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The Sunset Limited

By Cormac McCarthy
Picador £9.99
145 pages

Dateline: 30th May, 2010

I spend a vastly disproportionate amount of my life watching what I thought were plays. If the front cover of the new book from Cormac McCarthy is to be believed, perhaps my average evening out is spent observing "a novel in dramatic form".

McCarthy is, of course, best known for his novels in silver screen form such as The Road and No Country for Old Men.

The Sunset Limited looks like a play and indeed, long before its first UK publication, had been performed on stage by Steppenwolf, first in Chicago and then at 59E59 in New York, by Freeman Coffey and the highly respected actor/director/writer, Austin Pendleton.

Whatever it may be, this is a great read and undoubtedly would work well in the hands of gifted performers on stage. It manages to be, at the same time, a bit of a mystery story, an exploration of the meaning of religion today and more widely takes a look at contemporary values and racial tensions through the eyes of a pair of contrasting New Yorkers.

White is a college professor with a wide vocabulary and the world at his feet. Black is an ex-con murderer who has caught Jesus in a big way and is happy to live among down and outs, in some eyes wasting his innate intelligence.

In a nice twist, we realise that what has thrown them together is White's attempted suicide under the train that gives the "novel" its title. His dive was inadvertently into the arms of his African-American saviour.

There is an old theory bandied around in numerous literary works, quite probably derived from ancient Native American folklore, that if you save somebody's life, they become your responsibility. Black clearly subscribes to this and spends the book's duration protecting, educating and re-saving the man whom he had not met until their accidental collision a couple hours before.

While in word count terms The Sunset Limited is closer to a short story than a novel, Cormac McCarthy has put enough wise philosophy into the mouths of his two characters to foment significant debate about life in the 21st-century rat race, with his totally convincing creations putting very different viewpoints, each of which will have its own subscribers.

This may not be the book that its publicists set out to sell but The Sunset Limited should prove thought-provoking to any reader. Even better, it deserves to be appreciated on the stage, so it is to be hoped that a London producer will pick up the rights, if they have not already done so.

Philip Fisher

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©Peter Lathan 2010