The Orchard Keeper (1965) was American author Cormac McCarthy’s first novel written in a small shack shortly after dropping out of college. The novel paints a portrait of a rural southern town know as Red Branch, where three character’s lives become entangled after a death brings them together. The novel explores how two of these men (Marion Sylder and Arthur Ownby) become father figures to the third character (John Wesley Rattner), after John’s father is killed by Marion. It explores themes of fatherhood along with those of modernization and Biblical paradise. SPOILERS in both The Orchard Keeper analysis and review.
The Orchard Keeper Analysis – Pt. 1: Genesis
In The Orchard Keeper, Red Branch acts as a sort of Eden. Along with the secluded, peaceful, rural life most of its inhabitants live in, it is described with ancient biblical language that evokes this sense as well:
In the relative cool of the timber stands, possum grapes and muscadine flourish with cynical fecundity, and the floor of the forest – littered with old mossbacked logs, peopled with toadstools strange and solemn among the ferns and creepers and leaning to show their delicate livercolored gills – has about it a primordial quality, some steamy carboniferous swamp where ancient saurians lurk in feigned sleep.
These types of passages draw on the same language and vocabulary as the Bible, referencing “creeping things” and showing the prehistoric creatures in the early stages of evolution.
The novel progresses onto depictions of sin in a few forms. First, we see the crashing down of the Green Fly Inn, then the Cain and Abel-esque murder when Marion kills John’s father. While none of these references are overt – let alone a play-by-play enactment of the banishment from Eden and its aftermath – symbolically, they are doing the same thing: they are showing mankind’s imbibement in drink which possibly represents Eve’s eating of the fruit; Marion brutally kills John’s father and tries to hide the fact from those who come to see later. Even in the last moments of the book, when John returns to Red Branch, it calls to mind the inability to ever return to Eden:
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.
The Orchard Keeper Analysis – Pt. 2: Fatherhood
With no father and a mom who seemingly provides no love or support, John is left to his own devices. He meets his father’s killer, Marion, but is not aware of this fact. McCarthy does something most authors would not attempt: instead of exploring this adverse fate, he assigns Marion as a mentor and father-figure over John. Marion mentors him on hunting, on work, on life, and gives him a sense of belonging and comfort that he does not receive at home. Ironically, John’s mother tasks him with finding his father’s killer and avenging him, yet at the end of the novel when Marion is under arrest, John promises him that he will avenge Marion instead. The position of fatherhood has been transferred. McCarthy seems to be arguing that it is not just genetic, but something more powerful.
The Orchard Keeper Analysis – Pt. 3: Modernization
The novel opens with an odd passage that depicts a mutated elm tree, growing around and fusing with an iron fence. The tree has gone from natural to a more artificial state. But to the naked eye, this tree looks normal. It is only when you open it up that it reveals the damage done. The tree may no longer even be alive, just simply held up by this iron giving it the illusion that life still exists. This revelation, the opening up, is what McCarthy is attempting with the novel – to show us the biblical Eden and reveal the damage and infection caused by the industrial world within.
The water tower stood on the land of Arthur Ownby, serving as a symbol of coming modernization. Ownby himself acts as a father figure for John as well, but to me, he seems to more importantly serve as a guardian against this industrial world. He blasts an X into the water tower to condemn this coming, and, in the end, begins a shootout with the police to prevent his arrest. But when he is taken into custody, there is no hope left to keep paradise in its natural state. On a surface view, it seems like the guardian of Eden would not violently act out like this. But given the modernization of the world would eventually lead to something as destructive as the atomic bomb, it is a small price to pay.
Finally, in the end, we see John come back to “revisit” Red Branch. As I said above, his return represents this inability to return to Eden, but what he views also shows how modernization destroyed his paradise. One thing which he sees is a new car waiting at a stoplight (something that didn’t exist when he was there) and the passengers staring at him as if he was not even human. In the final passages, the narrator says that Red Branch is populated by a “strange race that now dwells there”. Red Branch is no more.
The Orchard Keeper Review:
In The Orchard Keeper, the language is often wonderful, and most definitely the best part of the novel. You can easily see McCarthy’s prose developing into what it will one day become. Lines such as the pg. 246 quote above (the final lines of the book) are nearly perfect in their intention and beauty, but unfortunately, there are other lines that feel like “purple” prose, as if McCarthy was trying to write a beautiful line but took it a little too far, such as:
… the dog still standing there like some atavistic symbol or brute herald of all questions ever pressed upon humanity and beyond understanding…
A lot of this prose simply ends up feeling like amateur-ish philosophy, which is not surprising given it is only McCarthy’s first novel, but it still should be viewed objectively.
The characterization and themes of fatherhood also seemed lacking. There was never any chance to care about or sympathize with most characters because 1) the book jumped around to different characters on a whim, and much of the time focused on characters that would never be seen again or did not serve any readily understandable purpose, and 2) the book was very short. Pairing the length and jumpiness of the narrative, it seemed like we only had a limited number of scenes where the three main characters ever interacted. It didn’t allow for McCarthy’s characters to shine, which in turn did not allow the theme of fatherhood to be explored as much as it could have. This jumpiness also made the book confusing, almost more so than his books which are well known for their difficulty (i.e. Blood Meridian and Suttree).
The Orchard Keeper is a confusing book that is neither driven by plot or character and very clearly feels like an early novel. These things alone are not bad, but the main issue is that these characteristics, and more, lead it to be much of the time unenjoyable. Having to read a passage that includes one of those aspects is not a problem, but McCarthy had clearly not hit his stride yet and let the issues pile onto each other as he seemed to lose focus from his main point.
Again though, this is not to say that the book is bad. Prose-wise, other than some missteps, he is leagues above most other debut novelists. His biblical imagery is already some of the best around, although he has become infinitely better with time. Finally, his careful control of language and punctuation is that of a seasoned writer. But none of this saves The Orchard Keeper from being an unnecessarily confusing and quite honestly dull novel. It has its moments but they are too few and far between to merit another re-read. It is unfortunate that this novel has to be compared to his future works, but having read them all, it is impossible not to do so.
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