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Book Review: Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy

Tom Sawyer for the damned, or Ulysses in Tennessee.


Suttree

Vintage International, 1979, 471 pages



No discussion of great modern authors is complete without mention of Cormac McCarthy, whose rare and blazing talent makes his every work a true literary event. A grand addition to the American literary canon, Suttree introduces readers to Cornelius Suttree, a man who abandons his affluent family to live among a dissolute array of vagabonds along the Tennessee river.




Cormac McCarthy is a writer you have to approach in a certain state of mind. He writes dense, oozing paragraphs full of words conjoined in unconventional ways that evoke fever dreams and writhing anguished souls and sweaty sex and wormy death, and I like reading him as an antidote to genre writers who fancy themselves "above" craft, because McCarthy crafts words and still tells a story, though in Suttree sometimes the writing overflowed the story. It's one of his earlier novels, and entire passages sometimes seemed show-offy with the twenty-dollar words and hard-worked prose.


She smiled and sipped from her glass. There was altogether too much of her sitting there, the broad expanse of thigh cradled in the insubstantial stocking and the garters with the pale flesh pursed and her full breasts and the sootblack piping of her eyelids, a gaudish rake of metaldust in prussian blue where cerulean moths fluttered her awake from some outlandish dream. Suttree gradually going awash in the sheer outrageous sentience of her. Their glasses clicked on the tabletop. Her hot spiced tongue fat in his mouth and her hands all over him like the very witch of fuck.


Cornelius Suttree comes from good Southern stock.


Mr. Suttree in what year did your greatuncle Jeffrey pass away?
It was in 1884.
Did he die by natural causes?
No sir.
And what were the circumstances surrounding his death.
He was taking part in a public function when the platform gave way.
Our information is that he was hanged for a homicide.
Yessir.


There is dark humor like this in the book, which is about Suttree's wanderings along the Tennessee River and the dives and brothels and shantytowns of Knoxville, circa 1950. Suttree came from a good family, had a wife and child, and for reasons never explained, abandoned them all to go live a vagabond's life.


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.


He's buddies with a fellow who's so young, dumb, and full of cum that he's sent to the workhouse after being shot while sticking his dick in a melon. The owner of the melon patch shot him more in disbelief than outrage. Another of Suttree's friends is a doomed black man who likes to get in fights with cops. He joins another drifting vagabond with an entire nomadic family (including a hot-to-trot daughter whom Suttree will of course fuck) in an ill-fated scheme to make money selling Tennessee pearls. He whores, drinks, gambles, and eventually all of his friends and family either die, get sent to prison, abandon him, or are abandoned by him.


But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse.


This is pretty much the moral of Suttree.

This is not a feel-good book and the plot is meandering and circular. You read it for McCarthy's prose, not because there are hidden depths in Cornelius Suttree to unravel.



Verdict: Cormac McCarthy is an acquired taste that doesn't take much for me to get too much of. I loved Blood Meridian and hated The Road, and Suttree stands somewhere in the middle, but if you like thick, fetid Southern gothic fiction, like Faulkner with more melon-fucking and pig-killing, then you will probably like this book. 7/10.

Also by Cormac McCarthy: My reviews of Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West, No Country for Old Men, and The Road.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, cormac mccarthy, literary, reviews
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