While not composed of the intense chases (No Country For Old Men), brutalistic violence (Blood Meridian) or nihilistic bleakness (The Road) of some of his other works, Suttree is arguably McCarthy’s most ambitious, sprawling novel; a tale of a man’s abandonment of clean living and a rebuttal to his former life of privilege. For the most part any semblance of plot is absent in Suttree. And while vivid, rich descriptions in McCarthy’s And so I can’t really describe what the book is about, other than detailing the titular protagonist, Cornelius Suttree.
Suttree describes the life and times of Cornelius Suttree, in particular the events taking place in and around Knoxville, 1951. We are introduced to a setting of a post-war city, growing quickly while leaving its poor and injured to survive and attempt to co-exist on the periphery. Suttree lives on the banks of the Tennessee River, aboard a listing houseboat slowly disintegrating and sinking out of existence. Suttree has rejected a life of privilege, leaving a wife (a girl he met in college) and their son, to catch the occasional catfish in his fishing skiff. Suttree is an alcoholic, a lowlife, and yet he is not a psychopath or murderer. He rejects society like Ballard does in McCarthy’s earlier work Child of God, but he is nothing like Ballard; Suttree attempts to have a code. He has friends and while he doesn’t see them all that often, he cares for them. He helps them where he can. Suttree’s decision to dissociate himself from the normal path of a man is done in an almost noble way.
Once or twice the narrative might skip to an acquaintance of Suttree, the most notable being the young Gene Harrogate, a naive and misguided man child who first meets Suttree in jail, or work camp, having been caught violating a local farmer’s melons (and subsequently nicknamed the ‘moonlight melonmounter’). Suttree attempts to help Harrogate settle down after his release, but Harrogate’s boyish ambitions are far higher (and a great deal more stupid, although involving a certain strand of ingenuity) than a lot of the elder men he surrounds himself with. Some of his foiled and hair-brained schemes include mass poisoning bats to collect a bounty on them, stealing coins out of pay-phones and tunneling under the city using dynamite to find hidden and forgotten treasures.
There are some hilarious capers, mainly observed from Suttree’s wry, understated viewpoint. I’ve seen Suttree described as a twisted, debauche version of Huckleberry Finn, and the similarities are there. It’s one ‘adventure’ to the next. There doesn’t seem to be an endgame, but a succession of conversations and experiences that lead Suttree to where? It is clear that at times, he himself does not know. Suttree often finds himself waking up in fields or on the floors of brothels or unrecognised surroundings, with the sole purpose of getting himself back to his boat, away from the hand of the law. And while his relatively decent nature (in comparison to the ensemble cast of criminals, drunks, perverts and reprobates) earns him an unspoken respect among Knoxville’s delinquents, it also puts him at the mercy of friends, or attached friends. A personal highlight was when Suttree is roped into the dumping of the body of an old man in the river with Leonard – the poor old man who had been rotting in his home for months, and never moved so the family could continue to collect welfare.
So there is humour in Suttree, more so than in any other McCarthy novel (which in their bleakness can often contain small portions of dark gallows humour), but Suttree as a character holds immense sadness, and as comic as the book is, there at times it is heartbreakingly sad too. Such is the desperate struggle of Suttree and his associates with poverty that a scene in a bar or a cafe, where the men collect their coins and pass them across the counter for a coffee and a grilled cheese and cuss and swear at one another with affection, is genuinely warming.
I never did blame ye for leavin out. Poor luck as we had. I reckon ye’d of done better never to of took up with us to start. Did you ever know anybody to be so bad about luck?
Suttree said he had. He said that things would get better.
The old man shook his head doubtfully, paying the band of his cap through his fingers. I’m satisfied they caint get no worse, he said.
But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse, only Suttree didnt say so.
At over 20 years in the making Suttree is not only McCarthy’s longest novel at nearly 500 pages but also his most personal. Autobiographical or not, Cornelius Suttree’s understated nature and descent into squalor is a fascinating character study. We understand his want to shy from the restraints society once held on him. And there is hope by the end of the novel, where is considers his stance that has removed him from a normal life, with wife and child, to leave Knoxville, and find some kind of happy medium. Suttree is not my favourite McCarthy book but I will say it is his most enjoyable, and an American classic.