The Orchard Keeper and Outer Darkness, Cormac McCarthy, 1965 and 1973, Vintage Books, $14.95 each
Cormac McCarthy, a novelist with about 30 years of fiction writing on his resume, has moved into the cultural limelight with his last two novels: No Country For Old Men and The Road, the former having become a heavily award nominated film and the later having been chosen by Oprah for her bookclub. His obscure first two novels are both similar and different from the last two that have made newspapers' entertainment page headline news.
The Orchard Keeper and Outer Darkness are set in Appalachian Dixie during the 1920s and 1930s. A topsoil erosion that includes the spirit and morality sweeps the farms into the rivers and the farmers into the sediment. The communities that once were organized by seasonal agriculture are losing their cohesiveness due to the displacement of men by the war and the Great Depression. The movement from a subsistence farm economy to a credit-wit--debt economy is corrosive to the land and the farmer. In the final pages of The Orchard Keeper, the author declares that the mountain farmers have fled or been banished and that they have left no ghosts that linger on the dilapidated farms. The independent farmers, hunters, and moonshiners who are emblematic of the South have been exiled and their progeny are dimwits who accidently break a cow's neck by trying to pull it with a tractor or stupidly burn oxen in order to get them to work.
Violence lingers as the communities and the soil erode; hope lingers even as the essential elements of the mountains are destroyed. But, the land will heal itself if left undisturbed. After reading these two Faulkner-esque novels, the Civil War librarian recommends Wendell Berry's The Gift of a Good Land or his collected essays.
There are no obvious or easy moral lessons in McCarhy's first two novels; they are inscrutable. The reader will look for commas and quotation marks in vain. McCarthy's words on the page appear to be epic poems: the descriptions are dazzling for several paragraphs but a degree of numbness can set in during a ten to twenty page reading. Just what the hell are these characters doing and why are they doing it? Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain is a tale of a hero on a quest through the Appalachians for love, devotion and personal surrender; Charles McCarthy's first two novels are tales of the sons and daughters of heroes whose treasures of land and wisdom have been swept away and their present has very little sound or fury and signifys nothing except extinction. Yet the land will remain and heal itself.
Suggested Readings: 'The Lay of the Land in Cormac McCarthy's Appalachia', K.W. Berry in Cormac McCarthy: New Directions edited by James D. Lilley, University of New Mexico Press, pp 47-73 and Sacred Violence: Cormace McCarthy's Appalachian Works, Rick Wallick and Wade Hall, editors, University of University of Texas (El Paso) Press, 2002.