Review: Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

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Photo: Goodreads

Night fell long and cool through the woods about him and spectral quietude set in. As if something were about that crickets and nightbirds held in dread. He went on faster. With full dark he was confused in a swampy forest, floundering through sucking quagmires… in full flight now, the trees beginning to close him in, malign and baleful shapes that reared like enormous androids provoked at the alien insubstantiality of this flesh colliding among them.

Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark was published by Random House in 1968 at the peak of the Southern Gothic literature scene, and is peppered with genre specific tropes McCarthy does so well – grotesque themes, damaged and delusional characters on the outskirts of society, an underlying theme that fate or something just as menacing and inescapable is just out of the field of vision. That lingering maliciousness hovers over Rinthy and Culla Holmes, siblings residing in an isolated cabin in Johnson County, a non distinct town hued in shadow (similar to the main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

Rinthy bears her brother’s child, suffering through a long labor because he is unwilling to get a midwife, worried she might reveal their insectuous secret. When Rinthy finally rests, Culla takes the baby and leaves it in the woods, telling his sister the child fell ill and died. Rinthy quickly discovers an empty grave and sets off to find a tinker, suspecting her brother has sold the baby because no one else has passed their home in months. Culla leaves too, supposedly to bring Rinthy home, but his aimlessness seems more like an escape from the persecution of his sins.

On their separate paths, Rinthy and Culla encounter different degrees of hospitality. Rinthy’s innocent nature and sickly physique encourage strangers to welcome her with food and shelter, while Culla is met with suspicion, violence, and denied work. Three mysterious men follow Culla for what seems like no reason at all, until we discover this is a story about inhumanity and prophesy, all culminating in a judgement day-like conclusion.

With Outer Dark being McCarthy’s second novel you may expect amateur writing as he figures out his literary limbs, but he was very ambitious (and successful) in the themes he chose to explore in the novel. McCarthy studies the strange behavior of his characters, their dialect, mental instabilities, and ultimately the harm they do to each other, a point illuminated by the tinker when he says he has “seen the meanness of humans till I dont know why God aint put out the sun and gone away.”  The novel also deals in the themes of blindness, darkness, and religion, the title itself referring to a biblical verse “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 25:30 (KJV) a foreboding to apocalyptic revelations to come, like the rapture itself.

Lyricism compliments broken dialogue, simple people and surroundings, and as the story progresses McCarthy plays with reader’s anticipations. We’re convinced something terrible will happen, so he draws the situation out one string at a time, slowly teasing it apart, growing more deliberate towards later chapters where Rinthy and Culla’s dovetailing  paths draw closer to a similar dire fate; Holmes dealing with death face on, and Rinthy close on the tinker’s heels.

Even with the bleak themes of Southern Gothic, Outer Dark is a tamer version of McCarthy’s usual work, so is a good choice for starting out if you’ve yet to give him a read. Still, in it’s “tamer” nature, there will be moments when you turn away from the page and it’s unpleasant details, but will finish the book with an idea of reading it again.  Cormac McCarthy is not for the faint of heart or ego. If you’re a writer, read this book knowing that you will question everything you’ve ever written as rubbish, but will learn a great deal. My copy of Outer Dark is full of highlights and marginal notes, like any good book should be.

Book six of ten books of summer.

Have you read Outer Dark? What did you think of it? Have you read any of Cormac McCarthy’s other books? Can you stomach gruesome subjects in writing or is it a put off/distraction for you? What book do you own with the most highlights or notes?

A little note for #20booksofsummer, I’m currently reading my seventh book, Homegoing (which is great and will have a review up next week), and will be tapping out at that. It’s been great reading some books off of my shelf but I seriously miss lit mags and new books! 🙂

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