Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited (Book Review)

71UxQ8v6SQLI don’t think it would be a stretch to call Cormac McCarthy one of our era’s greatest American writers. He has certainly carried the torch of a variety of writers that came before him, from Hemingway to O’Connor. McCarthy is known for his stripped down prose, and The Sunset Limited takes it even a step further.

If you have read The Road, Child of God, or any of his other books, then you know that McCarthy works as a mechanical minimalist. He uses only the sparsest punctuation and avoids dialogue tags whenever possible. His style is gritty, realistic, and grotesque in a wonderful Southern Gothic sense.

The Sunset Limited has the usual bleak McCarthy tone, but is written entirely in dramatic form. This is essentially a play script. However, its stage directions are more sparse than most plays. Really, the format seems to be McCarthy challenging himself. Whereas a lot of his novels force him to write so tight that there is no doubt who is speaking, regardless of notation, this seems to be an experiment in stripping a novel down to dialogue only.

The plot is pretty straight forward. White, a nihilistic, atheist professor goes to “catch a ride on the Sunset Limited.” By catch a ride, he means throw himself onto the tracks in front of the oncoming train. He is saved from his suicide by Black, an uneducated but devout ex-con. The only set is Black’s apartment. For the most part, the two men sit opposite of each other and debate.

White’s goal is simple: to leave the apartment and catch the next Sunset Limited. Black’s goal is also simple: to keep White from doing so.

This doesn’t seem like the sort of narrative that would carry 170 pages, but White’s inability to be rude and his desire to be understood keeps him chained to the chair in a way that life itself can’t. Ending his life is one thing, but doing it without class seems to be something entirely different.

Black wants to save the professor, but you begin to wonder just whose salvation is on the line. Is it the atheist professor who is willing to throw himself in front of a train, believing that nothing awaits him upon death, or the devout ex-con who seems to define himself by those he saves. The debates go back and forth, and depending on what sort of person the reader is, he likely connects to something said by one or both.

McCarthy’s characters cover a lot of philosophical ground, definite extremes of both. I read the book during the whole government shutdown crisis. Black and White represent opposing ideologies, both maintaining absolute certainty that theirs is correct. It might remind you of a certain branch of the government.

In the end…well, I won’t ruin it, but if you know McCarthy, you can expect it is not warm and fuzzy. This one does not end with hugs and cake. But it is brilliant, easy to read, and will make you think. As an experiment with narrative form, it is an absolute success, much like most of McCarthy’s work.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

9 Comments

  • Jason Arnett says:

    I watched the HBO adaptation of this with Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. Loved it. Brilliant. I would read this now based on your recommendation.

  • I have yet to read any Cormac McCarthy. Do you recommend starting with this novel or The Road for an introduction to his writing?

    • I think I would avoid this book if you want to get a basis of how he writes. It’s very experimental, and part of what gets me so excited about it is that McCarthy was taking risks and doing different things. The Road is my personal favorite, and was my first McCarthy book. It is very, very bleak, though. I loved Child of God, as well. And if you are looking for a reason to read one book over the other, James Franco’s adaptation of Child of God is out. A lot of people say you should start with All the Pretty Horses. It’s the first of his “Border Trilogy” but works as a stand alone, as well.

  • Stephen Elder says:

    We have a book club here at the homeless shelter where I work and The Sunset Limited was last week’s book. The discussion it stirred was powerful and seemed to have gotten everyone really thinking about the basics of where they were at in life. We had all sorts of Blacks and Whites in the room and everyone trying to lean in toward the Gray for their sanity. I am reading The Road now. And I bought the trilogy for my daughter for Christmas. McCarthy has been a nice surprise.

    • It’s the sort of book that makes you think about where you are. A lot of times, you begin associating with either Black or White, but by the end, you find flaws with both and want to push toward that gray, as you said, for the sake of your sanity. Both are tragic, grotesque characters in the Southern Gothic tradition. They have both gripped their personal philosophies so tightly that they warped them.

  • Stephen Elder says:

    I think one of the things that really got me in the discussion we had on this book was one of our guests saying, “It is almost like holding on to what you truly believe to be right can get you tucked into a very bad place. Like I had to be right to win. But win at what? Maybe that was why I ended up here on the street. I’m not stupid, maybe I was just too stubborn smart.”
    For myself the book made me take a restock of my assets and deficits again. I think that any story that can burrow inside my head unexpectedly and bring out the reflecting pool for deep pondering is a good one. I feel lucky to have stumbled across The Sunset Limited.

  • Andrew Putnam says:

    I must read this. I’ve been a fan of McCarthy’s work since reading The Road. It was the first time I’d ever read a book straight through in one sitting (about five hours). The way he depicts people is haunts and mesmerizes me at the same time.

    • I love McCarthy, which shouldn’t be any real shock given my rural background and my literary influences. I highly recommend it for McCarthy fans. It’s just another example of his genius. Nothing but two characters talking in a room for 160 pages. It never drags or feels forced.

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