In a small, remote community in rural Tennessee in the years between the two world wars, John Wesley Rattner, a young boy, and Marion Sylder, an outlaw and bootlegger who, unbeknownst to either of them, has killed the boy's father enact a drama that seems born of the land itself.
Fellow Tennessean William Gay, among others, obviously drew inspiration from McCarthy, without adopting the sometimes wordily dense writing style favored by McCarthy in his early novels.
The story revolves around bootleggers in the 1930s and 40s and it meanders beautifully, as does nature, between scenes of the land and rural life, interspersed with the violence surrounding bootlegging and general larceny. His characters veer between well-drawn and commonplace, but move the story along and contribute to the narrative.
The Orchard Keeper is maybe one of the lesser stories I have read by him. It focuses on the lives of three people representing three generations, their lives connected, although not necessarily of the same family. The story takes place in Tennessee, around 1950.
The characters are John Wesley Rattner, a young teenager living with his mother; Marion Sylder, a bootlegger who (it turns out) has killed Rattner's father - in self defense - although Rattner does not know this; and elderly Ather Ownby, Rattner's uncle, who lives alone with his old dog in a run-down cabin in what used to be an orchard. The interaction between the characters seems incidental to the story, and what becomes of each character is not in any obvious way connected to the other characters.
The story is disjointed, and probably intentionally so. McCarthy's sparse construction style leaves it up to the reader to determine what is going on, with the author providing only significant events as road signs on the twisting narrative. My take is that he has attempted to capture a pivotal period: the post-World-War-II era.
Ownby represents the past - defined by self-sufficiency and independence; an acceptance of the world as it is, and a willingness to function therein. Rattner represents the future - increasingly untethered to the past, seeking a way to pass from what was left of the pre-War world to the demands of the future. This makes Sylder something of a linchpin to the story, a man trying to bridge the past with the future; in the end, his attempts to adapt to the exigencies of the future are ensnared by the remnants of the past.
At least, that's my take on it. This book is redolent of the typical McCarthy writing style - scenes articulated in sparse but driving language that dares the reader to flow with the prose, and rewards the reader willing to do so with an unequaled experience.
It's not an easy book to read by any means, as I had to ask my wife several times what was happening or re-read sections to wrap my mind around it. And the plot certainly meanders, not coming to as sharp a point as his later works. It's a worthwhile read, but if you're wondering which McCarthy to start out on, this ain't it.