By James Calemine

“Times past are fugitive. They cain’t be kept in no box…”
    –Old Timekeeper from The Gardener’s Son

Since Cormac McCarthy’s two new books (The Passenger and Stella Maris) hit the streets later this year I wanted to revisit some of his previous works, such as The Gardener’s Son. I’ve read all of McCarthy’s books (some more than a few times), but I wanted to re-read his first screenplay, The Gardener’s Son.

McCarthy’s other screenplays The Stonemason and The Sunset Limited were originally performed by Steppenwolf Theatre Company. His most recent, The Counselor, was adapted to film by Ridley Scott in 2013. McCarthy’s books All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men and The Road were also made into films.

The Gardener’s Son revolves around an 1876 murder in Graniteville, South Carolina. In 1975, filmmaker Richard Pearce asked McCarthy to write the screenplay for a two-hour TV series called Visions that eventually broadcast in 1977 featuring Ned Beatty, Penelope Allen and Brad Dourif, which earned two Emmy Award nominations.

Published in book form in April 1996, Pearce wrote in the Foreword he traveled with McCarthy through Tennessee, North and South Carolina to research the story and it took a year to complete.

“For Cormac McCarthy, at least from my vantage point, it was a year of pure alchemy, much of it spent translating what could have been a dry academic expose into a strange and haunting tale of impotence, rage, and ultimately violence among two generations of owners and workers, fathers and sons, during the rise and fall of one of America’s most bizarre utopian industrial experiments.”

The wealthy Greggs own the local cotton mill, and the poor McEvoys work at the mill as well as live in mill housing. Robert McEvoy suffers an injury where his leg must be amputated and the rumor circulated the accident was intentionally caused by James Gregg the mill owner’s son.

Robert McEvoy leaves town, crippled and angry from the toxic realities his family face. When he returned two years later because he received a letter his mother fell ill only to discover upon his return to Graniteville she died the previous day, and her body is not being buried in its proper place. Furthermore, McEvoy discovers his heart-broken father no longer works in the mill’s garden, but on the factory line. 

It’s a dark tale. Like most of McCarthy’s work the story underpins how mean-spirited people treat one another. “The good book says all men are brothers but it don’t seem to cut no ice, does it?” McEvoy asks his younger sister Martha. His anger propels him to confront James Gregg. McEvoy shoots Gregg dead in the mill office. Both families suffer grave consequences beyond their control. Robert McEvoy was hanged and buried in an unmarked grave. 

McCarthy’s characters linger in the reader’s imagination once his books are read…