The Orchard Keeper (1965)

The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy transforms the rural south into the eternal realm of myth in his haunting first novel, set in an eastern Tennessee hamlet called Red Branch, whose name recalls The Red Branch Tales of Celtic mythology. Yet McCarthy’s rustic characters evoke little of the heroism of the Irish heroes and demigods; they do, however, preserve much of their tragedy—and their incidental buffoonery.

The Orchard Keeper tells the story of the aged Uncle Ather Ownby, a ferociously independent woodsman who lives at peace with the natural world in a small cabin adjacent to a ruined apple orchard. There, he has been for years quietly tending the corpse of an unknown stranger that mysteriously turned up in his rain-filled spray pit. Ather also attempts to teach his knowledge about the mountains and forests to young John Wesley Rattner, a mountain boy whose father, the petty criminal and con man Kenneth Ratner, has been murdered by Marion Sylder, a local bootlegger. John Wesley, who believes his father was a hero, is unaware that his uncle Ownby has been guarding the corpse, and Ather himself has no idea whose body he has been honoring. The story’s ironies grow more complex when Sylder defends the boy against his own nemesis, the bullying sheriff’s deputy Legwater, and John Wesley comes to regard the dashing Sylder as his hero; the bootlegger, in turn, has no idea that the man he had murdered and dumped in the spray pit was John Wesley’s father.

The three figures play out their destinies linked only by their tenuous relationships to the rotting body in the pit, as McCarthy explores subtle questions of love, loyalty, and coming of age in a gorgeous rural world whose doom is all too clearly projected by the events of the story. As the law closes in on Marion Sylder, and the world of civilization closes in upon Uncle Ather, John Wesley struggles to understand the forces conspiring to cast him from paradise as the characters are challenged to maintain the dreamlike equilibrium of their lives.

McCarthy’s evocation of nature in the mountain forests has won nearly universal praise; among the shifting fortunes of the novel’s characters, the presence of nature remains a breathtaking constant; nature becomes, in effect, a character. But McCarthy is granting us no pleasant bucolic parables; the characters coexist with a nature often as capricious and hostile as the behavior of its human inhabitants, symbolized by legends of the “painters” that used to stalk the mountains in days before anyone except Ather can recall.

The Orchard Keeper is especially distinguished by the author’s trademark ear for local dialects, so acute that it is almost possible to hear the country drawls and twangs with which his protagonists speak. His refusal to vouchsafe his readers any privileged entry to the character’s thoughts beyond evaluating their actions and words yields a concrete realism that plays beautifully against the timeless poetry of their mythic environs and the timeless poignancy of their fates.

The preceding précis is Copyright © 1996 by Rick Wallach.