Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book review: Suttree

Cormac McCarthy's fourth novel, Suttree, is different from the other of McCarthy's novels that I have read.  It is a semi-autobiographical account of the author's early days in Knoxville, Tennessee as a river fisherman.  As such it is a portrait of a way of life, rather than an exposition or an allegory.  One description of the novel that I found particularly apt referred to it as "a doomed Huckleberry Finn."

It is dark, of course.  How could a McCarthy novel be otherwise?  In places it is disturbing.  But it does not plumb the horrific depths of The Road, for example, or Blood Meridian.  And, in fact, at times Suttree is downright comical.

The story revolves around the life of Cornelius Suttree, a prodigal son who has renounced a life of privilege in favor of a mean existence as a fisherman on the Tennessee River.  As Suttree struggles to find his identity he carouses with drunkards, whores, and layabouts, embracing a life of turpitude.  McCarthy paints some truly awful scenes of drunkenness and debauchery.  Let me tell you, I've had some nasty hangovers in my day, but nothing like the one that Suttree experiences after a night on the town with his drinking buddies.

One of the most memorable characters in the novel is Gene Harrowgate, "the midnight melonmounter." (And, yes, it is exactly what you might think.)  This imaginative character ought to dispell any accusations that McCarthy lacks a sense of humor. Harrowgate is an irrepressible idiot-savant determined to succeed in the world despite the misfortune of his existence.  His misadventures are knee-slapping funny, but also tragic. 

Honestly, although I enjoyed Suttree quite a bit, it is not my favorite McCarthy novel.  I felt the novel lacked a distinct moral lesson.  Nonetheless, there are passages of sublime eloquence; there is poignancy; there is humor.  We should expect no less from a master like McCarthy.
What do you believe?
I believe that the last and the first suffer equally. Pari passu.
It is not alone in the dark of death that all souls are one soul.
Of what would you repent?
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, Cormac McCarthy

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