‘The Sunset Limited,’ Cormac McCarthy (a novel in dramatic form)

The Sunset Limited

Cormac McCarthy’s playscript-novella opens with a scene at a train station. A troubled man, White, leaps suicidally from his platform only to land on another troubled man, Black (in spite of the writer’s deliberately crude naming strategy, the piece has much less to say about the two men’s racial difference than it does about their relative privilege and poverty, and it may also be a quietly wry sign from the author about the dangers of ‘Thinking in black and white’). McCarthy also allows himself to play with the idea of the fallen angel and the Good Samaritan: Black, picking himself and White up off the concrete, jokes that White has fallen clean out of the sky. Being positioned to catch a falling man strikes Black as a sign from God and we don’t ask ourselves yet exactly what Black himself was really doing on the platform’s edge. Instead it seems clear at this auspicious start that White is the person in need and Black the very person with the emotional resources to help him. McCarthy will not be content with such psychological neatness, of course.

Most of the action takes place in Black’s bare New York apartment, in what are increasingly claustrophobic scenes. McCarthy doesn’t seem to want to delve too deeply into White’s back story, or whatever complex roots there may have been to his decision to jump, we only see his life in the broadest brush strokes and the most painful thing Black’s sensitive but probing questions can uncover is the sense of disconnectedness or alienation, at the heart of White’s otherwise successful life. Here’s where Black believes that he has the answer and he begins his own confessional-inspirational tale, with a broadly Christian message (although the essence of it, hope, a purposeful life, etc. could as easily be found in Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, in fact any of the six major religions). Predictably, White rejects all of Black’s arguments, but the usual religious-atheist circular conversation takes on the tenor of a struggle for life here, with White’s suicide being the spectre in the room.

Spoiler alert:

It is only when White gets up and strides out the door, perhaps walking back toward his death and the argument appears to be finished with a terrible and bleak finality, that the writer neatly turns the tables on us. We now see that our Good Samaritan, Black, is coming apart. Unable to help the other man, he’s now bereft of the hope which had enabled him to take on his own troubles, deal with his own traumatic past. He appears to finally break under the sheer weight of his life. The existence or otherwise of God, at this precise moment seems to be beside the point, but we feel every atom of McCarthy’s sensitive rage as Black gently crumbles in his own doorway: to think that White came to this room blindly for help. Never once seeing that he was supposed to be it. McCarthy tempts us to wonder which of the two men really sustained the fatal damage when White leapt.

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Jo Ely

Described as "an intelligent, creative, imaginative, original writer" by Guardian Book of the Year author Trevor Byrne, Jo Ely has been Shortlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize and has had a short story selected for an anthology edited by New York Times Notable Book of the Year author Sandra Tyler (Woven Tale Press, US ed. 2016). Jo has published short stories, children's books and written interviews with writers for the Woven Tale Press. She also reviews for the world's first online Empathy Library. 'Stone Seeds' is Jo's first novel, published by Urbane Publications (Amazon.co.uk).

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