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The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

October 16, 2017


I first read this, McCarthy’s first novel, in 2014. In the spring I joined the Cormac McCarthy Society and have been reading quite a bit of literary analysis of his work. Though most of the academic work focuses on his later novels, it was enough to pique my interest in this novel again. The Orchard Keeper was published in 1965, which is hard to imagine. It won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel. McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road, was published in 2006 and won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction. Both are, in very different ways, about man’s assault on the natural world.

The plot is the braided path of three men living in the mountains of Tennessee, where McCarthy grew up. They are all connected by a murder, though none of them realizes it.

On second reading, a few more of the details of man’s encroachment on nature stood out. I’d read one essay completely about the significance of the tank on the mountainside, so that definitely carried more meaning. Once a theme is pointed out to you, small details will emerge everywhere, which makes the re-reading full of small delights.

I also like to think I caught a little more of the wry humor on my second pass, enjoyed the eccentricities of the characters a little more. Like when Uncle Ownby, the mountain hermit, is visited by the well-meaning welfare agent. The agent says they have overlooked Ownby for some time, that he might be entitled to some assistance. To which Ownby, as independent a man as there ever could be, says he didn’t guess so. “I’m what you might call brushy-bound.”

As always, I enjoyed the vivid metaphors: “…a small stream looping placidly over shallow sands stippled with dace shadows, the six-pointed stars of skating waterspiders drifting like bright frail medusas.”

McCarthy’s description of the land is as good in his Western novels, but different in that the novels of Texas and beyond are vast in their descriptions, open and wide. Here we find gnarled brambles of prose, and even the simplest sentences contain clues of man bent by nature: “East of Knoxville Tennessee the mountains start. Small ridges and spines of the folded Appalachians that contort the ongoing roads to their liking.”

Then there is the odd mythology of the region, the quirky mountain religion that lies somewhere between superstition and folklore. Ownby describes without a hint of incredulity that when someone dies, their soul might sometimes take up residence in a cat “for a spell.” But, he assures his listener, the person in question died many more than seven years ago, so he’s not worried about him still being around.

But in the whole book, I have one favorite passage. A magnificent description of a local watering hole:

At that time there was a place in the gap of the mountain called the Green Fly Inn. It was box-shaped with a high front and a tin roof sloping rearward and was built on a scaffolding of poles over a sheer drop, the front door giving directly onto the road. One corner was nailed to a pine tree that rose towering out of the hollow­­—a hollow that on windy nights acted as a flue, funneling the updrafts from the valley through the mountain gap. On such nights the inn-goers trod floors that waltzed drunkenly beneath them, surged and buckled with huge groans. At times the whole building would career madly to one side as though headlong into collapse. The drinkers would pause, liquid tilting in their glasses, the structure would shudder violently, a broom would fall, a bottle, and the inn would slowly right itself and assume once more its reeling equipoise. The drinkers would raise their glasses, talk would begin again. Remarks alluding to the eccentricities of the inn were made only outside the building. To them the inn was animate as any ship to her crew and it bred an atmosphere such as few could boast, a solidarity due largely to its very precariousness. The swaying, the incessant small cries of tortured wood, created an illusion entirely nautical, so that after a violent wrench you might half expect to see a bearded mate swing through a hatch in the ceiling to report all rigging secure.

Could there be a more textured description of a place? How long did it take McCarthy to craft a paragraph so fine? It is only outdone by the description of the incident where the Green Fly Inn does finally give way. But to enjoy that, you’ll have to read the book.

One Comment leave one →
  1. laporte victor permalink
    October 16, 2017 10:28 pm

    Hey Jim, (On your recommendation) I’m reading my first Cormac McCarthy book. I choose Blood Meridian. Frankly, I’m not one for literature. I’m simply not a great reader. This book is definitely a challenge for me, but it is amazing. I purposely read very slowly often repeating paragraphs to make sure I understood the meaning as well as to absorb how things are written. It’s epic, poetic and at times debilitating in its gruesomeness.

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