The Orchard Keeper | Critical Review by Walter Sullivan

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Orchard Keeper.
This section contains 816 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Walter Sullivan

SOURCE: "Worlds Past and Future: A Christian and Several from the South," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXIII, No. 4, October-December, 1965, pp. 719-26.

In the following excerpt, Sullivan discusses The Orchard Keeper and the triumph of technology over man in the novel.

The Orchard Keeper is Cormac McCarthy's first novel, but at thirty-three, McCarthy has a more mature mind and is a more finished craftsman than Miss Tyler. His prose is magnificent, full of energy and sharp detail and the sounds and smells of God's creation. The sense of fulfillment one gets from reading The Orchard Keeper is difficult to convey, because when the book is broken down to its bare bones it is likely to appear to be a trite contraption. It is written squarely in the middle of the agrarian influence, and reading it, one thinks of Faulkner here and Lytle there, or of Madison Jones or Marion Montgomery. But such impressions are fleeting and prove to be false. McCarthy is like nobody so much as he is like all the writers who have gone before him and had sense enough to see in the land a source of human salvation. He is a kind of anachronism who celebrates the traditional values in the traditional way.

His locale is the mountains around Knoxville, Tennessee; his people are the moonshiners and hunters and lawmen and farmers who live there. The action is the tapestry woven by the infinite crossings and recrossings among the inhabitants of a small community. McCarthy begins with a sequence about a thieving drifter who is killed while trying to commit murder and highway robbery against the man who has given him a ride. He ends two decades later with the son of the drifter standing beside his mother's recent grave. Within this mortal framework, the boy and the man who killed his father become loyal friends. This is, of course, a cliche, but McCarthy endows the situation with freshness by ignoring the irony, by insisting upon nothing. Rather, our attention is directed to the changing seasons, to the ceremonies of life and death, to the violations and accommodations wrought between man and nature. Men hunt and fish, endure flood and freeze, make love, get drunk, walk the ridges, run whisky, fight, and finally die. And they talk. And they display their affections. Or rather, they do not display them, and that is why so much of The Orchard Keeper seems significant.

Everything here is so low-keyed—and therefore typical of the mountaineer temperament—that to paraphrase McCarthy is to exaggerate him. The surge of the book is in its physical movements, in the cars that go careening over mountain roads, in the sound of the panther's cry at night, in the struggle between dogs and coons, or in the running of the trap line. Beneath this, piquant and almost pristine because they are never forced, are the old stories of betrayal and fidelity, of disappointment and fulfillment, of all the joy and anguish of life.

The orchard keeper is an old man, and what he keeps are the bones of Rattner, the murdered drifter. Marion Sylder, his own shoulder broken from the fight, dropped the body in the old spray-pit where it was later discovered by children. The old man does not know whose remains he tends. Certainly, he has no inclination to report their existence to the authorities. But out of his humanity, he tends what was once human, periodically dropping in a fresh evergreen to cover the skull: willingly he serves a memento mori. But he will not abide the encroachment of civilization, which comes in the form of a giant storage tank erected by some government agency on the mountain top. ("The great dome stood complacent, huge, seeming older than the very dirt, the rocks, as if it had spawned them of itself and stood surveying the world, clean and coldly gleaming and capable of infinite contempt.") The old man shoots holes in the tank, and when he refuses to come quietly the police go after him in force. They surround his house and shoot out his windows, finally shoot one of their own number and leave. But the old man is captured at last and turned over to the social workers.

As always, technology is finally triumphant. The old man is sent to the home for the aged. Sylder is caught running moonshine: there is water in the gasoline he bought at the country pump and his engine stops. The boy goes to the army and most of the others die. This is the ending.

They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust….

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This section contains 816 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Walter Sullivan