Outer Dark, a Cormac McCarthy Novel
The second novel in a distinguished career, Outer Dark was published in 1968 and is everything you’d expect from a Cormac McCarthy novel. The language used in the dialogue is rural and laidback – something I can appreciate being Igbo myself and from a pastoral part of the world with similar tastes in linguistic wit and poetry.
The scenes of the novel I also recognise: rustic, placid, somnolent fields at times, wild, untamed, eerie woodlands at others. There’s also that trademark violence that appears jauntily in scenes, seemingly at home in otherwise ordinary settings. This lends something of the unexpected to the story.
For me the pacing of the novel was faultless and the violence kept to a minimum, unlike in his other novel Blood Meridian where someone seems to die every other page or so.
Like Hemingway Mr McCarthy doesn’t waste words, no needless adjectives here. There’s economy albeit rich in complexity, the ease of the language of the American South sitting in stark contrast with his seductive prose.
McCarthy opts for showing his characters not through their thoughts or by describing their characteristics, but by their habits and their dialogue. Often with fiction a writer can find himself stuck on facial expressions having nothing left in a steadily depleting repertoire of phrases like “he smiled” or “she frowned” and so forth, but Mr McCarthy isn’t deficient in his understanding and use of gestures, something borne, no doubt, out of practised observation of his fellow man. Like Mr Guy Davenport said in his article in the New York Times (29 September 1968):
“…Mr. McCarthy waste a single word on his character’s thoughts. With total objectivity he describes what they do and records their speech. Such discipline comes not only from mastery over words but from an understanding wise enough and compassionate enough to dare tell so abysmally dark a story.”
From Tennessee, Georgia himself Mr McCarthy succeeds in capturing the allure of the Deep South in his style. Indeed there are few novelists who’ve managed to capture the contradictions of the land as successfully as he has, right down to the showing of wickedness living right next to religiosity. As in one scene where the protagonist Culla Holme is wrongly accused of murder. A preacher appears as tensions rise in the mob, but he isn’t the source of succour one would expect from one of his profession, and instead he engages in an inane debate over the right way to dispose of Holme for his perceived crimes.
The theme of religion resonates throughout the entire novel. Guy Davenport again:
“Though it pays its homage to Faulkner’s rhetoric and imagery, it is not a Faulknerian novel. It is much leaner, closer in pace and spareness of line to the Gothic masters Gertrud Le Fort and her disciple Isak Dinesen, and lacks Faulkner’s sociological dimension. Mr. McCarthy is unashamedly an allegorist. His responsibility as a storyteller includes believing with his characters in the devil, or at least in the absolute destructiveness of evil.”
There’s no escaping that the protagonists are being judged for their sins. And while Culla has a hard time of it right from the start, his sister Rinthy seems to be treated more kindly by people until she meets the tinker, a spectral eldritch character who took her baby, and has to face her own transgressions.
Culla Holme of Jackson County in Appalachia has a baby boy with his sister Rinthy. Ashamed of his incest and afraid of how the world will judge him Culla takes the baby as soon as it’s born and steals away in the middle of the night while his sister recovers from childbirth and lays the child out in the woods. A mysterious tinker has been following him through the dark and takes up the child.
Rinthy wakes up and asks for her baby and doesn’t believe her brother when he informs her of the child’s death. Rinthy goes looking for the grave and digs it to find it empty. She then sets out on a journey to recover the babe after confronting her brother for his actions.
Her journey will lead her to many dangerous eerie places where she meets weird locals, but they all treat her well and offer her food and board, unlike her brother, who sets out on his own journey after her: Culla finds bad luck everywhere he goes. His arrested, and at one point threatened with a lynching. And through it all he’s stalked by 3 mysterious otherworldly men who in the end will pronounce a terrifying judgement on him for his sin and bring the story to its unsettling conclusion.