Cormac McCarthy is an impressive writer, but reading his books often feels like jumping into the middle of a disturbing nightmare. I’ve been reading through his works, but I don’t read any more than one per year for my own sanity. This time it was probably more my state of mind, but Outer Dark (1968) turned out to be one of his more disturbing books. I’m going to take a nice long break before I read another. I think I only have Suttree left now anyway.
Outer Dark focuses on a brother and sister living in abject poverty somewhere in the Appalachians at the turn of the century. The sister gives birth to her brother’s baby, and her brother, scared of the consequences, takes the child and leaves it in the woods to die. When the sister finds out, she takes off on a journey to find her child. The brother sets off as well. At the same time, three men rove the hills, evil and indiscriminate in their actions towards others.
McCarthy is intentionally vague about time and place. The brother and sister wander, separately, from town to town. Much like the protagonists, the reader has no notion of where they are, how close they are to the child, or how close they are to each other. Time is also very unclear. I thought the sister had been on the road for a number of days when she said she’d been on the road for months.
Like most of McCarthy’s books, he does a wonder with his descriptions and the entire book is infused with the dread that horrible things can and will happen. There is no predictable plot. The book is more about the journey, atmosphere, and feelings he evokes.
I am always impressed by Cormac McCarthy, but this book seriously almost broke me. Sure, McCarthy, just throw in a helpless newborn and have the mother look for it through the entire book, only for her to come upon its burnt-up body at the end. And even before it was killed, the child had lost an eye and been left scarred on half of its body. Wondering what happened to that poor kid made me want to throw up. Now, I know better than to expect a happy ending from McCarthy, but just one positive scene to balance out the unrelenting darkness would have left me with just a little bit of faith in humanity.
To be fair, there were a couple of people who were sometimes nice to the sister as she wandered the countryside. These scenes seemed to happen early on in the book and were still overlaced with dread of the sister’s vulnerability and the possibilities of what could happen. I appreciate the ingenious darkness of McCarthy, but this book was no fun to read.
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