Book Review: The Sunset Limited

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, odds are you know I’m a Cormac McCarthy fan. A big fan. In fact, I have yet to read one of his books and come away disappointed. I realize he’s not for everyone, but magnificent storytelling skills coupled with brilliant word-craft make him my favorite fiction writer, hands-down.

One of my most recent literary acquisitions was – you guessed it – a McCarthy book. It’s one of his lesser known works, but no less fascinating than Blood Meridian or The Road. What sets it apart from the aforementioned books is that it’s essentially a play: a “novel in dramatic form.” Short, stripped-down, and in typical McCarthy-fashion, thought-provoking. And let me assure you: for a book that’s pretty much 140 pages of pure dialogue, The Sunset Limited packs more tension per sentence than most thrillers. No joke.

The story takes place in a run-down New York tenement, where “Black” and “White” sit across a table from one another. Black is an ex-con and a professing Christian; White is an aging academic with a cynical and despairing view of the world. The two men first encountered each other on a subway platform… when Black prevented White from throwing himself in front of an oncoming train, The Sunset Limited. Now they sit in Black’s apartment: one set, two men, two opposing worldviews. The stakes are life and death.

One of the most striking things about the story is White’s character, in which we see utter despair and disillusionment. He has no use for God or his fellow man. He despises both. And when asked what it is he believes in exactly, his answer is telling:

Mostly the value of things… Cultural things, for instance. Books and music and art. Things like that. Those are the things that have value to me. They’re the foundations of civilization. Or they used to have value. I suppose they dont have so much any more. People stopped valuing them. I stopped valuing them. To a certain extent, I’m not sure I could tell you why. That world is largely gone. Soon it will be wholly gone.

He then adds, with obvious pain,

The things I loved were very frail. Very fragile. I didn’t know that. I thought they were indestructible. They werent. (p. 25)

It’s a powerful picture of one man coming face-to-face with emptiness. Life has no meaning for him. There’s no purpose – nothing to keep his feet glued to the platform when the train comes roaring by. The things he once loved and believed revealed themselves to be insubstantial and unreliable. What’s left? Nothing. So he turns to suicide. The only thing he believes in now is The Sunset Limited.

Then we come to Black’s character, and that’s where things get even more interesting. Black has many valuable things to say as he challenges White’s worldview; but he also has a remarkable flaw: he rejects the idea of man’s basic depravity. When White asks him if there’s anything in the Bible that he finds questionable, he responds,

Maybe the notion of original sin. When Eve eat the apple and it turned everybody bad. I dont see people that way. I think for the most part people are good to start with. I think evil is somethin you bring on your own self. (p. 67)

This foolishly optimistic view of the human condition may seem like small potatoes at first glance; in fact, it’s the way most people tend to view themselves. But Black’s belief in man’s essential goodness ultimately doesn’t get him anywhere. It crumbles, like sand, when confronted with someone like White.

Black seems to be making progress toward the end, until White lashes out in a frenzied, nihilistic tirade. It’s devastating.

I dont regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world. I regard it as the world itself. Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility…

If people saw the world for what it truly is. Saw their lives for what they truly are. Without dreams or illusions. I don’t believe they could offer the first reason why they should not elect to die as soon as possible. (p. 136)

Then and there, it becomes apparent just how dark this man’s soul truly is. Nothing in him, nothing at all, yearns for the Light. Only darkness. Always darkness. Confronted with this, Black is shattered and confused – his view of man’s condition doesn’t go deep enough. It’s too cheerful, too bright, too positive. It fails to take into account the words of Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”

White isn’t just sick. He’s “dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2:1) He doesn’t just need assistance; he needs resurrection. Black fails to grasp this, and when the depth of White’s lostness finally begins to dawn on him, he’s left stunned and disconcerted.

All of this makes sense when you consider how often McCarthy has dealt with human depravity in his other works. In fact, he has a better grasp of this fact than most writers I’ve read, and it comes through strongly in his fiction. The Sunset Limited is no exception.

This is a tough book to wrestle with – make no mistake – and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re a newcomer to McCarthy. It’s not perfect (and it most certainly shouldn’t be regarded as a presentation of the Gospel) but I do think older, mature Christian readers will be rewarded with much to consider.


17 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sunset Limited”

  1. Very interesting! After reading your post, I thought, ‘Now there’s a book I might just want to read.’ Then I read your last paragraph–“and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re a newcomer to McCarthy.”


    I used read all. the. time. until I started college. Now I don’t have time. When I do have time, I wrestle with indecision regarding my stance on reading fiction. Nonetheless, this still sounds like something I want to read (in my non-existent spare time). In some of my other (non-existent) spare time, I’m hoping to write a post on my blog about the value–or lack thereof–of reading/writing fiction. I’d be thrilled if you’d join the conversation when it comes about :-)

      1. Okay, cool. I’ll do a bit of looking into those books :D No promises as to when I’m getting anything read, of course, though…

        And thanks for the link! I’m not saying there isn’t value in fiction (believe me, I’ve read a lot of it, and don’t consider it to have been a hopeless waste of time :D)–I just want to evaluate if further before I continue putting time into it. I find myself evaluating most everything I enjoy doing before I can actually feel sure it’s what I should spend time on. Anyway, I guessed you were certainly in favor of fiction, which is why I thought it would be cool to hear your opinion!

        Now–on to that history exam….

  2. Ink,
    The movie was great too.
    Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson star in it.
    The question if God exists why is there suffering comes up.
    Jackson’s character missed an opportunity for saying that God is not uncaring because He sent His Son who suffered horribly for our sakes.
    God cares.
    We know that much.

    1. I just finished watching the movie the other night! :) It was excellent – pretty much a word-for-word adaption of McCarthy’s play. Lee and Jackson were both brilliant in the starring roles… which were actually the only roles. :) Glad you enjoyed it, too!

    1. He grew up Roman Catholic, but now describes himself as “not particularly religious.” It’s amazing, though, how often his works are filled with such striking biblical language and imagery. He’s a remarkable writer.

          1. He does, I think. He has what I would consider to be a fairly sacramental way of imaging the presence of God in the world … Thanks for your reaction to the Sunset Limited. I am just working on a brief reaction myself.

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