Strange rural isolation: Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper

Having begun my acquaintance with the novels of Cormac McCarthy at the wrong end: with his most recent, The Road, my next step was – like a diligent archivist – right back to the beginning and his first, The Orchard Keeper.

Despite being separated by more than forty years (his debut was published in 1965, The Road in 2006) McCarthy’s style is so distinctive that it was less of a surprise to find The Orchard Keeper strongly redolent of The Road’s sparse and simply evocative descriptions of place and people.

Unlike The Road, however, which has such strength and purity of narrative intent (it is literally linear and features just two main protagonists), The Orchard Keeper is right at the other end of the spectrum: it is highly impressionistic, with voices of different characters overlapping and seeming to merge with one another.

Notionally the novel works along classically tragic lines: a young boy is befriended by a criminal who, unbeknownst to either, has killed the boy’s father. Yet just as much attention is given to the other inhabitants of the remote Tennessean community where most of the story unfolds and, more than any of them, the countryside itself: tales of animal trapping, men walking deeply-forested mountain trails, strange accidents.

This passage, chosen almost entirely at random, sums up the close, ancient world of The Orchard Keeper; over-grown and oppressive:

The moon was higher now as he came past the stand of bullbriers into the orchard, the blackened limbs of the trees falling flatly as paper across the path and the red puddle of moon moving as he moved, sliding sodden and glob-like from limb to limb, fatly surreptitious, watching as he watched.

His feet moved ahead of him, disembodied and unfamiliar, floating through the banded shadows, and the limecolored grass swished and folded, breaking to light-shivered undersides like glass splintering softly, catching the pale light and then rushing to darkness. Excepting the counterpoint of crickets there was no other sound.

Heady stuff, isn’t it? The richness of the descriptions of the natural world serve to reflect one of the novel’s key themes: that of the battle of simple country folk against forces over which they have no control.

Just as families try to protect the little of what they own from the rain, sleet and snow hammering down, so the people of The Orchard Keeper are trying to protect their old-world ways – revolving around simple kindnesses, trust, kin – from the commodification and depersonalisation of the modern, whether the bureaucrat, the lawman, or the shopkeeper. McCarthy finds a beauty in the futile gestures of protest against these inhuman forces, which are like the flailing of the racoons the men ensnare.

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