Sunday, June 30, 2013

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy


 Reviewed by Susanna Allred

Published: 1979

It's about: Cornelius Suttree, known to friends and his estranged family as "Buddy", has abandoned a life of prosperity and prominence to live among the riff-raff that collect along the shores of the Tennessee River during the mid-twentieth century. By day, he ekes out a living selling what fish he can catch. He passes his nights in mooonshine-soaked carousing, immersing himself in the hedonistic pleasures of his camaraderie with river's hookers and small-time criminals. Yet, even as he periodically loses himself in grotesque adventuring, Suttree's adaptation to life on the river is never quite complete or natural.

In contrast to the underclass crooks and prostitutes with whom he mingles, Suttree is a born philosopher and a keen observer of both human character and the sublime hideousness of the forsaken waterfront he frequents. His life has been darkened by death and his exit from social prominence was tinged with shame. Haunted by the stillbirth of his twin brother, and reluctant to examine his sudden abandonment of his wife, son, and mother, Suttree frequently protests to himself that life--both the work of building up a family, a career, and a community; as well as life in an essential sense--is inherently without meaning.

I thought: Suttree matches its anti-hero's aimless existentialism with a sprawling, episodic structure that never builds up to a definitive climax. McCarthy alternates lovely, dense descriptions of the physical filth and amoral, grotesque characters dotting the Tennessee River's shores. Like Suttree himself, McCarthy never suggests any sharply defined philosophical interpretation to the events of the novel, save to draw out a certain grace and beauty in the polluted river and the half-wild misfits who collect around it.

Suttree, by nature of its setting, heavily descriptive, virtuoso prose style; and deft employment of dark comedy fits in more closely (in some respects) with the works of Southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner than with McCarthy's better-known Western novels. McCarthy excels within the  vein of the Southern Gothic without being overshadowed by his predecessors. He makes his mark, in part by his exceedingly experimental approach to diction and punctuation, and by writing scenes of decay or degradation in prose that is at once elegant, heavy and voluminous.
A row of bottles gone to the wall for stoning lay in brown and green and crystal ruin down a sunlit corridor and one upright severed cone of yellow glass rose from the paving like a flame. Past these gnarled ashcans at the alley's mouth with their crusted rims and tilted gaping maws in and out of which soiled dogs go night and day. An iron stairwell railing shapeless with birdlime like something brought from the sea and small flowers along a wall reared from the fissured stone. 
What connects Suttree with the The Border Trilogy or No Country for Old Men  (besides McCarthy's preference for experimental prose), is its protagonist's paradoxically aloof, yet romantic nature. The novel is mostly told through his point of view, but the audience is allowed to glean few hints about Suttree's past life, or to what degree he truly sympathizes with the carnality of his new associates. Even in the throes of a love affair or in the deepest reaches Tennessee's backwoods, Suttree maintains a persona of cool detachment. For all this, Suttree is clearly enthralled by the rich chaos of life on the river. In one of the most poignant passages Suttree observes in the night sky
A sole star to the north pale and constant, the old wanderer's beacon burning like a molten spike that tethered fast the Small Bear to the turning firmament. He closed his eyes and opened them and looked again. He was struck by the fidelity of this earth he inhabited and he bore it sudden love.
This scene is bookended by a vivid description of an illicit encounter between Suttree and his young lover, Wanda and Suttree's abrupt, brutal attempt to end his affair with her. His appreciation of the North Star is made especially ironic in light of his own inconstancy and by Wanda's unexpected death in a landslide a few pages later. This darkly ironic contrast between the human desire to impose consistency and personhood upon nature with the nature's unconscious cruelty is vintage McCarthy, and a draws a thematic line between Suttree and McCarthy's more popular later works. For fans of either Southern Gothic or McCarthy, this novel is essential reading.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Warnings: Poetically gritty sex and drinking.

What I'm reading next: Titus Andronicus