The late Roger Ebert named Suttree his favorite book, although it receives less attention than McCarthy’s later works. Written before McCarthy’s stylistic shift toward simpler, sparser language that began with the Border Trilogy, it approaches the same density and tone as Blood Meridian, which is to say it makes the Book of Leviticus seem like light verse.
Cornelius Suttree is the product of pre-civil rights Southern miscegenation: his father was a relatively well-to-do white man and his mother a black woman “of lower station.” Suttree can “pass” for white and dropped out of college. Rejecting both the comfortable white middle-class existence he could inherit from his father, and the steady, color-agnostic working-class employment open to him because of his intelligence and competence, Suttree instead chooses to live a life of intense deprivation. Living in a shack on the banks of the Tennessee River, he pieces a tenuous existence together as a fisherman, selling whatever he doesn’t need to survive in the Knoxville street markets.
This naturalistic lifestyle is anything but romanticized: the glorious opening pages describe the river as an utterly corrupted, decaying, malevolent thing: “gray clots of nameless waste and yellow condoms roiling slowly out of the murk like some giant form of fluke or tapeworm.” One of the first images we see is the coast guard dredging a bloated human body in a seersucker suit from the river by means of an iron hook latched onto his face. Readers who are acquainted with Blood Meridian will be in familiar territory here.
McCarthy does a wonderful job in immersing us in the underbelly of Knoxville through Suttree’s friends and neighbors in the makeshift shantytown around the river. Suttree’s close friends are for the most part black, but, tellingly, Suttree is at one point incarcerated and placed in the white section of the segregated prison. It is here where he meets Gene Harrogate, who, for the sake of brevity, I will simply say constitutes one of the most interesting characters in any work of fiction. The scenes with Gene, and those with Suttree and his childhood friends are often quite funny, and show a very touching camaraderie, made even more meaningful by the fact that Suttree straddles racial lines. This lightness quickly falls to pieces as soon as the men begin to drink, however, and Suttree is a terrible drunk. McCarthy’s descriptions of Suttree’s helpless, alcoholic blackouts are incredibly crafted pieces of excruciating intensity.
Suttree is arguably as good of a book as Blood Meridian, and for some readers, it may be more palatable than the relentless but beautiful dirge of the latter work. We are never told why Suttree suffers what he does—his privations could easily be a form of atonement, a means of purification, or of retribution—but he is so clearly trying to do something meaningful that I find this to be McCarthy’s most relatable, humanistic novel. It deserves a place alongside of Blood Meridian as one of the greatest works of 20th Century American fiction. [subscribe2]