The Orchard keeper (Novel/1965)
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is quite possibly America’s best author working today. Often accused of stealing William Faulkner’s style, it can’t be denied that he carries the giant’s torch, crafting tales dripped in Southern mythology. Perhaps the closest author alive and currently active I can think of is Louis Erdrich, whose work explores Native American mythology with its own indiosyncratic quirks (I’ve only read one novel but it is evident that she is the real my favorite female author besides Toni Morrison). It’s hard to ignore McCarthy’s impact on American literature.
I first encountered McCarthy’s work when I was assigned his post apocalyptic novel The Road for a Post WW2 American Lit course. I was a junior still wet behind the ears, my favorite author at the time (through I now struggle with–though I have a great argument to be made against his revisionist declaration of insidious sexism) was Ernest Hemingway, and I had a limited range of authors I had read. What immediately struck me about McCarthy’s prose was its wealth of language, lack of quotation marks, and poetry that defied my then notions of what a science-fiction horrow novel could be. The novel read like flashes of scenes, having no chapter or paragraph indentations. It was just blocks of prose, separated by line breaks.
I later ran into McCarthy when I read All the Pretty Horses while hospitalized in New York City. The novel was drenched in mythology, telling the tale of a wandering cowboy lost in youthful love. My impression of it unfortunately marred by Billy Bob Thorton’s soulful film. McCarthy’s presence was hard to ignore.
McCarthy is first and foremost a poet, crafting sentences that shine with inventive language and carry weighty metaphors. He truly is a master writer. It may come as a surprise them that I found McCarthy’s first novel The Orchard Keeper to be one of the worst novels I have ever read. You may wonder why I would review this artifact when this blog is dedicated to positive reviews, but you’d be missing the point in considering all works of art have something positive to offer the world. Moreover, it’s often therapeutic trying to find the positive aspects of art, whether considered good or bad, and more to the point, helps me enjoy and experience a wider range of genres and forms. Rather than be snarky, my aim is to be critical and respectful to the artist’s work, all the while being earnest in my reaction to the artifact in question.
With that said, my frustrations with the novel came from how disjointed the narrative was, along with the overuse of SAT words. This review from the New York Times expresses this quite clearly, when the author states how much McCarthy lifts from Faulkner. Among the instances listed, what resonated the most with me was McCarthy’s use of pronouns with no antecedent identifier noun. Quite simply, I often had no idea who the characters were. I ended up throwing my hands in the air and plowing ahead with the narrative.
With all these grievances, why would I then recommend this dense and confusing novel? What slowly struck me after finishing it was how the novel eschews any formulaic and traditional narrative, instead offering slices of life that add up to little, despite McCarthy’s attempt to mythologize and attribute importance. His aim is admirable, something I wish more authors as well as filmmakers would strive for, but is obviously is the work of a writer struggling to find his own voice.
Not much happens in the novel. The story, set in 1930s Tennessee, revolves around three main characters: Marion Snyder, a boy, and an old man. The novel begins with a murder but quickly settles into daily go about of the characters. The boy, son of the murdered man, becomes friends with Snyder, a bootlegger. They go hunting and smuggle booze. All the while, the old man finds the body of the dead man and then goes crazy, shooting at people. No motive and explanation is given. That’s it.
Describing what happens would be missing the point in that the novel aims to paint a portrait of these characters, rather than move them from point A to point B. I just don’t know what those characterizations’s are. Perhaps an argument can be made that this is a form of impressionism, but it feels more like a Rothko painting. If you value works that demand emotion but no intellectual representation, that this novel is for you.
What’s more impressive about McCarthy’s novel is his command of the English language. His prose would delight crossword puzzle enthusiasts, and drive those like me to go flipping through dictionaries. I think I would have actually enjoyed this novel if it had footnotes, much like some editions of Shakespeare’s plays (why modern novels and poetry don’t this baffles me). This is an an intern’s nightmare, a work so muddling and obfuscating that it’s like trying to read a cubist work of literature. Again, this makes me question whether there is some real merit, but it just doesn’t resonate like McCarthy’s later works would.
While I may not have enjoyed this work of art, I would recommend any enthusiasts to give it a go. It’s hard not to be struck by how well McCarthy can write right out of the gate. It’s admirable despite being being challenging. And ultimately, shouldn’t we champion art that rewards demands of us hard work?
While The Orchard Keeper is a frustrating and disjointed first novel, it’s nonetheless an impressive debut for McCarthy that will delight serious-minded literature enthusiasts.
Who’s it For?
McCarthy completists, crossword lovers, and literature enthusiasts. Expect a struggle that rewards hard work.