I struggle when reading screenplays and stage plays. Every action is dialogue-driven and the stage directions - 'he moves to the window and, a perplexed smile on his face, sets down the smoking gun' - always jerk me out of that state of suspended disbelief I need in order to really lose myself in a story.
But then, nobody writes dialogue that is more convincing, more authentic, or more neutral than Cormac McCarthy. He doesn't force or fudge anything. He doesn't judge any character, no matter how vile they may be. It's just "this follows that follows the other thing" and when it's done you say, 'of course, it does. I'll buy that'. You're left to draw your own conclusions. That, to me, is how books should work.
He treats the themes present throughout his oeuvre: injustice, race, family, exploitation, the indifferent universe, metaphysical doubt, human depravity, violence, and - in a theme that I think is central to this story - the elusive character of history. It's all there in "The Gardener's Son". Quite an accomplishment for such a brief text: an hour or two to read, tops. It'll take you as long to read this review.
Following his own discrete economy, McCarthy doesn't waste a word, and here it results in a deceptively simple, linear story, that nonetheless simmers just beneath its surface with motive, context, and endless argument-starters. A layered, complex tale, filled with the paradox and contradiction that arise any time we try and get "the full history" of anything. But then, maybe after the smoke has cleared, all we have left are the stories we tell one another. The only true way of knowing what really happened. Yet, without the use of his matchless descriptive passages of settings and landscapes both natural and psychological, I found "The Gardener's Son" to be less satisfying than everything else McCarthy has written.
If you've not read Cormac McCarthy before, my advice is 'don't start with "The Gardener's Son".' It won't give you the best example of what you're up against with this writer. Save it until you've read some of his other work. Accidentally, I've managed to do exactly that. This was my last McCarthy and I'm a little blue right now. Maybe I just need to hear everything again, from the beginning.
Now where did I put "The Orchard Keeper"?