The first Cormac McCarthy novel I read was 2006’s The Road, and it is by far and away his best. It – if you don’t know it – is the narrative of a man and his son walking through a post-apocalyptic North America, heading South in the hope of finding food, shelter and safety. Along their way, they encounter cannibals, thieves and the helpless, none of whom they help. Outer Dark was McCarthy’s second novel, published way back in 1968, and it feels very, very similar. In this, a loner walks through an uncivilised and geographically-unspecified America, witnessing horror, violence and cruelty everywhere he turns. The difference is that The Road is set after the collapse of society, when only the desperate and the quick are able to survive, whilst Outer Dark is a historical novel, and the America that Culla Holme wanders through in the search for his sister and their incest-baby is as equally sparse, as equally unpredictable and as equally dangerous but for the opposite reason – there has not yet been the establishment of a regulated state.
Outer Dark is rural and creepy. It is dark and distant. It describes people far out of the way of society, able to do what they want, when they want, due to the fact that there are so few other people present to stop them. Holme encounters murderers and thieves, he meets men who are hanged for not being racist, he meets people walking with thousands of pigs to a slaughterhouse, he meets a gang of men who force him to eat meat that is possibly human, he meets people who want to kill him, fine him, beat him, employ him, chase him, hang him and exploit him. Every character is as desperate and as lawless as they are in the supposedly different world McCarthy wrote of four decades later. There is no safety, not even in the wilderness. There is no peace, there is no love – even the socially unacceptable incest is not able to be a source of private joy.
There is lots of deliberate repetition in dialogue, and the brother and sister (Rinthy) speak the same responses to similar questions in their separate wanderings. They pass, unknown, the same places, the same lynched bodies hanging from trees, they enter the same shops, they try to find work in the same towns, but never at the same time, and not in the same order. The lack of clarity as regards place is an important part of the book – the roads seem to lead nowhere, they are innocents in many ways, unused to the world and never very solidly within it. When Holme is captured by some men who arbitrarily accuse him of a crime he had nothing to do with, it comes as a surprise for the reader not that he succeeds in his escape attempt, but that he even tries.
This is a dark novel, exploring violent hungers and loosened desires. The three men, the possible cannibals, who creep in and out of the narrative are in part demons, in part the fates, in part the hyenas from The Lion King – they are dangerous but somehow soulless, they are collected and in control of themselves, yet somehow not in control of their actions.
McCarthy’s writing is sharp and visceral. The description of the effect of time on a body left hanging from a tree in the middle of a forest is somehow magical, the emptiness of the darkness, a ferry crash, fear of assault, fear of hunger, fear of-
In short, fear.
Reading Outer Dark is a scary experience.
Its ambiance and its violence cloak the reader – the anxiety of the characters in their unpredictable world is easily evoked, and though McCarthy does have the young novelist’s curse of using long, complicated words when short, simple ones would do, the criticisms I have of this text are minor. It’s a little florid in places and that doesn’t really work, but by the end this is dropped, and the reader is left with a deeply engaging and terrifying insight into the life of two itinerant, illiterate siblings who cannot continue with the closeted world they had before after the fruit of their incest enters the world.
I’d recommend it. But it’s not as good as The Road or Blood Meridian.