No discussion of great modern authors is complete without mention of Cormac McCarthy, whose rare and blazing talent makes his every work a true literary event. A grand addition to the American literary canon, Suttree introduces readers to Cornelius Suttree, a man who abandons his affluent family to live among a dissolute array of vagabonds along the Tennessee river.
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It is amazing how McCarthy can find the lyrical beauty in an absurd gout of hallelucinationatory crazy. Absolutely one of my favorite novels of all time (nearly stripped McCarthy's Blood Meridian of its bloody title). Reads like Steinbeck wrote a play based on a David Lynch film about a nightmare child of Fellini and Faulkner that is now worshiped as scripture by pimps, prostitutes, grifters, fishmongers and of course fishermen.
At times Suttree hits me like a complicated musical chorus, a surreal painting, and a ballet of misfits and grotesques, all chopped up and swirling in a dirty river's refuse. I won't look at a summer watermelon with the same degree of innocence again.
- Darwin8u "I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - Salinger ^(;,;)^"
The River of Sewers, Stars, Life, and Death
In another time and place Cornelius "Buddy" Suttree might have been a fisher of men, but in 1951 Knoxville he's a fisher of carp and catfish caught in the cloacal Tennessee River, into which the city dwellers dump sewage, condoms, corpses, and garbage. Suttree, living alone on a ramshackle houseboat, has attended university and is intelligent, generous, and loyal, and yet he wants nothing to do with his mainstream family and especially with his elite father and prefers to live among social outcasts--alcoholic derelicts, homeless old timers, blind beggars, colorful catamites, profane prostitutes, smiling brawlers, crazed prophets, and even a moonlight melonmounter--all without any regard to skin color, being on good terms with everyone from "white trash" to African and Native Americans, all of whom possess an appeal, integrity, and savor missing from "normal" white society. Apart from his family, the only people who repulse him are policemen. Suttree often passively accompanies his rowdy friends on drunken binges that end with vomit and blackout if not with violence and robbery. More than once he thinks something like, "My life is ghastly," but he seems unable to do anything constructive with it.
Despite that character sketch, Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree (1979) is not only bleak and unpleasant; it is also beautiful, vibrant, and meaningful. It is also very funny, unlike The Road. Suttree's friends say and do hilarious (off-color) things, and McCarthy's writing is often wickedly playful. More, his writing pulses with a terse, knotty, sensual, and biblical poetry. His diction ranges from the scientific to the scatological and from the slangy to the apocalyptic, his similes and metaphors are striking and original, his ear for dialogue is acute and comical, and his grotesque characters are compelling. The story, three years of Suttree's life on or near the river, mostly in Knoxville, is episodic, unlike No Country for Old Men. While the majority of the narrative is told from Suttree's point of view, an amusing minority is told from that of his foil, the 18-year-old Gene Harrogate, the "pervert of a botanical bent," "the moonlight melonfancier," the Country Mouse who becomes the City Rat, the amoral and innocent creator of cracked get-rich-quick schemes whom Suttree meets in the prison workhouse.
Suttree resembles Huckleberry Finn, in its southern river setting and outsider protagonist. It also resembles Faulkner, in its American gothic, decayed south and fallen family themes and rich language. And it resembles Ulysses, in celebrating and lamenting a city in all its sordid and vibrant qualities in a style intoxicated with language. But Suttree is very McCarthy in its vernacular poetry, its range in focus from insect to universe, and its themes about identity, place, love, life, and death. I chuckled in appreciation at his "unaccountable" phrases and scenes and reveled in the foul and sublime pleasure of it all. Blood Meridian affected me similarly, but the tone in that novel is bleaker and darker, the violence more graphic and ubiquitous, the similes more unrelievedly apocalyptic and portentous.
Richard Poe's gravelly and compassionate voice is perfectly suited to reading McCarthy's prose, especially during those intense moments when he sounds nearly stunned by the uncanny scenes or extreme similes or biblical-epical-poetic prose he's reading. And without straining for women's voices or white or black southern voices of the various characters, Poe highlights the their different personalities.
The novel is long. By the end I had begun to experience difficulty in digesting such rich prose, and to suspect that not all of Suttree's near-death hallucinatory episodes are necessary. But I enjoyed most of the novel, and fans of McCarthy or of sordid, epic, and male Americana that shoves the soul into the gutter one moment and sends it out beyond the stars the next should read Suttree.
Great scenes in Suttree: Harrogate violating shapely watermelons, going drunk to dinner in the workhouse, and diabolically plotting to dig into the banks of Knoxville from the caves underlying the city; Suttree attending a sad funeral, visiting the Catholic church of his youth, looking at his aunt's family photos, winnowing himself in green mountains, getting an earful from the "viperous evangelist," and saying "Gene, you're crazy" to Harrogate; the goat man arriving in town in just spring; the Red Reverend preaching in the gutter.
And here is a collage of choice lines:
Suttree went out through the kitchen, and through the ruined garden to the old road. Reprobate scion of doomed Saxon clans, out of a rainy day, dream surmised.
A thousand hours or more he's spent in this sad chapel he. Spurious acolyte, dreamer impenitent. Before this tabernacle where the wise high God himself lies sleeping in his golden cup.
He fell to studying the variety of moths pressed to the glass…. Supplicants of light. Here one tinted easter pink along the edges of his white fur belly and wings. Eyes black, triangular, a robber's mask. Furred and wizened face not unlike a monkey's and wearing a windswept ermine shako. Suttree bent to see him better. What do you want?
And what could a child know of the darkness of God's plan? Or how flesh is so frail it is hardly more than a dream?
He found pale newts with enormous eyes and held them cold and quailing in his palm and watched their tiny hearts hammer under the blue and visible bones of their thimblesized briskets. They gripped his finger childlike with their tiny spatulate palps.
On these nights he'd see stars come adrift and rifle hot and dying across the face of the firmament. The enormity of the universe filled him with a strange sweet woe.
The sun don't shine on the same dog's ass everyday. I hope not.
But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse...