I'm going to have to be honest on this one. Not only did I read The Orchard Keeper (1965) by Cormac McCarthy months ago, but even as I was reading, I sometimes had a hard time figuring out what was happening. In short: this review is not going to do justice to McCarthy's writing. I'd really need to read it again and devote some time to it to understand it more fully, but that's just not going to happen anytime soon.
As some of the Amazon reviews have reminded me, The Orchard Keeper takes place in rural Tennessee in the 1930's. Three characters' intertwined lives set up the background for McCarthy's oft-recurring theme of inevitable change and nature. John Wesley Rattner is a youth living on the mountain with his mother. His father Kenneth Rattner disappeared when he was a kid. Marion Sylder is an outlaw and a bootlegger who befriends John Wesley. Unbeknownst to either of them, Marion Sylder is the murderer of John Wesley Rattner's father. The final character is an old man who lives on the mountain alone with his dog. Ather Ownby, or Uncle Ather, is the only person who knows the location of the body of Kenneth Rattner.
This book isn't so much a plot-driven novel, but a series of vignettes of the area and the people. McCarthy jumps around throughout the book to different times and places with little or no explanation. I did find this frustrating sometimes, although I'm sure I'd get more out of it on a second reading. Even with my struggles in following McCarthy's challenging narrative
style, he writes some unforgettable scenes. The boy hunting, the old man
challenging the police, the dog following his master down the road
(this one just broke my heart). In every book I've read by McCarthy, he manages to evoke
the strongest emotions from me, with a noticeable lack of sentimentality
or pity. I don't know any other authors that have this
same effect on me.
This is McCarthy's first novel, but his distinctive style is already apparent. Ever since I read The Road, I try to read a McCarthy novel each year. He is one of my favorite authors and his writing is beautiful. However, his stories can also be harsh, haunting, and relentless. I've found that one per year is about the most I can take.