Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited is a lean, spare dialectic between two characters named simply “Black” and “White.” Black, a recovering addict who found Jesus in prison, saves White, an aging professor, who attempts to kill himself by jumping in front of a commuter train, the Sunset Limited. Black keeps White in his apartment, probing the older man’s justification for suicide. White makes it very clear that he intends to finish the job the moment he can leave Black’s apartment, leading Black to stall the professor through argument and storytelling. As such, Black sustains most of the book’s driving questions about morality, redemption, and love for one’s fellows, until near the end, when White unleashes a tirade of nihilism. As the story charges to its climactic conclusion, it becomes clear that it is not just White’s soul at stake, but also Black’s own spirituality.
The cover of The Sunset Limited attests that the book is “A Novel in Dramatic Form,” a conceit that may divide many of McCarthy’s admirers. The language here is precise and visceral, loaded with meaningful ideas yet also utterly concrete. McCarthy’s grasp of colloquial diction shines through these two voices, carrying the story forward in a hurtling momentum with minimal stage directions. Still, some readers may feel cheated out of McCarthy’s rich prose in this bare story (they need only to pick up Blood Meridian or The Road or All the Pretty Horses, of course). I found the story engaging, poignant, dark, and often surprisingly funny, and I read it in one taut sitting. The Sunset Limited is not the starting place for those interested in McCarthy, but fans who’ve yet to read it will probably enjoy it quite a bit. I’m already anticipating a second reading. Highly recommended.
(Editorial note: Biblioklept originally posted this review on February 14th, 2009. We run it again today to coincide with HBO’s debut of a feature film adaptation of McCarthy’s play).