Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy, 1979
Cormac McCarthy has filtered into popular culture twice now – first when the Cohen brothers adopted his book to make “No Country for Old Men.” And then when his dystopian masterpiece “The Road,” went visual. ("The Road" reviewed below.)
McCarthy’s “Suttree” is a humorous cross between Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, TS Eliot, James Joyce and Steven King. Scientifically, the book is ‘modernist’ in Zizek’s sense – combining myth with ‘humdrum’ everyday details. For my money, McCarthy is one of the two or three best modern living writers, alongside TC Boyle and Russell Banks. I have avoided his westerns, except “Blood Meridian,” which is based on a true and bloody story. Some have called “Suttree” his best book.
McCarthy’s use of words and phrases is what bites one first. After all, he is a writer. He creates words, combines words and dredges up archaic words – much like TC Boyle in ‘World’s End’ - and keeps going for 450 pages. That is no small jump. Here is McCarthy poetically describing the sights out of a streetcar window: "Blinking at the transit of these half-empty frames slapping past. Beyond in a yellowlit housewindow two faces fixed aspectant and forever in some domestic vagary. Rapid his progress who petrifies these innocents into stony history."
Suttree is a homeless man in 1952 Knoxville, Tennessee, who takes over an abandoned houseboat on the Tennessee River under a bridge, selling caught fish to survive. (He calls those who live under the bridges, 'trolls.') He has a mysterious wealthy background, wife and child that he abandoned. He has a fondness for the bottle that he drowns in chocolate milk. Suttree is a decent man, and attempts to help the down and outs that surround him. Harrowgate, a country half-wit; the rag-picker who lives under the bridge; the trainman who lives in a wretched and abandoned train car on the weedy tracks; a giant black who fights the cops every chance he gets; various unemployed rummys and beer fans; transvestites and witches; whores and beautiful river girls.
This book has been called ‘semi-autobiographical.’ If McCarthy lived through this shit – and I think he did – he had a very rough 3 years in Knoxville. He’s thrown in jail; pukes on himself in a black whorehouse; suffers tuberculosis almost to death, a broken body in a whirlwind bar fight and too many nights of days in unprotected heat and cold. At one point he stumbles through the adjacent Smokey Mountains in the winter, freezing white, lost, until ending up in North Carolina, many miles away. Some kind of Yeti dressed in rags.
How he lives in Knoxville is not clear – his paltry earnings selling catfish and carp cannot account for his being able to feed himself all winter. The group he hangs with refuses to work for the most part - just drink. Did he have a secret bank account not mentioned in the book? Fiction, of course, is not kind to fact. The issue of black segregation and oppression is touched on, but McCarthy considers it just part of the scenery. However, he is not a southern segregationist, like Robert Penn Warren. (see review of "All the King's Men", below). This book is a view of the underside of that southern city – aching poverty, unpleasantness and death, wrapped in beer, comradeship and humor. If Orwell had written it, it would be called “Down and Out in Knoxville.” The back-side of the American century and the myth of the glorious '50s - told in a magical language you won't forget.
March 20, 2012