Taylor writes a good sentence (though he knows he writes a good sentence, and has a tendency to over-write too many of them), and has a talent for telling a good story. But this novel, which begins with so much promise, quickly loses its way. It’s entertaining throughout, I’ll give it that–but this is, despite its desire to be great literary fiction, little more than a beach read; a dark and twisted one, to be sure, but little more than an afternoon’s entertainment.
The contemporary Southern fiction stereotypes are thick here, and the characters are little more than plot devices or exist only as predictably symbolic flat caricatures. The setting is that wasteland of perpetual 1991 that so much post-Harry Crews Southern gothic fiction wallows in, and occasional clunkers of over-done, MFA-workshop moments leave readers shaking their heads in frustration (e.g., when we read of two characters about to have sex, and we’re told that the male character observes that he could “smell” the female character’s “sex.” You’ve read some version of the sentence “He could smell her sex” before, of course. It’s an overdone–and frankly silly–MFA workshop tick that so many contemporary writers seem to have picked up).
Despite this, Taylor could have written a strong novel about the multifaceted struggles of belonging. Instead, what we’re given is a pastiche of McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper, No Country for Old Men, and the Judge from Blood Meridian in the guise of a suit-wearing truck driver who very well might be the Devil. Kind-hearted ex-prostitutes and armless, cruel bartenders, and bloody, tawdry scenes a plenty are meant to–well, I don’t know what they’re meant to do, other than establish this as an over-the-top Southern gothic novel that can’t get out from under its influences and actually do anything interesting. I realize that the profoundly dissatisfying ending is intended to be vexed and ambiguous; but it really just seems like the narrative realized it had been running on fumes for a while, and wrapped up in a way that is, despite its ambiguity, still neat, pat, and predictable.
What we’ve been given here is warmed-over, third-rate Cormac McCarthy. Again, this isn’t an insurmountable knock on the novel, as it is fundamentally entertaining. But despite this, The Marble Orchard is an especially frustrating novel in light of the fact that at moments, Taylor shows some real promise and significant talent. Ultimately, this is a debut novel of a writer trying to find his voice, only to have it lost underneath the weight of his influences. If Alex Taylor ever finds a way to have his own voice shine through and sing in harmony with these influences, he will be a very good writer, and one worth paying excited attention to. But until then, we’d be better off just reading McCarthy instead.