The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
After an apparently peregrine and dissolute period of his early adulthood, Cormac McCarthy sent the manuscript of his yet-untitled first novel to Random House in 1962. It happily escaped the slush pile and reached the editor Larry Bensky. According to Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author (2016) by Daniel Robert King, Bensky judged it a “strange and, I think, beautiful first novel in the Southern tradition, which has confused me quite a bit on a quick first reading, but which I think is worth publishing”—a perceptive and generous response to an undeniably promising but sometimes aggressively elliptical novel. Bensky, whose peremptory demand for changes to the manuscript did not endear him to the budding author, eventually left Random House, and McCarthy began his long partnership with one of the 20th century’s legendary editors, Albert Erskine, who also edited Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm Lowry, and more.
Erskine not only gently and genially worked with McCarthy to get the manuscript into its final form—it was published as The Orchard Keeper in 1965 (though Toilers at the Kiln was considered as a title too)—but also nurtured McCarthy’s career through its dispiriting first half, a series of critically lauded and underselling books that culminates in his 1985 masterpiece, Blood Meridian. While not a late bloomer as an author—his first novel was accepted for publication when he was 29 and published when he was 32—he didn’t find popular success until he was almost 60 (with All the Pretty Horses ) and became truly rich and famous only in his 70s (with No Country for Old Men  and The Road ). In his aforementioned study of McCarthy’s career, King attributes the author’s late-life success not only to his own persistence, but to the benefits of a publishing world that no longer exists. I will say more on this subject, and on King’s study, later in this piece, but for now I will turn to The Orchard Keeper, to see where this literary odyssey began.
McCarthy is notorious for having disparaged Henry James in the 1992 New York Times interview that broke his reclusive silence, but it can be as hard to tell what’s happening in his oblique first novel as in anything by late-period James. The novel begins with an italicized parable-like proem about a company of woodcutters who find a piece of wrought iron that has “growed all through the tree,” signifying both technology’s cancerous trespass in nature, on the one hand, and, on the other, nature’s encompassing endurance thereof.
McCarthy pursues this tragic-pastoral motif in the story of the eponymous Arthur Ownby, an old man who lives on the grounds of an orchard in the Appalachian countryside near Knoxville and who resents the encroachment of technology and authority on his land. This invasion is typified by the government installation of a tank in or near the old orchard, “the tank like a great silver ikon,” whose contents are never revealed to the reader, perhaps because Arthur is himself ignorant of them. (Was McCarthy thinking of Wallace Stevens’s “jar in Tennessee”? No critic that I can find has yet made the connection.)
In perhaps the novel’s central scene, Arthur goes out in the middle of the night to blast an X pattern of holes in this mysterious object using a shotgun he’s loaded with “rung shells”—i.e., bullets whose casings have been cut from their bases so that the casing remains attached to the bullet when the gun is fired rather than being ejected from the chamber, which has the effect of making the bullet weightier and more destructive. The novel’s careful description of Arthur’s ballistic surgery—whose significance we are left to infer for ourselves (I had to read gun aficionado message boards to find out)—is McCarthy’s first essay, too long to quote here, in the lovingly minute description of manual labor that will characterize his later work.
Arthur is also guarding a secret in the orchard: a dead body. This corpse is the catalyst of the novel’s main plot, which focuses on the relationship between a bon vivant and bootlegger named Marion Sylder and his relationship to Arthur’s nephew, the fatherless adolescent John Wesley Rattner. When Sylder crashes his car, its trunk full of whiskey, into a lake, John Wesley helps him to safety—the man and boy fleeing the wreck, “looking like the last survivors of Armageddon,” in a prophecy of The Road. After this rescue, Sylder becomes a friend and guide to the boy; he even gives him a puppy. John Wesley’s mother has made him swear vengeance on his father’s murderer, but unbeknownst to him, it is his mentor Sylder who killed his father earlier in the novel—in self-defense, given that the elder Rattner (whom McCarthy portrays as a simple but mysterious “presence of evil”) attacks Sylder with a car jack after the bootlegger picks him up hitchhiking. Sylder dumps the body in a pit in Arthur’s orchard, and Arthur, when he discovers it later, decides simply to conceal it. (Later the body is burned—by whom? Sylder? John Wesley? I’m not sure.)
I’ve related these events out of the order given by the text, but the novel’s style is not linear. Instead of straight, simple storytelling, McCarthy uses a prismatic and mutable third-person that narrates from all the characters’ perspectives without ever quite granting us access to their inner lives, and which is just as likely to dilate for pages on the travels of a cat or the changes in the weather as to advance the ostensible plot. The novel’s final quarter does gather together the story’s strands—the law catches up to both Sylder and Arthur, while John Wesley passes from pastoral innocence to chastened experience—but there is nothing like an explosively revelatory climax. Such an ending had been McCarthy’s original plan; according to King’s study, the manuscript McCarthy submitted to Random House in 1962 concluded with John Wesley’s discovery that Sylder had murdered his father, but the first editor, Bensky, deemed this a “typical end-of-book contrivance,” and the published version artfully leaves the state of the boy hero’s knowledge ambiguous.
All told, there is a long short story’s worth of plot here; McCarthy shows his promise, even his early genius, more in the atmosphere where he sets this story and the language of its conveyance. There is invention just this side of magical realism in the depiction of the Green Fly Inn, a bar perched precariously on the side of a mountain—
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 then the inn would slowly right itself and assume once more its usual reeling equipoise. The drinkers would raise their glasses, talk would begin again. Remarks alluding to to the eccentricities of the inn were made only outside the building.
—and in the miniature, doomed voyage of the cat that Arthur seems to think is the reincarnation of the elder Rattner, a cat who takes over as our protagonist for pages at a time:
The rain had plastered down her fur and she looked very thin and forlorn. She gathered burdock and the curling purple leaves of rabbit weed as she went; a dead stalk of blackberry briar clung to her hind leg. Just short of the road she stopped, shivered her loose skin, ears flat against her head. She squalled once, hugging the ground with her belly, eyes turned upward at the colorless sky, the endless pelting rain.
The setting (“dark forests of owl trees, bat caverns, witch covens”) is the novel’s real hero, unless that honor goes to McCarthy’s style, with its combination of precision in sense and music in sound, its sacramental hymn to the creation, however inflected with a heretical consciousness that nature is beyond good and evil and, as well, beyond human understanding:
The trees were all encased in ice, limbless-looking where their black trunks rose in aureoles of lace, bright seafans shimmering in the wind and tinkling with an endless bell-like sound, a carillon in miniature, and glittering shards of ice falling in sporadic hail everywhere through the woods and marking the snow with incomprehensible runes.
The novel’s finest sustained piece of writing is the summative chapter on a season of John Wesley’s boyhood in and around his old mother’s “tall and severe” house (“[s]ome supposed it to be the oldest house in the country”), Southern Gothic mixed with the modernist lyricism of memory. In the scene of quasi-sexual initiation when John Wesley has to remove a leech from the thigh of a girl who’d been trying to flirt with him as she stands above him on a rock in a creek (he spends the event “trying to look up and not to at the same time”) we find the intriguing, embarrassing, fluid, and grotesque textual matrix of the old-time misogyny that marks and mars McCarthy’s canon as a whole.
So gender-regressive an author was securely canonized in 21st-century academe not on the basis of identity politics, however, but rather on those other fashionable political grounds of ecocriticism and the anthropocene. The epiphany that transforms John Wesley from boy to man occurs when he visits Sylder in jail after he’s been arrested and beaten by the police and then visits Arthur in the madhouse where he’s been consigned; then he learns that the hawks he’d trapped earlier in the novel for the reward offered by the county, presumably to keep the predators’ numbers down, are burned by the authorities. He learns, in other words, that all wild animate things finally succumb to the rationalization schemes of man’s arrogantly world-conquering reason, a theme that will be pursued to apocalyptic conclusions in Blood Meridian and The Road:
What all do you do with em? he asked, somehow figuring still that they must be kept, must have some value or use commensurate with a dollar other than the fact of their demise.
Burn em in the furnace I would reckon, she said. They sure cain’t keep em around here. They might get a little strong after a while, mightn’t they?
Burn em? he said. They burn em?
I believe so, she said.
He looked about him vaguely, back to her, still not leaning on or touching the counter. And thow people in jail and beat up on em.
What? she said, leaning forward.
And old men in the crazy house.
This lament for what the novel calls those places “beyond the dominion of laws either civil or spiritual” is almost but not quite the moral of Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution. For Daniel Robert King, McCarthy’s career exemplifies the whole last half-century in publishing. The intimate, nurturant relationship McCarthy had with Erskine—an editor who’d acted as collaborator and friend to his authors in defiance of immediate profit concerns—became obsolete when publishing houses were purchased and consolidated by bigger media enterprises insisting that they see immediate returns on investment: no more midlist geniuses kept on the books for 25 years in hopes they’ll catch on and become bestsellers someday, even though this is exactly what happened in McCarthy’s case and under Erskine’s attentive eye.
Moreover, the old Erskine-style editor’s job has been outsourced to the literary agent, another layer of gatekeeping between writers and publishers and, in my experience, an extremely profit-minded layer at that; McCarthy’s story is also telling here, as he acquired his first agent, the superstar Amanda “Binky” Urban, only when he published his sixth novel and first bestseller, All the Pretty Horses. In this changed context, King’s book implies that it is just about impossible to imagine something as dense and weird as The Orchard Keeper getting into print with a major house today—a novel, moreover, without a “newsy” hook or up-to-the-minute quasi-political theme, and written by an unknown, unconnected, and MFAless author.
King, though, tends to portray McCarthy’s collaboration with the neoliberal turn in publishing—his interest in popular filmmaking, his production of genre fiction, and his greater participation in the marketing of his own image—as a sign of his growing “maturity.” Yet I wonder if the author’s swerve from complex and almost miraculously articulate novels like The Orchard Keeper to much slighter fare like Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men—both glorified screenplays—merits such celebration. Maybe his disparagement of semicolons was always a warning sign; they “have no place in literature,” King reports him saying—a reprehensible opinion, as I explain in my defense of the frequently and unjustly maligned mark.
I won’t name names, but I think of another client of Binky’s, a promising young novelist who had her manuscript accepted and published to wide acclaim about 15 years ago. It was a big, ambitious book, an intellectual bildungsroman, definitely flawed but full of psychological and political acuity, its mystery and thriller elements in service to a fascinating conception and a burgeoning style. Already prey to the corruptions of the age, though, this novel achieved great publicity when a notorious gossip blog now misremembered as woke-before-its-time invited a debate on whether or not the young author was actually “hot” or merely “book hot.” Her next novel came over half a decade later, an effective but much less sophisticated and highly gimmicky thriller. Five years later, a YA novel; this is what she does now. It is McCarthy’s career compressed into about 15 years, a more drastic decline in the project of an author two generations his junior. With this telescoping of the narrative we can see that no maturation is involved—we see, rather, a forced fall into puerility, encouraged by neoliberal publishing. Nowadays, they send out even the promising first novels for adults with nail polish. What’s next—Happy Meal toys?
What, anyway, does this shibboleth “neoliberal” mean? Wasn’t capitalism always bad? I am not an economist, but here is how it seems to me: when Random House was a small business in competition with other firms of similar scale, and when its owners and workers felt free to take loss leaders to market in the name of prestige and the patience that rewards good work, that was capitalism. When all publishing houses were subsumed into global media conglomerates and hyperoptimized for immediate and iterable profit, that was something else. This supposed optimization is ironically counter to the very aim of profit—you can’t grow a bestseller, to say nothing of a perennial seller, in a laboratory; sometimes you have to wait a few decades until a 60-year-old toiler-at-the-typewriter finds his moment—but this cannot be explained to the laureates of productivity and efficiency, to ideologues hostile to the very idea of organic development. McCarthy’s famous conservative credo, from the same 1992 interview where he dismissed Henry James, can just as easily be seen as a prophetic cry against neoliberalism as against the left:
There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.
As I insist on reminding everyone from time to time, even at the risk of repeating myself, Lenin argues in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (a book I don’t claim to understand in every particular) that the monopolization of capital is the necessary and final stage of history before communism. Monopoly represents “a new social order, a transitional one from complete free competition to complete socialisation”—i.e., let the corporations do the work of centralizing production so that the biggest corporate body of all, the state, can easily assume the economy’s commanding heights. Marxism, therefore, is not really a challenger to neoliberalism but only the loyal opposition. Hence the chief theme of McCarthy’s corpus: how the inherent flaws of humanity and nature, those organic defaults that make the marketplace a necessary evil in both serving and curbing self-interest, immeasurably worsen when magnified to the scale of organized planetary warfare in the very name of their correction by rationality—or, as a pair of unorthodox Marxists called it, the dialectic of enlightenment.
McCarthy cares, more than I do, about tools. Maybe tools make the man. There is a picture of the author’s celebrated—and slightly mythical—typewriter, or one just like it, on the cover of Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution. I think of a recent essay by J.H.M. Okthos about the 20th-century grandeur of writing on such a machine:
And then the sound… Like a metal rain. Industrial percussion. […] The great American novel. The declarative philosophies of Europe. The bleak, all-encompassing warnings of Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias. Of course people would write things so big and bolshy when they were accompanied by the sound of ringing metal, when pressing those keys felt like manual labour, when their words entered the physical as soon as they were constructed.
While Arthur Ownby had his rung shells that offered him only the false comfort of a lead anathema, McCarthy operates a more constructively thundering weapon against the conquest of the wilderness. I’m not a conservative; I don’t think we can go back, not to rural Tennessee and not to midcentury publishing, nor would we want to. The flaws of the past are no just excuse, however, for those whose proposals for the future will only make things worse. We can mourn alongside the narrator of The Orchard Keeper, who concludes with the melancholy observation that his characters’ names are “myth, legend, dust.”
We might also ask, inspired by McCarthy’s love of meticulous craft and his bent toward the elegiac, what tools and what memories we might use to escape from this predicament rather than balefully acquiescing to it, as we congratulate ourselves all the while on having “matured” into querulous indolence before the algorithmic infantilization of a literary culture that once—and in living memory—took for granted the risky or even magnanimous publication of a strange, confusing, beautiful novel by a nobody from near Knoxville. In the meantime, The Orchard Keeper itself now stands for the very loss of the wilder, freer life it elegizes.