I finished this short work by Cormac McCarthy yesterday, passed on by my friend David (lawyer, former bookseller, and voracious consumer of the printed word). Taking the form of a dialogue between two characters – “White” and “Black” – with diametrically opposed world views, this drama/novel probes at notions of life and death, grace, racism, faith, and the use of culture as a means not of consolation, but as a carapace to isolate yourself from the rest of the world.
White, a suicidal college professor intending to throw himself under the “Sunset Ltd” train of the title, is rescued at the last moment by Black, a reformed criminal and drug addict, who, over the course of one night, tries to convert his world view to something less climactically bleak. The jacket blurb makes much of the drama’s supposed comparison to Beckett, but McCarthy’s skill with dialogue both naturalistic and mannered puts this somewhere closer to Faulkner I think, in his more experimental phases. By aiming so clearly for allegory, McCarthy defuses much of the work’s seeming naivety – its “black and white” themes are signposted by the very names of the characters. There are a few of his usual, late-period stylistic tics in place though that I still find irritating, mainly the arbitrary punctuation (“didnt” and “wouldnt” for example, but still “that’s” or “it’s”) which aims for modernism but by being so inconsistent falls considerably short. (Perhaps I’m just being too pedantic though.)
Although presented as a novel in dramatic form, I think this would come alive on the stage in a way it refuses to do on the page. It’s an interesting book, and provides further evidence that the resurgence of quality and formal experimentation in McCarthy’s later work continues apace.