-defense), and yet he does seem to teach the boy something about being a man: he gives him his first dog, teaches him to hunt, and warns him against seeking revenge on the sheriff who put Sylder himself in jail. He initiates him into the adult world, into disillusionment: “You want to be some kind of a goddamned hero. Well, I’ll tell ye, they ain’t no more heroes.” It’s a lesson that John Grady Cole will go to his grave rather than accept.

The Orchard Keeper is not a great book—too much goes unexplained, too many threads remain untied, even for a McCarthy novel. But it's interesting to read for these precursors to the later work, and there are certainly hints of the greatness to come.

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