Cormac McCarthy: Suttree

His subtle obsession with uniqueness troubled all his dreams.
Cormac McCarthy, Suttree

This is my favourite novel of all time. I re-read this novel every couple of years, just to immerse myself in it and be reinvigorated in terms of my own work, and also to be reminded how high the bar has been raised in terms of unwavering dedication to personal expression. McCarthy spent years and years writing this, and it shows. Everything he’d written preceding it was a prelude, and everything since – including significant books like Blood Meridian, The Border Trilogy and The Road – have to be considered in its shadow. It’s not for everyone though. The first few pages are a test as to whether you the reader are up to it. Here’s a brief taster:

We are come to a world within a world. In these alien reaches, these maugre stinks 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.
The night is quiet. Like a camp before battle. The city beset by a thing unknown and will it come from forest or sea? The murengers have walled the pale, the gates are shut, but lo the thing’s inside and can you guess his shape? Where he’s kept or what’s the counter of his face? Is he a weaver, bloody shuttle shot through a time warp, a carder of souls from the world’s nap? Or a hunter with hounds or do bone horses draw his dead cart through the streets and does he call his trade to each? Dear friend he is not to be dwelt upon for it is by just suchwise that he’s invited in.

Too much for you? I understand, but it’s a bold move to start a 500+ page novel with language that makes James Joyce and William Faulkner look like Dan Brown. That language is sustained throughout the entire novel, one that is almost entirely plotless and all the better for it. Cornelius Suttree lives alone in a shack on the Tennessee River in Knoxville. He has abandoned his former life, with suggestions of a wife and child and past tragedies, to live amongst petty criminals, drunks and derelicts. He ekes out a meagre living selling fish caught in the river, and spends it on bad food and the occasional drunken bender. Given the Old Testament gravitas of McCarthy’s prose it’s tempting to read this novel in allegorical terms, with Suttree’s squalid exile a purgatory or a hell to which he has exiled himself, perhaps driven by unreconcilable grief and regret, determined to endure no matter what. The tone is dark, bleak and melancholy throughout, and could be overwhelming were it not for the secondary cast of comedic characters, including J-Bone, Hoghead, Callahan and, especially, the ‘holy fool’ that is the teenager Gene Harrogate. Suttree meets Gene in prison, the younger man incarcerated for deviancy involving watermelons, and they interact again and again throughout the book. Harrogate’s irrepressible optimism and naive faith that his big break is just one madcap scheme away serves as a refreshing zephyr to the sometimes oppressive density of Suttree’s experience, but as dark as it sometimes gets, McCarthy let’s in shafts of light:

He looked at a world of incredible loveliness. Old distaff Celt’s blood in some back chamber of his brain moved him to discourse with the birches, with the oaks. A cool green fire kept breaking in the woods and he could hear the footsteps of the dead. Everything had fallen from him. He scarce could tell where his being ended or the world began nor did he care. He lay on his back in the gravel, the earth’s core sucking his bones, a moment’s giddy vertigo with this illusion of falling outward through blue and windy space, over the offside of the planet, hurtling through the high thin cirrus.

No-one else writes like this. No-one else can, though I’m increasingly seeing McCarthy’s influence on new writers and it’s jarringly obvious because his use of language is so distinctive. After Suttree, McCarthy eased back on the use of antique words and the suffusion of imagery, which was necessary for the scope and subject matter of Blood Meridian or All The Pretty Horses. Suttree therefore stands unique as his most authentic (and autobiographical) expression of his interpretation of the world. If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, it would be this one.

The mock-up cover above uses my 2011 portrait of Bill Callahan (‘I’m New Here’)

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