Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Orchard Keeper - a slow start

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy (Random House: 1965). The story of an out of the way community between the world wars. A bootlegger kills a hitchhiker and later unwittingly befriends his son.
Everyone’s got to start somewhere, right? There are some jerk’s who start with masterpieces. I hate those guys. The naturally talented sort who seem to be able to just spit out perfection at their first shot. The guys who were clearly better at football than everyone else since they were about three years old. The kind that could kick a conversion from the halfway line about two seconds after they learned to walk. The kind that could draw a bowl of fruit that looked better than the real thing whilst the rest of us were still struggling to hold the pencil the right way round.
Cormac McCarthy is not one of those jerks.
This is a guy who has written some amazing stuff. I’ve reviewed The Sunset Limited here before. I was a fan, as I am of a couple of his other books. Enough people love this guy for a handful of his books to have translated into big budget movies. The Road. No Country for Old Men. These things don’t make their way from his laptop in the early hours of a Tuesday morning to the Screen 1 down the Odeon on a Friday night by luck. A lot of people have to be fans, and a lot of people have to spend a lot of their money for it to happen.
No doubt, Cormac McCarthy is very good at writing. But he had to start somewhere. And The Orchard Keeper is it. This is his first published book. So I thought it’d be interesting to find out how he kicked off.
Disappointment doesn’t quite cover it. I opened the first page all eager. I was all set to connect at the roots with one of American literature’s greatest living writers. This came out in 1965, and made enough of a splash to get McCarthy noticed and start an illustrious career.
By about page ten, I knew this wasn’t going to live up to all of that. For starts, the story jumped around like a flea in a jumping around circus in which the fleas are forced to jump around more than fleas naturally jump around.
I’m all for a complex story line. I’m all for strands being laid down, dropped, picked up again. Weave it correctly, and it can make for a rich experience. But that didn’t happen here. All that happened was mass confusion. I honestly couldn’t tell you much about what happened in this story. I’m still not even sure why it’s called The Orchard Keeper. I spent so much time flicking back and forth trying to figure out who was who and what was what that it all ended up being a chore.
Elmore - not a fan of hooptedoodle
For twos, the sections which I decided just to sit and read weren’t that great either. I mean, the writing was good. The guy can create scenery and atmosphere that can knock your socks off. But then I was there, sockless, and it kept going. Elmore Leonard talks about avoiding too much hooptedoodle in writing. Me, I tend to think there’s room for a bit of hooptedoodle when it’s well done and indulged in with moderation. But moderation had left the building here. McCarthy kept going and going and going.
There was just no balance. I love an atmospheric book. I love pages that can take you to complete other places and keep you there for hours. I love writers that create tastes and sounds and smells and light. There doesn’t always need to be huge amounts of plot behind it. But it does need to have some meaning that breaks the surface. There needs to be a structure behind it. Steinbeck does it. McCarthy does it too, just not on his first time out.
So no, didn’t really enjoy this one. There were good bits, a few little anecdotes that worked, scene setting passages that warmed me (until they dragged on).
But when the last page went by, I was pleased to be done with this.
On to the next one. A German novella next week. Think that’s the first time I’ve ever said that sentence.

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