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  • Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee Period
  • William Brannon
Luce, Dianne C. Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee Period. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. 336 pp. $49.95

Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee Period promises an important contribution to Cormac McCarthy scholarship. Much of the critical attention devoted to McCarthy has focused on his novels set in the Southwestern region of the United [End Page 122] States. McCarthy's earlier work, with the Appalachian area of Tennessee as a setting, has either been considered merely as part of book-length critical studies of McCarthy's work as a whole or else has been the focus of assorted academic articles. Reading the World attempts to fill this gap in McCarthy scholarship.

Reading the World is organized chronologically into five chapters according to the date of publication for McCarthy's first four novels—The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, and Suttree—and his screenplay, The Gardener's Son. In each chapter, Luce initially considers the impact of historical time and place on that particular text and then examines the philosophical themes shared by the novels and the screenplay. This dual critical focus results in Luce emphasizing the importance of historical context in her reading of some of McCarthy's Tennessee texts, while stressing the philosophical underpinnings in some of the other Tennessee narratives.

Tracing the historical and geographical changes in Eastern Tennessee in the early twentieth century provides a basis for Luce's analysis of The Orchard Keeper's three main characters, Arthur Ownby, Marion Sylder, and John Wesley Rattner. Luce proposes that the orchard acts as a focal point for each character's reaction to the encroachment of modern technology in a pastoral world and foreshadows the decline of the cattle culture in the American Southwest that precipitates the actions of the characters in McCarthy's later fiction. In contrast to McCarthy's accurate depictions of rural Eastern Tennessee and its inhabitants in The Orchard Keeper, Luce suggests that Outer Dark's lack of specificity in details such as setting and chronology contributes to the novel remaining one of McCarthy's texts most resistant to easy interpretation. Luce identifies possible historical sources of McCarthy's inspiration for Child of God's protagonist, Lester Ballard, including Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer whose exploits garnered popular attention in the 1950s, and a less publicized case in North Georgia in 1963 involving James Melvin Blevins. Both cases share similarities to Child of God's plot. Luce provides only speculative evidence that McCarthy drew more than indirect inspiration from either event, but she does offer insightful commentary regarding how McCarthy's depiction of Lester compares to the portrayal of Norman Bates, a character based on Ed Gein, in prose and film. Suttree remains one of McCarthy's novels most identifiable with a specific time and locale: Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1950s. Despite Suttree's urban setting, Luce asserts that the novel functions as a link between The Orchard Keeper and the Border Trilogy, all of the works exhibiting a preoccupation with a disappearing world and the subsequent effects on its inhabitants.

The focus on historical time and place in each chapter promotes Luce's critical goal of understanding "the integration in McCarthy's work of the surface texture, of seeing the world" (i), but the uneven emphasis depending on the work poses challenges for the reader. Luce's discussion of Suttree provides an example of these challenges. Luce acknowledges McCarthy's accuracy in depicting the Knoxville that serves as the backdrop for Suttree, but she does not explore how other aspects of the novel may be reflective of McCarthy's own experiences living in Eastern Tennessee. Although Luce cites evidence that many of the novel's characters are based on McCarthy's acquaintances, she chooses instead to emphasize Suttree's underlying philosophical themes.

Similar challenges confront the reader when engaging with the discussion of the philosophical themes that Luce identifies in McCarthy's Tennessee works. In her discussion of The Orchard Keeper, she does not focus on any single dominant philosophical theme. Luce suggests Outer Dark's ambiguous setting and omission of direct historical...


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