Sunday, March 28, 2010

Outer Dark

"But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." -- Matthew 8:12

"Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." -- Matthew 22:13

"And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." -- Matthew 25:30

They LORD. This is my second favorite after Blood Meridian.

"This is the darkest fairytale you could ever hope to not read to your children." -- Sarah

Davenport, G., Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy, New York Times Book Review, Sep 1968

Appalachian America has kept in the archaic courtesy of its speech and in the still uncompromised meanness of its ethnic jealousies an inviolable identity unmatched anywhere else in the United States. It is our Balkans. Appalachian speechways, uncorrupted by slang and impervious to innovation, put at the novelist's disposal a timeless epic diction; and the wildness of Appalachia exhibits for him a range of seasoned and ingrained depravities the ancient universality of which allows a tragic terror more sobering than any the portrayer of sophisticated agonies can hope for.

There is a strange awfulness about Appalachia that quickens the imagination. Its traditions are unconscious and deep in the bone. It still believes in fate. The Calvinist still walks there in Bunyanesque starkness. The world is an allegory and no violence however sickening is ever quite unexpected in the course of a day. It bears its poverty with Celtic dignity and looks at life with the Celtic disbelief in its permanence. And in the Tennessee novelist Cormac McCarthy it has found a new storyteller to depict the darkness of its heart and its futile defiance of its luck.

Mr. McCarthy's first novel, "The Orchard Keeper," won the William Faulkner Foundation Award three years ago. This, his second, is even finer. Though it pays its homage to Faulkner's rhetoric and imagery, it is not a Faulknerian novel. It is much leaner, closer in pace and spareness of line to the Gothic masters Gertrud Le Fort and her disciple Isak Dinesen, and lacks Faulkner's sociological dimension. Mr. McCarthy is unashamedly an allegorist. His responsibility as a storyteller includes believing with his characters in the devil, or at least in the absolute destructiveness of evil. As in Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale," the moral symmetry of which is thoroughly Appalachian, you can hear mortality whetting its scythe behind every line.

Lucklessness is a dominant theme in the Appalachian mind. Mr. McCarthy's protagonist believes that "a man makes his own luck," and has made his by begetting a child upon his sister. Thereafter, his doom, and his sister's, unfolds with a perfectly logical inevitability that would have earned a gasp from Sophocles. The plot is like the finding by a malevolent hand the thread that knits the world; page by page it plucks the stitches lose until the fabric parts in a catastrophe so awful that one's eyes leave the page by sheer reflex.

The originality of Mr. McCarthy's novel is not in its theme or locale, both of which are impressively ancient. It is his style which compels admiration, a style compounded of Appalachian phrases as plain and as functional as an ax. In elegant counterpoint to this bare-bones English is a second diction taken from that rich store of English which is there in the dictionary to be used by those who can ("his shadow moiled cant," "the tapered spline of the axle").

Surprisingly, so hard-wrought a style is not in the least precious. The bookish diction complements the countrified one. Every word, moreover, is designed to serve Mr. McCarthy's sharply controlled sense of place and action. There is not a page of this novel which does not depict swift and significant action. Nor does Mr. McCarthy waste a single word on his character's thoughts. With total objectivity he describes what they do and records their speech. Such discipline comes not only from mastery over words but from an understanding wise enough and compassionate enough to dare tell so abysmally dark a story.

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