Discussed in this essay:
• The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp.
• Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp.
• Child of God, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 206 pp.
• Suttree, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 480 pp.
• Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 352 pp.
• All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 320 pp.
• The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 432 pp.
• Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 292 pp.
• No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.00. 309 pp.
• The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 287 pp.
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After Child of God we reach the highest expression of McCarthy’s early style with the book that remains his longest and densest, Suttree. Like Ballard, Suttree’s titular protagonist at first tries to quit human society, and like Ballard he eventually comes to see the falsity of that quest. Unlike Ballard, however, Suttree is a much more benevolent character: he plays a central role within a fringe society of outlaws, minorities, ne’er-do-wells, and the impoverished, and it is the panoply of Suttree’s interactions with this entire human ecosystem that makes Suttree a polyphonic work.
Suttree can be validly considered polyphonic because in it McCarthy is more intent than ever on mere style and description. The book was rewritten over the course of two decades, and, weighing in at almost 500 pages, McCarthy’s longest work has drawn comparisons to Finnegans Wake for its intense grammar, its circularity, and its carnivalesque air. The book is like an immense fugue: each of its many realms—that of the prostitute, the officer, the bureaucrat, the madman, the junk dealer, the criminal, the drunk, the hobo, and the businessman, to name but a few present here—simply play and play and play, and somehow it all seems beautifully synchronized. Just as in real life, these hermetic realms will either be comprehended or not. This fugue suddenly concludes when, near novel’s end, Suttree makes his one great choice to no longer stand apart from humanity.
It is at first a confounding novel: the book does nothing more and nothing less than describe the wanderings of Suttree, a man probably in his mid twenties who has abandoned his birthright in a high class Southern family to live a wastrel’s life on a shantyboat and earn a subsistence living as a fisherman. What is the point of all this wandering? Is there any greater significance to Suttree’s daily life?
With time it becomes clear that Suttree is something like a loosely structured Decameron: a book that contains many, many stories that, by embodying various mentalities and classes, collectively show a complete picture of a certain time and place. The phrase “daily heuristic adventure” has been used to describe the lives of McCarthy’s early characters, and I have discovered no better way to put what Suttree goes through as he drifts from situation to situation, confronting system after system after system. To take just one stretch of text: Suttree finds drunken oblivion in a whorehouse, wakes abandoned on the side of the road, attempts to barter beer from bootleggers with a damaged pearl, is nearly arrested by the police on the highway, almost dies of thirst and exposure on that same highway, and finally enters into the fraternal embrace of a trucker’s vehicle. In just this one stretch, Suttree has been forced to act according to the dictates of at leave five distinct systems. This means that he has little identity beyond what performance is necessary to fit each situation he finds himself in; McCarthy here shows himself to be a postmodernist so far as identity is concerned, siding with the likes of Butler and Derrida, who would argue that identity is highly performative.
Suttree’s novel-long series of “adventures” simply presents his daily life as it runs on and on and on, meaning that Suttree follows a relatively simple chronology, with well-defined jumps and rather clear staging. But the book is anything but straightforward. The text is always written at an oblique angle to reality, and McCarthy’s penchant for indirectly inhabiting his characters’ minds means that even simple, common occurrences will feel estranged from virtually any reader’s experiences.
In this way, Suttree becomes the book in which McCarthy finally makes good on the promise implicit in The Orchard Keeper: with its convoluted structure and over-elaborate prose, The Orchard Keeper attempted to show the world in all its existential anarchy, but it was ultimately overwrought; by contrast, Suttree creates the effect of an anarchic world of butting systems with effortlessly beautiful prose and a deceptively simple, straight chronology. In this sense, as well as others, Suttree is the logical culmination of what McCarthy reached toward with his first four works—his Appalachian novels—and it is not surprising that after Suttree he struck out into entirely new narrative waters.
But if Suttree is anarchy, it is anarchy with protective padding. The book is notable among McCarthy’s works for having the lowest violent death toll (just one, and that an accident of nature). This means that his longest book, as well as the book of his in which moral rules have the least clear presence, is also the book of his that features by far the least violence. So free from lasting consequence is Suttree that some have even accused McCarthy of sentimentalism, although such charges are hard to take seriously when considering that Suttree’s lifestyle places him on the verge of death at least twice, leads to repeated denigrations at the hands of civilized society, and forces him to endure great anxiety and frequent physical and mental depredations. Though McCarthy is far from romanticizing Suttree’s lifestyle, he does seem to be indicating that the truly horrific kind of violence—the necrophilia of Child of God or the genocide of Blood Meridian—requires a firmer link with the orderly, civilized world. When life lacks such a link it may be far from easy, but it will generally avoid the high pitch of horror encountered when civilization’s nightmares are loosed into the mix.
Despite his occasionally bucolic life, by the end of the novel Suttree realizes the inherent falsity of one human trying to stand outside of humanity. In what is probably the novel’s most frequently quoted passage he chooses to give up his place out of time on the Tennessee River to travel west and, presumably, into some kind of integrated lifestyle:
Of what would you repent? [he asks himself.]
One thing. I spoke with bitterness about my life and I said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it and that I would stand a stone in the very void where all would read my name. Of that vanity I recant all.
Suttree’s main flaw is that this sudden decision is not properly accounted for. McCarthy has never been one to explore the workings of the human mind, but in this instance Suttree’s choice seems particularly pat: after over 400 pages of willing ostracism amid much hardship, Suttree falls out of a relationship with a prostitute and makes his fateful proclamation. The decision seems a little too easy.
The novel has been called a bildungsroman because it is reportedly autobiographical and because it ends with a young protagonist experiencing a moment of transformation, but Suttree hardly fits the genre. Though he sees and does much, the protagonist stays the same for almost the novel’s entirety. Moreover, his decision at the end represents just one shift, not a general character transformation. If anything, Suttree ends with a moment of total nakedness, the precursor to the character transformation that will take place beyond the text: “Walking down the little street for the last time he felt everything fall away from him. Until there was nothing left of him to shed.”
Suttree is better seen as a meshing of the epic and Modernist realism; it is a series of adventures that, though they maintain a very tenuous link with the passage of time, do a rather precise job of evoking the Knoxville slum of McAnally Flats and the surrounding countryside.
But though the book is not a bildungsroman, Suttree does close with a significant moment of choice: the protagonist decides that rather than holding beliefs only so long as situation dictates he must discover what he stands for and be prepared to live life according to that. Although Suttree instinctively grasps the fact that human systems are not real—that all life is only “the monstrous facelessness” that he attempts to passively resist—he also comes to understand that this fact does not strike life of all worth. He will need to find one that he is comfortable with and he will do it out West.
Thus, the person that Suttree will become very much resembles the cowboy-protagonists of McCarthy’s next four novels . . .
Read More on this Subject:
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- Cormac McCarthy’s Paradox of Choice: One Writer, Ten Novels, and a Career-Long Obsession Published in Issue 16 Discussed in this essay: • The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp. • Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp. • Child of God, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 206 pp. • Suttree, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 480 pp. • Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy....
- Cormac McCarthy’s Paradox of Choice: One Writer, Ten Novels, and a Career-Long Obsession From the very beginning, McCarthy has been an author fascinated by the give-and-take between modern-day humans and the multiple systems they are exposed to in day-to-day life. These systems react potently with McCarthy's other great novelistic concern: the alienated individual and his ultimate recognition (with McCarthy it is invariable a...
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy A man and his pregnant spouse awaken in the middle of the night to “a long shear of light and a series of low concussions.” Sensing the worst, the man fills his bathtub with water, and his instincts are borne out. Soon the man, his wife, and his child are...
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