Cormac McCarthy: Suttree (Paperback, 1992, Vintage) 5 stars

Suttree is a semi-autobiographical novel by Cormac McCarthy, published in 1979. Set in Knoxville, Tennessee …

Review of 'Suttree' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

All the stars. Best book I've read all year. I'll have to think about this one for a while before I write a review. It's overwhelming.

I'm coming back to write this review literally years later in an attempt to come to some understanding of why I love this book so much. I have since read this book two more times and in fact I might just reread this book every year for the rest of my life because I enjoy it so much on so many different levels. This is quite simply my favorite book of all time.

warning, spoilers abound

Cornelius Suttree is like me in many ways. We were both raised in the catholic church, brought up properly, educated at the better schools, learned to respect our elders as well as the commandments but still, somehow our contrary souls can embrace none of it and we walk in the other direction away from everyone else. There is the need for solitude. There is a selfish part that seeks out adventures in the muck and mire, responsibilities be damned. There is, dare I say, a goodness (?) or an innate connection, like it or not, to fellow humans that cannot be ignored. There is a need to be helpful, to be kind, to be a friend.

This book is a dichotomy in so many ways. It is extremely funny in a dark twisted way if you have a liking for the absurd and the unseemly. The characters are, for the most part, downright losers and degenerates. Stupid, vile, lazy, drunkards. They are crude and uneducated but there is a camaraderie, and loyalty therein. They take care of each other and look out for each other in their own way. Share a last sip of some rotgut hooch and venture forth to buy more. Suttree is right there among the drunks and weirdos taking part in various and sundry debaucheries but still somehow separate and alone, detached. He gets antsy for solitude and introspection and then gets antsy for a drink and some rollicking good times with his old pals, fuck it just get wasted, don't think. These friends are the type to dance with a group of young women while someone else goes through their pocketbooks left at the table (and perhaps finishes off their drinks for good measure!). Suttree basically wants no obligations to anyone for anything but then again worries about the homeless in a deep freeze, can't resist extending a helping hand or his last dollar to someone in need. Friend or not. What does he care, really? He's been flat broke before, he's been beat down, he's been hungry.

There is ugliness and crude talk. The neighborhood is derelict and dirty. Run down houses with shoeless children in grassless yards. Homeless dogs sidle down alleyways sniffing for scraps. The gutters full of tin cans and papers and vomit and oily puddles. The river, too, is filthy, full of garbage and man's cast-offs and refuse. The river will offer you a suicide one morning then offer you fish on your trotline in the afternoon and and later a beautiful sunset from the deck of your houseboat. The prose describing this ugliness and poverty will be some of the most profound and poetic you will ever encounter. The weirdos and bums will be described so thoroughly, in such detail, it's like you can see them sitting in the backroom of some black folk's ramshackle store passing a bottle around talking smack about each other, laughing.

The book is basically plot-less and is mainly made up of interludes, bits and pieces of Suttree's world past and present, now, then, thennow, jumbled up, tumbled together but it doesn't really matter where you are in Suttree's timeline just go with it. It's a ramble; it's a journey. It's just being free and unencumbered to go with the flow in Suttree's world like Suttree does on his hometown river. Maybe you'll get a glimpse into Suttree's heart, maybe not. Maybe you'll have the misfortune to see inside some reprobate's heart and find a little piece of yourself there. At the very least, an understanding. You'll find yourself in jail. In a bar. You'll be in a houseboat, then wandering the wilderness. You'll be in a witch's hovel, an insane asylum, a hospital. You'll be in fights, you'll be freezing and starving then lying back in tall cotton with your prostitute lover living the high-life. You'll find Suttree puking, stumbling home in the killing noonday sun desperately trying to work up enough saliva to wet his parched throat and then try to figure out in which direction home lies. You'll be on the river, fishing, dumping a dead body, collecting mussels, hooking up with an underage girl. You'll be filling in a grave alone, just you and a shovel in the day's gloaming, hoping to tamp down your grief and guilt, bury it there, forget it and the role you played. And still you won't be able to understand. There are more layers to this onion. There are more tears and a sadness that never ends.

And that's just some of the things that happen to Suttree. There is another character, Harrogate, who is the most cheerful, ignorant, idiotic waste of humanity imaginable and you will grow to love the utter stupidity of this person. He has his own adventures (or misadventures!) and Suttree befriends this wastrel and then can't shake him. Feels a responsibility to this nutter, this mental defective.

Cormac McCarthy has a way with words to but it simply. He will wow you. He will stump you with word choices. He will lull you and hypnotize you as you meander down river, then energize you and make you laugh out loud. He will break your heart. He will confuse you and lead you through nightmare scenarios and fever dreams and sickness and magic spells. Somehow, your soul will grow fuller and you will feel more human after reading this book. To me, Cormac McCarthy is the greatest American writer of all time. But I understand if you just can't do it. I do.