Imagine a stage play with two characters in a ghetto tenement debating the value of life: White is a professor who jumped in front of a train, and Black is the ex-con who rescued him. This is the premise, weighted with all the pretensions of an Intro to Dramaturgy effort, of CORMAC MCCARTHY’s THE SUNSET LIMITED (awkwardly described as a “novel in dramatic form”). But remarkably, McCarthy’s playlet goes from sophomoric to sublime in a mere 143 pages of poignant dialogue. The urbane skeptic and reformed sinner parry and spar—White just wants to quit this earth and be finished; Black begs the soul-weary professor to let God lift his despair, saying, “I never knowed what the burden weighed till I put it down.” While the incessant proselytizing is a tad shrill, McCarthy’s passionate word craft transcends all staginess. The Sunset Limited carries a heavy load—death and redemption—and even the author can’t tell us what’s at the end of the line.
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