Sunday, March 29, 2009


After reading The Road, The Border Trilogy, and Blood Meridian (and seeing the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men) in the past twelve months, I found myself hungry for even more Cormac McCarthy. This book offered up a bountiful feast, 470 leisurely pages of McCarthy’s richest language.

The detailed (and often slyly comical) chapter headings from
Blood Meridian are absent here, replaced by unnumbered and untitled chapter breaks. The story seems to move without form, episodically, like the improvised lives it chronicles. I read somewhere that McCarthy worked on this book for twenty years, and that feels right. He abandons storylines, characters, conflicts—but in the same fashion as Melville does in Moby-Dick: you don’t mind, because it’s all so damn good.

The novel opens with a difficult but brief italicized passage, but after that there’s lots of dialogue, one of McCarthy’s great strengths, and these sections read quickly. This is a novel full of the talk of men: wry, filthy, often hilarious. Here’s two men talking about a curious melonpatch intruder:
You ain’t goin to believe this.
Knowin you for a born liar I most probably wont.
Somebody has been fuckin my watermelons.
I said somebody has been…
No. No. Hell no. Damn you if you aint got a warped mind.
I’m tellin you…
Looky here.
And here.
He shows him a few of the victims.
It does look like it, dont it?
I’m tellin you I seen him. I didnt know what the hell was goin on when he dropped his drawers. Then when I seen what he was up to I still didnt believe it. But yonder they lay.
What do you aim to do?
Hell, I dont know. It’s about too late to do anything. He’s damn near screwed the whole patch. I dont see why he couldnt of stuck to just one. Or a few.
Well, I guess he takes himself for a lover. Sort of like a sailor in a whorehouse.
I reckon what it was he didnt take to the idea of gettin bit on the head of his pecker by one of them waspers. I suppose he showed good judgment there.
What was he, just a young feller?
I dont know how young he was but he was as active a feller as I’ve seen in a good while.
By the way, the so-called “moonlight melon-mounter” ends up becoming one of the main characters in the novel, and one of the most sympathetic, a kind of precursor to All the Pretty Horses' Jimmy Blevins: a lovable sonofabitch, innocently corrupt.

The novel is like a 470-page Tom Waits song—blood and whiskey and men with names like J-Bone and Cabbage and Daddy Watson and Ab Jones and Hoghead and Boneyard. Living under bridges when it’s ten below and falling, watching lazy old tomcats on a midnight spree, nobody up except the moon and thee. There are echoes of Bob Dylan, too—one of Suttree’s destitute friends is a ragman, like the one who draws circles up and down the block in “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.”

Suttree and his fellows are stuck inside of Knoxville, though, in a decaying or ruined world that is nevertheless densely inhabited. From the italicized introduction, here’s a terrific description of the novel’s milieu:
We are come to a world within a world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams. Illshapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in everyland.
I thought of Suttree’s world the other day as I drove across the Poplar Street bridge and looked down at the industrial wastes along the riverfront.

The Tennessee River and its shores are, in McCarthy’s wonderfully obscure parlance (the novel is full of words that you’ve got to look up, and when look some of them up on Google, Google takes you only to sites about Cormac McCarthy; does anyone know what anthroparians are? What androleptic means? How about grimoire?), a cloaca maxima. A cloaca, in case you didn’t know, is the common chamber into which the intestinal, urinary, and generative canals discharge in birds, reptiles, fish, etc. Suttree’s people live in the bowels of Knoxville. Indeed, one character ends up covered in the city’s shit while exploring the caves under the town and accidentally breaching a sewer main.

One of the pleasures of the novel is that it takes us into this world, a world the novel’s readers would indeed probably see only from car or carriage. McCarthy even takes us to the border between this world and “the world beyond the world” while narrating Suttree’s brush with death, ten pages of typhoid-fevered hallucinations.

And McCarthy introduces us to the type of people we’d probably never get to know. In his fever dream, a shrewish nun accuses Suttree, a college-educated son of a wealthy man, of keeping bad, bad company:
Mr. Suttree it is our understanding that at curfew rightly decreed by law and in that hour wherein night draws to its proper close and the new day commences and contrary to conduct befitting a person of your station you betook yourself to various low places within the shire of McAnally and there did squander several ensuing years in the company of thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsmocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.
I was drunk, cried Suttree.
The subtitle for this book might be The Seven(ty) Habits of Highly Unsuccessful People. And yet the novel values compassion, understanding, and respect, and shows over and over again these values reflected in the lives of these people. Suttree, “sharing his pain with those who lay in their blood by the highwayside or in the floors of glass strewn taverns or manacled in jail,” reflects that “even the damned in hell have the community of their suffering.”

Above all, the novel values life, even in the midst of pain and pollution. In this novel, flowers are forever poking their way out of glass shards and cinders, and in the midst of filth “life pulses obscenely fecund.” The novel begins with a suicide but ends with an urgent command: to fly from the huntsman “whose hounds tire not…. slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world.”

Suttree is a Hamlet figure, a nimble mind searching, grappling with the biggest questions; angry with his father, his mother, and his uncle; accused of ruining his woman’s life; breaking down in a grave in front of some fatalistic gravediggers. Near the end of the novel’s introduction, the narrator (who may be Suttree himself) alludes to 
Hamlet: “The rest indeed is silence.” And yet, for Suttree, it’s not. In the end of the novel, like Huck, he lights out for the territory, leaving a Knoxville where his friends have died, their neighborhood razed for an interstate. Looking back at the ending now, I’m reminded of the final lines of another Bob Dylan song:
Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.

Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you.

The vagabond who's rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

Strike another match, go start anew

And it's all over now, Baby Blue.
Having waded through 470 more pages of McCarthy, I feel compelled to strike another match and go start anew myself, with another of his books.


framiko said...

One Suttree mystery solved: A grimoire is a book magic spells, according to this post on the Book Bench.

Anonymous said...

Androleptic (androlepsy) refers to seizing foreign subjects to use as leverage against their nation. I guess within the context of the passage it would refer to taking hostages for vengeance's sake.

Brendan said...

Looking again at the "cars and carriages" lines as well as the nun's comments, I have to wonder what McCarthy may be suggesting. Is Suttree able to decide to walk away and start anew only because he first came from the "cars & carriages" part of society? He chose to banish himself to the river, and can now choose to leave it. Others like Harrogate (or any of the black characters) didn't end up where they are by having choices; and there's no sense that if they made a decision to move on they would be capable of changing anything more than their location. In fact, Harrogate proves incapable of leaving after Suttree tells him he needs to (after getting busted with his pay-phone scam).

framiko said...

A good point, Brendan. It reminds me of something I read about George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, in which Orwell worked as a dishwasher and basically lived life on the margins of society, then wrote about it.

Keith Gessen notes that the socialist literary critic Raymond Williams considered Orwell's life a tragedy, "the tragedy of someone who tried with all his might to leave the class into which he was born, and failed. To Williams, Orwell was destined to fail—because you can’t escape the class you’re born into."

This idea of not being able to escape the class you're born into seems to be what you're pointing out about the end of Suttree. I agree with your observation. I felt something similar reading the book when Sut's son dies and he's immediately able to procure money for a train ticket to travel to the funeral.

On the other hand, I don't think that Suttree is a tourist, or that he is slumming. He's not even doing what Orwell does (or what Barbara Ehrenreich does in Nickel and Dimed, temporarily living a down-and-out life in order to write about it and elicit compassion from readers for those who live such lives permanently.

Instead, Suttree seems to be dealing with some deep shit of his own. His response to the nun in the dream, who accuses him of hanging out with unsavory characters, is that he was drunk. He might also be clinically depressed.

As far as I can recall, he never holds himself above the people that he lives with down near the river. He drinks with them, helps them with their problems and their schemes, freezes with them when it's cold, etc.

He belongs to their community, such as it is, and when that community is being destroyed (by the construction of the interstate), he decides to walk away and start anew. As you point out, he has more ability to do so because of his class. Raymond Williams may be right that we can't escape the class we're born into.

But I think it's also noteworthy that the novel doesn't give us much indication of what type of life Suttree is heading toward. Will he enter a life of comfort and privilege? Seems doubtful. And yet, to some degree, his class will always be a type of privilege.