The Orchard Keeper
|May 5, 1965|
The Orchard Keeper is set during the inter-war period in the hamlet of Red Branch, a small, isolated community in Tennessee. Its story revolves around three characters: Uncle Arthur Ownby, an isolated woodman, who lives beside a rotting apple orchard; John Wesley Rattner, a young mountain boy; and Marion Sylder, an outlaw and bootlegger. The novel begins with Marion picking up a hitchhiker named Kenneth Rattner, who attacks Marion with a tire iron, attempting to murder and rob him. After a struggle, Marion strangles Kenneth to death. Marion dumps the corpse in a gravel pit on Arthur Ownby's property, as he knows the land well from his frequent pickups of bootleg whiskey. Arthur soon discovers the corpse, but rather than inform the authorities, he covers the pit over to keep the body hidden. As time passes, Kenneth's wife, Mildred, and son, John Wesley, come to accept he has likely been killed, and Mildred makes her son vow to one day take vengeance on his father's killer. One night, as Marion is picking up a shipment of whiskey hidden on Arthur's property, he witnesses Arthur unloading a shotgun into a tank the government has installed on his land. Unnerved, Marion collects the whiskey and flees the property, fearing Arthur might do him harm. Arthur passively watches Marion's car drive off into the night. Marion's car careens off the road and into a stream. John Wesley happens to be checking some of his traps in the area and, hearing the crash, comes to Marion's aid, helping the injured man to land. John Wesley is unaware that Marion is his father's killer, and Marion does not recognize John Wesley as the son of the man he killed. Grateful for his help, Marion gives John Wesley one of his dogs, and the two men develop a friendly, almost father-and-son relationship, with Marion teaching John Wesley how to hunt. The local police discover Marion's vehicle in the stream, its whiskey cargo mostly destroyed, as well the defaced government tank. John Wesley becomes a suspect and is threatened with criminal charges if he doesn't admit that Marion was driving the whiskey-filled car. John Wesley refuses to cooperate. The police then go to Arthur's cabin to question him. As they pull up in his yard, Arthur comes out of the cabin wielding a shotgun. The police return with reinforcements, and a shoot-out ensues. Arthur wounds a few of the officers, then flees, but is captured a short while later. Marion, too, is captured, when his new vehicle breaks down on a bridge, its trunk filled with whiskey. Arthur is diagnosed as insane or senile and is sent to a mental hospital, where he will likely spend the remainder of his days. Marion is sentenced to three years in prison for illegally transporting whiskey. Still oblivious to Marion's role in his father's death, John Wesley leaves Red Branch. He returns several years later to find the town abandoned.
Like much of McCarthy's works, The Orchard Keeper's central themes are highly Biblical in nature: innocence, the end of days, and the relationship between fathers and sons. Both Arthur and Marion take on mentor relationships with John Wesley, acting as surrogate fathers. After Marion killed John's father, Arthur tends to the corpse, which, unbeknownst to John, is concealed in Arthur's spray pit. The dense woodlands of Red Branch, described by McCarthy in gorgeous and elaborate detail, are a kind of Eden, in which characters live in a state of ignorant bliss. This bliss is slowly eroded over the course of the novel, as violence, death, decay, and modern civilization slowly but inevitably encroach on Arthur, John Wesley, and Marion's way of life. The novel ends with John Wesley returning to Red Branch after spending several years out West, only to find the hamlet abandoned and dilapidated. Like Adam and Eve, John Wesley can never return to his idyllic place of birth; it has been forever lost to him.
- Kenneth Rattner is an unemployed hitchhiker who attempts to rob and kill Marion Sylder. Sylder strangles him to death and dumps his corpse in Arthur's spray pit.
- John Wesley Rattner is Kenneth Rattner's son. Throughout most of the novel, John Wesley is approximately fourteen years old. No physical description of him is ever given, but McCarthy alludes that he lives alone with his mother. John Wesley is loyal, highly independent, and good natured.
- Marion Sylder is an outlaw and bootlegger who killed Rattner in self-defence. Sylder is married, but his relationship with his wife is never expanded upon.
- Arthur Ownby, also referred to as "The Old Man" and "Uncle Ather", is a hermit who lives alone with his dog in the wilderness. He is acquainted with some of the local boys, eventually including John Wesley.
In 1965, critic Orville Prescott argued that McCarthy’s extensive use of Faulknerian literary devices and mannerisms in The Orchard Keeper is ”exasperating”, though also wrote, “Mr. McCarthy is expert in generating an emotional climate, in suggesting instead of in stating, in creating a long succession of brief, dramatic scenes described with flashing visual impact. He may neglect the motivation of some of his characters. He may leave some doubt as to what is going on now. But he does write with torrential power.” In Kirkus Reviews, it was written that “McCarthy's novel, While [sic] desolate, is effective in many ways; there is some unusual writing furrowed by a stark, visual imagery while the story itself has a shadowed fascination.”
- Pastore, Stephen R. (2013). Rethinking Cormac McCarthy. New York: American Bibliographical Press. ISBN 978-1-9377-2732-1. OCLC 868796132.
- "Books Today". The New York Times: 44. May 5, 1965.
- "Still Another Disciple of William Faulkner". movies2.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2019-12-03.
- THE ORCHARD KEEPER by Cormac McCarthy | Kirkus Reviews.