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Cormac McCarthy: The Orchard Keeper

This was McCarthy’s first novel and made so little impact that it was subsequently published in Ecco Press’ Neglected Books of the Twentieth Century series. It is set in rural Tennessee in the years between the two world wars. John Wesley Rattner is the son of Kenneth Rattner, a petty thief and trickster, who has been murdered, unbeknownst to young Rattner, by the local bootlegger, Marion Sylder (and Sylder is unaware that the man he has murdered was Rattner’s father). Young Rattner admires his father and is friendly with both Sylder and with his solitary neighbour, Uncle Ather Ownby. Transferring his allegiance from his missing father, young Rattner comes to admire Sylder, not least because Sylder protects him from the bullying deputy, Legwater. To make the matter more complicated Ownby has found a corpse and is caring for it, unaware that it is the corpse of Rattner Senior. Young Rattner is caught between two pillars both of whom seem likely to topple. Sylder is at risk from the law while Ownby, a fiercely independent mountain man, is under threat from civilisation.

McCarthy’s strength, which will be found in all his works, is superb mastery of the language to create both deep characters, who are never phony or artificial but very real and, at the same time, to find poetic beauty in even the most humdrum situation or environment. He clearly has a real love for the natural scenery of the rural Tennessee he is painting and this love is beautifully imparted to us. Like Ecco Press, we must wonder why this novel had so little success on its first release.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Random House