THR Web Features   /   July 12, 2016

Black Oxygen

Suttree Reconsidered

James McWilliams

Yes, there’s Blood Meridian. But it’s Suttree, published six years earlier (in 1979), that stands as Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece. At first pass, it hardly seems so. Suttree is a novel in which Homeric language appears to do little more than adorn a plotline that moves slower than the Tennessee River around which much of the story takes place. During my initial reading, twenty years ago, I thought: Wait a second. McCarthy is asking me to grapple with nearly 500 pages of thick, idiosyncratic blocks of wordplay without even offering up some cheap narrative excitement? Who does he think he is? Joyce? Faulkner? Melville?

Well, yes. McCarthy, especially in his Tennessee novels, invented a literary idiom to explore questions bearing on existence, place, sex, and death. But the quality worth admiring most isn’t the language driving his explorations of these universal phenomena. It’s rather how language and storyline fuse to create characters who viscerally negotiate violence, loss, hope, and love. McCarthy’s tight weave of prose and plot makes a novel that, after several readings, appears to be the twentieth century’s Moby Dick, and perhaps even a viable transatlantic counterpart to Ulysses.

Burned-out Flaneurs, Reprobates, and Tricksters

Suttree is dark. Burned-out flaneurs knock around Knoxville, circa 1951, vacillating between sadism and altruism. When not numbed by bathtub booze, they’re awakened to the hard poverty confining them. The verbal force of Suttree is centripetal. Its increasing compactness is, in a way, designed to hold the novel’s horde of grotesques in the same narrative orbit. Bookending the novel’s spectrum of freaks are Cornelius Suttree—the “reprobate scion of doomed Saxon clans” who abandoned privilege for the dereliction of McAnally Flats and the desultory life of a fisherman—and Eugene Harrogate—a hayseed trickster who has never showered (and is arrested for copulating with a patch of watermelons)—both “sad children of the fates whose home is the world.” Sut and Gene are as different in temperament as two characters can be. But the language of Suttree not only allows them to co-navigate Knoxville’s “collage of grim cubes”; even more, it endows their peculiar friendship with unexpected weight, the kind that this carnival of hucksters, whores, scavengers, soothsayers, drunks, and imbeciles are drawn to like gnats to a porch light.

The very names of the novel’s ancillary roustabouts confirm their status on the periphery of everything civilized and respectable: J-Bone, Trippin Through The Dew, Oceanfrog, Blind Richard, Jabbo, Gatemouth, Bungalow, Bearhunter, and so on. These outcasts—“the fellowship of the doomed”—do more than entertain. They further reveal the pathos lurking in the strangest corners of an underworld where misfits scheme, mock, and brawl their way through life under the assumption, as Sut later notes, that “this is no path of my choosing.” McCarthy’s verbal gifts transform characters we might otherwise dismiss as marginal vaudevillians into sympathetic human beings, albeit beings moving through a barely comprehensible, and often alcohol-fueled, atmospheric fog. (I always think of “Prufrock”—“the yellow fog that rubs its back along the window panes” when I read Suttree).

The darkness that pervades Suttree specifically concentrates on decay. Live bodies decay. Dead bodies decay. Sut’s houseboat decays. Relationships decay. The city of Knoxville decays. “Death,” McCarthy writes, “is what the living carry with them.” Death,” Suttree himself concedes, is “a mathematical certainty.” One might recall War and Peace on this dire theme, as when Vassily says to Pierre, “It all ends in death, all,” and bursts into tears. And so every element of the novel (such as, perhaps, every element of our lives) is inexorably drawn to life’s most assured independent variable: our impending departure from life's mortal coil. This doomsday message is the novel’s black oxygen.

Suttree is as violent as it is dark, but death never happens suddenly. It lurks and drifts. From the start we learn that Suttree’s ramshackle river house has the “sweet smell of death at the edges.” After an especially fierce bender, Sut awakens to realize, as if he was rotting vegetation, that “the stink that fouled the air was himself.” When Sut staggers through a crumbling mansion occupied by the city’s most downtrodden, he “had already begun to sicken at the slow seeping of life.” The lives around him are “running out like something foul, night soil from a cesspipe, a measured dripping in the dark.” The “perishability of his flesh” is something Sut understands “with a madman’s clarity.” Even the sun, that everlasting antidote to death, is neutralized in Suttree’s dank underworld, downgraded to “a bunghole to a greater hell beyond.”

But for all the attention McCarthy lavishes on the gradual slide toward death, he also pursues literary methods that delay its inevitability. One way he does so is to craft a language capable of serving that exact, somewhat idiosyncratic, purpose. McCarthy’s interior monologues might emphasize the world’s cold indifference to the universality of death. But a competing element within that baroque idiom are terms remarkable for their obscure, onomatopoeic precision: quoit, blivet, mudra, caticle, muntin, purfling, tribade, grumous, billiken, menhhirs, merkin, macule. Many have wondered: Why stuff the text with these spell-check defiant words?

As frustrated readers routinely note, such words can become almost suffocating. But they also accomplish something critical: They pin down a hidden reality otherwise lost to the vagaries of inexactitude. In the land of Suttree “a spot of discolored skin” is a macule. And a macule, as with all McCarthy’s obscure words, offers the solace of exactitude, a small anchor in a tsunami of text otherwise sending the entire epic into oblivion. Such unusual, even recherché, words thereby do the important work of highlighting the human ability to impose stability on an ephemeral and—to use what may be Suttree’s most frequent word—tottering sense of existence. Call it Suttree’s version of hope.

In the Moment

Sex further arrests the inevitable decline. One doesn’t immediately think of McCarthy as a writer who crafts tenderly charged scenes of physical intimacy. But when Suttree—who evidently has considerable sex appeal (“Boy if he ain’t a sweet blossom,” observes a distant admirer)—meets the daughter of a minister who hires him to harvest river mussels (“Hers was a tale of bridled lust”), McCarthy loosens the reins to remind us that some diversions on the way to mathematical certainty have timeless appeal.

Suttree: He’d go naked into the cool and velvet waters and submerge like an otter and come up and blow, the stones smooth as marbles under his cupped toes and the dark water reeling past his eyes.

His lover: She always found him. She’d come pale and naked from the trees into the water like some dream old prisoners harbor or sailors at sea. Or touch his cheek where he lay sleeping and say his name. Holding her arms aloft like a child for him to raise up over them the nightshirt that she wore and her to lie cool and naked against his side.

(Like the scene in McCarthy’s The Road, when father and son unearth a bottle of Coca-Cola from a landscape wracked by apocalypse, Suttree’s sex scenes—Sut later becomes a prostitute's boyfriend—begin, end, and pass into relative insignificance. They ask the reader to do nothing except appreciate the experience for what it is and, maybe, to smile a little for Sut’s dose of carnal refreshment.)

This isn’t to suggest that Suttree is some laidback fishmonger content to live blissfully in the moment. Nobody negotiates the vicissitudes of death, decay, and power with more angst than Cornelius Suttree. But doing so requires protecting an assured sense of self from past demons that make him “half blind with a sorrow for which there was neither name nor help.” Sut was born in the placental wake of a stillborn twin—“some doublegoer, some othersuttree.” It’s a loss that (in addition to another tragedy that remains unnamed) infuses Sut’s already ineffable sadness with an underlying rage at which McCarthy, as if out of respect for it, only hints. Whatever is eating Sut is ultimately so painful that it seems to drive him to grab death by the shirt and growl: You really think you can render my life meaningless?

Containing Multitudes

Suttree’s desire contains multitudes. At times, terrified, he runs from the past; at other times, sentimental, he seeks it out. He ignores the pleas of an uncle to return home while tearfully spurning his mother when she visits him in the workhouse. But he also tracks down an aunt in the suburbs to peruse old family photo albums and then journeys across the state to find his ex-wife. Sut similarly wavers over spirituality. He rejects all manner of ecumenical expression. When he happens upon a river baptism, a pious acolyte on the riverbank says to him, “You better get in that river is where you better go.” McCarthy answers for Sut: “But Suttree knew the river well already and he turned his back to these malingerers and went on.” Still, Sut’s aversion to religious ritual doesn’t prevent him from later prostrating himself before a Voodoo soothsayer, “a dried black and hairless figure” who, with incantations and concoctions, leaves him writhing under a protracted hallucination.

Gene Harrogate—“convicted pervert of a botanical bent” and “moonlight melonmounter”—is Sut’s best hope for salvation, an unlikely tether to stability. Buffoon though he is, Harrogate doesn’t know it, making him possibly the purest character in the text. Let it be said that, behaviorally speaking, Harrogate is a complete screw-up—every scheme he forges explodes (once literally) in his face. And his appearance—he’s described as “a shithouse rat,” “a small apostate to the race itself,” and “a stripling [that] smelled like a smoked jockstrap”—is anything but prepossessing.

But Harrogate’s defining quality is that he lacks guile. He’s simply incapable of being mean. “I can get along with anybody,” he says. And it’s true. His optimism is as innocent as morning dew. These attributes, which Suttree alone recognizes, make him “bright with a kind of animal cognizance, with incipient good will.” Sut clothes Harrogate (after he showed up in Knoxville wearing a pair of crotchless pants for a shirt). He converses with, rather than mocks, Harrogate. When Harrogate isn’t around Sut wonders where he might be. Harrogate is the only living character for whom he reserves such charitable observations as: “something in him so transparent, so vulnerable.” As for Harrogate’s symbolic role in the story, there’s just one clear hint. Early in the novel, a dreaming Sut “saw his brother in swaddling, hands outheld, a scent of myrrh and lilies. But it was the voice of Gene Harrogate that called to him where he tossed on his bunk in the murmurous noon.”

Suttree, in the end, proves beyond conventional salvation. He’s neither “mended nor made whole.” When asked if he had any regrets, malice pours forth: “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.” As if to punctuate this concession to meaninglessness, he declares in the final scene: “I’m gone.” But he’s not. Sut, as he leaves Knoxville, might decree himself erased, but oblivion won’t accept him because, in his commitment to “souls in this world,” Cornelius Suttree did the only thing he was born to do: “He took for talisman the simple human heart within him.”