McCarthy’s Sunset Limited

Cormac McCarthy was born on this day in 1933. McCarthy’s Sunset Limited, a “novel in dramatic form,” was published in 2006, the same year as the more famous The Road. Both books present bleak, reduced worlds, though the end-of-the-road scenario in The Sunset Limited is contracted to a few hours in a New York City tenement. Earlier in the day, “Black,” a born again ex-con, has rescued “White,” a professor, from his attempt to give himself the birthday present he longs for, suicide by subway train. The two are now locked into a life-and-death discussion, literally: Black will not open the door of his run-down apartment until White admits that life is worth living.

During the earlier part of the discussion, Black’s sunny faith seems to challenge White’s view that the traditional cultural forms, “books and music and art,” have been emptied and devalued, leaving the history of man as “a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore.” By the end of the play, White has forced Black to concede some ground, and to open his locked door:

…And justice? Brotherhood? Eternal life? Good god, man. Show me a religion that prepares one for death. For nothingness. There’s a church I might enter. Yours prepares one only for more life. For dreams and illusions and lies. If you could banish the fear of death from men’s hearts they wouldn’t live a day. Who would want this nightmare if not for fear of the next? The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy. Every road ends in death. Or worse. Every friendship. Every love. Torment, betrayal, loss, suffering, pain, age, indignity, and hideous lingering illness. All with a single conclusion. …The truth is that that the forms I see have been slowly emptied out. They no longer have any content. They are shapes only. A train, a wall, a world. Or a man. A thing dangling in senseless articulation in a howling void.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.