B.R. Myers, in his book “A Reader’s Manifesto”, took to task what he called “pretentiousness in contemporary literary fiction”, singling out a number of highly regarded authors to make his point. One of the authors he singles out to “prove” his point is Cormac McCarthy, who he dismisses as being nothing more than a genre writer with “stylistic gimmicks” (implied by his assertion that he is essentially nothing more than a literary Louis L’Amour, author of pulp Westerns.) When I read this book, my first thought was that some people out there just need to be contrarian and have to tear down those who are highly regarded simply because they feel the need to tear down the highly regarded and not because the targets deserve the vitriol aimed against them. Having read four of Cormac McCarthy’s novels at this point and having just completed the incredible 1979 novel “Suttree”, it is clear to me that Myers - although entitled to his opinion - doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.
“Suttree” is an amazing novel but since it is essentially “plotless” I suppose some readers will have a difficult time with it, that is, if you’re a reader who doesn’t enjoy engaging with the work itself. “Suttree” is that kind of novel; and just because there isn’t really a “plot” by conventional standards, that doesn’t mean there isn’t astory to be told. There is a story there - and a highly existential one at that. With that said, this doesn’t mean that this novel isn’t without a sense of humor. There are very funny moments in here, but the underlying themes are deep and thought provoking to say the least.
Set in Knoxville, Tennessee in the early 1950s, Cornelius Suttree gives up his life of privilege to live on a houseboat along the Tennessee River. He interacts with a colorful cast of characters who all live on the margins of society: thieves, whores, beggars, drunks, the homeless, etc. In a lot of ways, you can draw parallels with Joyce’s “Ulysses”, Dickens and especially “Huckleberry Finn.” The river is a powerful metaphor throughout the novel, a symbol of how life just flows on and carries you along with it. The genius here though is that it is shown, it’s implicit, and the extremely rich and powerful prose reflects that feeling of just being carried along as Suttree interacts with the different characters throughout the story. Suttree is a detached figure, having given up, not on life but with the concern with the decaying world around him. This detachment seems to allow him to deal with the world much better than those he interacts with. He spends a lot of his time fishing, which to me, invokes a sort of “Christ-like” figure, but Suttree is no “fisher of men.” He’s more like an “existential saint” who is good to those around him, even though they are the outcasts of society and another implicit message here seems to be that just because one is down with those on the margins, it doesn’t define one as a bad person; and despite all the good Suttree does towards his marginalized friends, he is often met with terrible luck. Overall, though, you get the sense that this is about a man’s journey to define himself.
This novel is also very different from the other McCarthy novels I’ve read thus far. It’s less reliant on a plot-driven story and more free flowing, dense, forcing the reader to interact with the text while being “carried along” - like the river - by it’s mesmerizing style. McCarthy is a supremely gifted writer. What’s also different about this novel from the others is the presence of humor and it not being as “dark”, although there are very unpleasant things that happen at times.
This is a novel I can’t recommend highly enough.