Outer Dark ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The two main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Outer Dark, brother and sister Culla and Rinthy Holme, are victims of poverty and ignorance. (She has no shoes, while he wears stolen boots.) Rinthy is nineteen. Culla is some older. Rinthy has a baby and Culla is the father. Apparently because he is ashamed of impregnating his own sister, Culla takes the nameless baby, a boy, and leaves him alone in the woods to die. The baby is picked up by a ragtag, itinerant tinker who travels around with his cart. Where the tinker takes the baby or for what reason is never made quite clear, but it can’t be for any good or because he is concerned for the baby’s welfare.
Rinthy and Culla undertake separate journeys, Rinthy to find the baby (her “chap”) and Culla to find Rinthy, or maybe he’s just looking for work. Wherever Rinthy goes in her quest to find her baby, she is mostly met with kindness, with people who feed and shelter her. With Culla it is just the opposite. Death and disaster follow in his wake. The people he encounters are menacing and more than once threaten him in some way. (Does the trio of despicable desperadoes who seem to be trailing him really exist, or have they been called forth by his sin?) Even nature is unforgiving for Culla. When he is crossing a ferry on a river, the cable holding the ferry in place inexplicably breaks and Culla nearly drowns. He survives, but would have possibly been better off to have drowned, considering what happens to him afterwards.
Can we say, then, that Rinthy is a child of light and Culla a child of darkness because of his sin of engaging in incestuous relations with his sister and then trying to destroy the evidence of the relationship? His biggest sin, however, is possibly his lack of awareness of his sin and his failure to seek redemption. (At the end of the book, Rinthy finds herself in a glade and Culla in a swamp.)
Cormac McCarthy, now 85 years old, is one of America’s greatest living writers, the only writer we have comparable to William Faulkner. Outer Dark is a fascinating exploration of sin and retribution (or the absence of retribution). I’ve read it twice, years apart, and found it compelling both times. It’s an example of how good contemporary American literature can be in the hands of an undisputed master.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp