For the protagonist of the American west, to ride off into the sunset is to complete the heroic mission and to take a solitary journey, perhaps to the end of things. The historical Sunset Limited was a transcontinental train that crossed the American south from Atlantic to Pacific. Metaphorically, to ride the sunset limited is to take the mythic train west, to go to the western wall, to sail over the edge of the world. The literal train in McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited is a New York subway, but the destination of the suicidal professor White is the solitude of death, an escape from the hell of other people, from the human history of war and genocide, and from his own intractable alienation.
This “novel in dramatic form” is comprised of dialogue with stage directions, and indeed, it was first made public on the stage, by Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and later in New York City and Galway, Ireland. Its narrative arc depends on the dynamic interchange between two characters, Black and White, whose names suggest their allegorical function as starkly contrasting metaphysical orientations. Although the philosophical gravity of the work lends itself to the leisurely reading and re-reading given a novel, McCarthy provides his allegorical characters such realistic grounding that the dialogue works equally well in dramatic presentation. Dialogue as a narrative technique has been one of McCarthy’s strengths from the beginning of his career, but in Black and White of The Sunset Limited and the father and son of The Road, both published in 2006, McCarthy experiments in largely structuring novels around dialogues between complementary philosophical positions, revealing an underlying similarity of strategy in the two works, although the latter is a road narrative and the former a novel-in-dialogue observing the dramatic unities of time, place, and action.
The Sunset Limited takes place entirely in the subway tenement apartment of the ex-con, Black, who has forcibly prevented the college professor, White, from casting himself in the path of an on-rushing subway train. Over the course of several hours, while the subway trains rumble ominously, Black keeps White a virtual prisoner in his apartment while he probes the roots of White’s suicidal depression and tries to convince him that life is worth living, that the antidote to despair is communion with God and with one’s brothers and sisters, that the Divine principle shimmers in all. Black is no stranger to the violence of human nature. He has been convicted of murder, and he was nearly murdered himself in a knife fight in prison. But lying near death he heard God speak to him in a vision, and he has lived the rest of his life in service to the thieves and junkies of his nether world, hoping to hear the voice of God again. Black speaks in the warm, colorful, and humorous African-American vernacular of the south, and his garrulous good nature dominates the first movement of the plot, making a plausible and attractive case for his neo-Christian optimism. Black is patient, resourceful and persistent in the face of White’s flat, sometimes rude, sometimes jousting rejections of his point of view and White’s repetitions of his desire to leave—to ride the Sunset Limited.
In the second movement, White agrees to eat a meal of multicultural soul food Black prepares for him, relishing it and Black’s stories of prison life. It begins to seem that the two men may form a friendship that may counter White’s cynicism, self-hatred, and misanthropy.
However, in the final “act,” White is angered by Black’s insistent message of faith in God and mankind, and he takes the upper hand in the dialogue. Highly educated, widely read, steeped in the empirical orientation of Western civilization, he hears no voice of God in the world. He has taken refuge in humanism, in great works of art and literature, but his knowledge of the world (Dachau is his primary metaphor for mankind’s position on earth) has destroyed all faith in the ability of man to transcend his feral nature. He admits to cursing his brothers and sisters on the commuter train and longing for a death of absolute nothingness, sealed away from the torment of contact with other souls. He demands to be released from Black’s apartment, and recognizing his defeat, Black finally unlocks the door. As White departs, Black collapses tearfully, challenging God, “If you wanted me to help him how come you didnt give me the words?” But his inability to reach White does not mean that White has decisively undermined Black’s faith. Black reaffirms his commitment to keeping God’s word, even when God’s voice does not speak.
The novel’s denouement rests on the intellectual triumph of White, which ironically leads to his suicide, and the temporary rhetorical defeat of Black, who courageously recommits to his belief in the possibility of goodness. Thus the dialogue remains elegantly balanced, poised between forceful articulations of opposing views of life and human nature, giving ascendancy to neither. McCarthy seems to have no ideological agenda here, but rather he aims at capturing the internal debate of the thoughtful individual seeking to navigate the subway of earthly existence, who hears within him- or herself the competing voices of, on the one hand, empirical reasoning and world-wearying experience and, on the other, hope and the transcendent spirit.
The preceding précis is Copyright © 2008 by Dianne C. Luce.