Pros: Language, characterization, lushness of the narrative
Cons: None for me, but for those who require plot, it is a little weak here
The Bottom Line: If you like Faulkner, you will love this novel. If long and wordy sentences bother you, it is not for you.
Edited to correct some embarrassing grammatical mistakes
There is a line between what academics and enveloped amateurs call fiction and literature. The line isn’t the same for all of us, but there is a line. The closer any author or individual work gets to the line, the more argument there is among readers as to which side of the line the work/author belongs on. While this might sound silly, and it certainly can be, the argument itself holds value. How a culture during a particular time defines its art explains more about the actual working of the society than what food they grew and who and when they fought. The argument also keeps contemporary brains honed and exercised (to mix a metaphor).
Some authors purposely write in a manner that can be called difficult (though arcane may be the most accurate word). I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that the authors are purposely attempting to add their oeuvre to the list of greats—and since there are really no new stories, the telling of the story becomes extremely important. The second reason is pure speculation and may not apply. Given the speed at which some people tackle tasks (speed reading being the specific example), particularly Americans, if an author uses a different format or a host of rare words, the reader is forced to go slower. The idea is to make the reader savor what they read rather than just swallow it as if reading was some sort of pie eating contest.
Cormac McCarthy is certainly one of the most difficult authors still breathing. From his first book to his most recent, the man does not use quote marks to set aside what people say from what they do from what they think. This means that a constant level of analysis has to occur while reading his material. The brain cannot go into autopilot while reading his material. There is a rhythm to his works, but I doubt an adept of speed reading would be able to comprehend exactly what is going on while trying to read any McCarthy novel measured against a standard piece of fiction.
The Orchard Keeper covers events in a mountain hamlet between the two great wars. Red Branch is a hardscrabble hollow. The main characters are the ancient mostly-loner Uncle Ather, Marion Sylder who bootlegs whiskey even after Prohibition ended; John Wesley the teenage trapper who is both friend and son figure to Sylder, and Jefferson Gifford, the sheriff. The novel tells multiple stories, mostly comical that center on each of these men.
Ben Wasson, William Faulkner’s first real editor, said of the book Faulkner called Flags in the Dust that it was a novel with a thousand loose ends that didn’t go anywhere. Wasson edited the book and created Sartoris (in the final analysis, the most he did here is tie up a few loose ends). The Orchard Keeper is this sort of story. The reader is invited to watch the people of Red Branch interact with each other and the elements and scrape out a type of existence. Sylder is involved in all sorts of illegal activity, but his avuncular attentions to John Wesley show him as a complex character beyond the slightly more than petty criminal. John is a young version of all of the older men in Red Branch; in him we see the past of those men, John’s present, and the likely continuation of the same sort of activity for as far as any of them could foresee. Gifford works to keep some sort of order to the place, but because this picaresque novel befriends the petty criminals and part time ne’er-do-wells, it does not paint Gifford in a flattering light.
What follows is a representative sentence within the first dozen pages. If you do not like or cannot follow it, you will not enjoy it:
“[Red Branch] was a very much different place in 1913 when Marion Sylder was born there, or in 1929 when he left school to work briefly as a carpenter’s apprentice for Increase Tipton, patriarch of a clan whose affluence extended to a dozen jerrybuilt shacks strewn about the valley in unlikely places, squatting over their gullied purlieus like great brooding animals rigid with constipation and yet endowed with an air transient and happenstantial as if set there by the recession of floodwaters. “
Given this one sentence, it is no coincidence that reviewers and critics of Mr. McCarthy’s Tennessee novels (Outer Dark, Child of God, and Suttree) called him the only true heir of Faulkner. If you are a Faulkner fan, you will find much to like about McCarthy; however, while his prose style is similar, the people he uses to populate his world are of a different set than Faulkner’s. The Laureate engendered even his most despicable characters with standard modernistic classicism; McCarthy tends to show more realistic facets to his characters. They are cousins of the Snopeses usually, but the analysis the narratives give McCarthy’s characters is very different from that of his obvious literary forefather.
I highly recommend this novel. My advice is to relax into it and realize you will read certain parts more than once. For one thing, like Faulkner, Mr. McCarthy has the habit of starting a new chapter or a subsection with a ‘he’ whose antecedent occurs several pages on rather than a few lines before. This brings up another item that is important. Mr. McCarthy’s novels are overwhelmingly masculine. If you count the number of words uttered by men versus those uttered by women in The Orchard Keeper it would be somewhere near 1%. This isn’t necessarily a failing, but for some women readers, this could be frustrating.
Beautifully written prose. McCarthey says more in one sentence than most any other writers say in pages. It's a small book, but not a quick read. I appreciate the language, words and his amazing style, but I found find the book a bit unsatisfying. Perhaps I enjoy more plot driven books. Often the characters muddled together and in general I felt a bit in a haze while reading, not completely understanding what was being conveyed. I've enjoyed other works by McCarthey more than this one.