This is my review of The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy.
This first novel by Cormac McCarthy hooked me with its striking, poetical prose – reminding me of Dylan Thomas but much darker and more uncompromising. Although I have never visited Tennessee, the author conjures it in vivid images of the remote, mountainous landscape, the weather, wildlife and local people living close to the breadline but capable of unexpected acts of kindness. He also captures the rhythm and wry humour of their dialect.
The mainly short scenes shift backwards and forwards in time so that it is often hard to work out who the subjects are, what is happening and why. McCarthy has a gift for creating tension: when the bootlegger Sylder is driving an unwelcome hitch-hiker back to Knoxville you know that it will end in violence. But for the most part the plot is thin, and the author seems mainly interested in describing in minute detail incidents of daily life which he must have observed – the sensation of driving along roads "ferruling through dark forests of owl trees, bat caverns, witch covens"; a boy laying his first traps; an old man's relationship with his dog. On a more dramatic note are the memorable descriptions of the balcony of the Green Fly Inn cracking under the weight of drinkers to crash into the canyon below, or later the old man under gun attack in his shack, for reasons yet to be revealed to the rearder.
The story is very male-dominated – focus on sleazy bars, hunting, seeking vengeance through violence, plus the at times corny rapport between tough men and the young boys they teach to track coons with dogs, and seek to guide with homely wisdom.
Some initial scenes of the sex-or-is-it-rape-in-a-church variety were so distasteful to me that I nearly gave up, but I am glad that I persevered. This book requires the investment of time, the rereading of some of the more original poetic passages, the suspension of any expectations. I came to understand that what happens to the petty criminal Sylder, the boy, John Wesley, who unbeknown to both of them is the son of the man he was forced to kill, and the ancient recluse Alan Ownby who happens to observe some of Sylder's activities, matters less than the power of nature around them.
In short, I would recommend this not for the plot, but as an exercise in astonishing writing.