Cornelius Suttree, the protagonist of the book, seems to be running always. From something. Sometimes you can’t even put a finger to it. You see him escaping from one thing to the next. He doesn’t seem to have any direction in life. He is, what society would term, lost. The more pages you turn, the bitter it all gets. And broken. And beautiful. If you can read this book, really read it, it’s almost poetic. That’s what makes it incredible. That’s what makes Cormac McCarthy a writer unlike any other.
To begin with, the book isn’t easy to digest. It takes a while getting used to. Quite a few pages actually. But then it starts to grow on you. Slowly, but surely. The book is set in 1951. Suttree has forsaken the good life, abandoning his wealthy family. Willingly, of his own choice, he has decided for some vague reason to live in a dilapidated houseboat on the Tennessee River. You might want to feel sad on his behalf, him living in such deprivation on the margins of a more civilised society. Except, you don’t. You begin to grow fond of Suttree because through him you meet the outcasts – criminals, eccentrics and every kind of abnormal character you wouldn’t want to make eye contact with in your regular life. Somewhere, in the midst of detachment and squalor you find Suttree trying to live with dignity and humour.
Suttree doesn’t want to be a part of his family. Maybe he doesn’t like them. Maybe he thinks they don’t deserve him. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t return to see his wife and son until he hears of his son’s funeral.
That’s Suttree. You almost want to believe that he is talented, that if only he tried he could have a regular job at a regular firm behind a regular desk and have a more meaningful life. Instead, you find him fishing and earning a paltry sum, barely enough for sustenance and perhaps a few drinks in some shady pub with a couple of uncouth men. But that’s not the only vile place Suttree’s been in. He’s served his time in prison and made a “friend” there, Gene Harrogate, who is introduced to us as a melon-lover and not in a good way (ahem!). Suttree tries his best to help out Gene after his release but the young man has plans of his own which range from poisoning bats to earn bounty, to rigging the underground tunnel with dynamite to burgle the government treasury. And then there’s a bunch of other guys. Who get on the wrong side of the law. Who beat up cops. Who get beaten up. And Suttree is friends with them all. Somewhere in the middle of all this you also meet Joyce. A pretty girl from Chicago who really knows her way around men. Maybe Suttree could have had something real with her. A loving, long-lasting relationship. But then all the living expenses had to be paid for and so Joyce continues her trade of prostitution. The going is good till she throws a tantrum, goes really wild and starts smashing things up. And so Suttree does it all over again, leave behind what he doesn’t want to deal with.
Suttree was written over a 20-year period and is semi-autobiographical. It is difficult to ascertain to what extent it is autobiographical. Has the author projected himself into the character or is it autobiographical in some other symbolic way? I couldn’t tell you that. In any case, in his fourth novel, McCarthy takes scene after scene, whether born from his experience or observation or imagination and gives them back to the reader with the same vigour and intensity without being concerned about the “wholeness” of the story.
The prose is so dense and intense you will stop every few pages to really digest what you’ve been reading. It will seem like a verbose rant, too many words that you don’t even know how to make sense of. But this is exactly the beauty of the book. Because it isn’t like a novel. It is human. Just the same complexities, just the same non-understanding, just the same aggressive reality. If you were to try to make sense of it on an aggregate level you wouldn’t be able to repeat the story to another. But the discrete scenes, disjointed episodes, well, each one will leave you feeling deeply emotional and thoughtful. Just like our own everyday lives.
Think of this book as a big, gaping wound, festering with infection and disease. And McCarthy, through his poetically troubled prose, attempts to lick at that wound, partly exposing the depravity of society, and partly to ease that discomfort.
Suttree’s isolation is not really accounted for completely. You get overwhelmed at times and repelled at others. Aren’t we also sort of like that, no matter whether we live in the biggest bungalows in the bustling cities or in a hermit’s hut in the high hills? Suttree lives among the lowest of the low and yet hasn’t lost his sense of humour. He drifts easily from one incident to another, lives with strangers, is constantly on the move and loses friends to death, like flies dropping dead after consuming rotten food. If you try to look for a plot in this book, you won’t find one. Nor will you find dialogues. McCarthy has hardly written this like a novel (whether or not that really was his intention though, I don’t know). It is like a narrative of life itself, an unfolding of layer after layer of experience and episodes. The excess of words and the sometimes idiosyncratic vocabulary may make you abandon the book. But cumulatively, it has a certain power and beauty in which you will begin to wallow in and find yourself unable to detach from.
Death is such a constant theme throughout this book, that in retrospect you may end up asking yourself the question – does Suttree die in the end? I didn’t think he did. I thought he lived and went on ahead, to some undecided, unknown destination where his story continues in the same anonymity as it did in Knoxville. But then, there’s an argument to be made for Suttree’s death. The book starts with a suicide on the river. There are deaths and near-deaths that follow. Suttree’s son. Jones. The ragman. A young lover. An old dead man whose body Suttree helps dispose of. And a final corpse in Suttree’s house. Could that have been him?
Suttree is deeply existential, deeply philosophical offering commentary on reality, human life and its various miseries, morality and even death itself. Our hero tries to make sense of a universe that offers no meaning. Just like life. Exactly like real life.
Have you read any of Cormac McCarthy’s novels? How does Suttree compare to the others? Do tell us, we would love to hear about which McCarthy novel resonates the most with you.