This book asks the question: what if we took Lena Grove plot from William Faulkner’s Light in August and made it more grim, grisly, and depressing? This book begins with a girl of 16 giving birth to a child in the Tennessee backwoods. It’s her brother’s child, and after the birth he takes it out to the woods and abandons it. He tells her it died and he buried it, but when she presses him, he tells her he left it. It becomes clear that the baby is with a traveling tinker who happens about the baby and she goes off in pursuit of the tinker and child. Meanwhile, the brother runs off himself stumbling from day laboring job to jail to misadventure to mortal peril as he goes.
This is Cormac McCarthy’s second book (he would have been about 35 at the time) and on the one hand, the book is rich and disturbing and quite good, and on the second hand it has many of the trappings of young writer’s (young in career) ambition clouding up aspects of it. The subject on its own is ripe for literary investigation, but he plays a lot with fable and myth in this book in ways that do and don’t quite work. Like his much more successful figure of Anton Chigurh who is both otherworldly in his danger, but deadly in his humanity, this book is haunted by three roving figures that work to push and loom on the edges of the book in the form of three men who are clearly out to wreak havoc in this Tennessee county. But they don’t have their feet so firmly on the ground at Chigurh, or have their wildness so thoroughly supernatural as the Judge in Blood Meridian. There’s experiment and depth in this novel, and the prose is just too good.