Monday, March 30, 2009

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy


Cornelius “Buddy” Suttree, college educated and seemingly living a comfortable life, with a wife and new child, removes himself from this sedate sensibility and retreats to the margins of society, living the life of a river rat in McAnally Flats, a desperately poor area of Knoxville, Tennessee. He is a seeker after something, although it is not entirely clear, to him or to us, what that might be – the meaning of life, perhaps or, more darkly, an accommodation with death. For it is death that courses through this novel as relentlessly as the Tennessee river which provides its geographical focus. The one is a symbol of the other and indeed, such is the strength of the sense of place in this novel (the river is ‘heavy, with a wrinkled face’), one almost questions at times which is the signifier and which the signified.

Suttree is an anarchist. He rejects responsibility, abjures authority, refuses to be bound by convention. His life is littered by drunken brawls and morning-after amnesia and the detritus of desperation. His friends are the bums and deadbeats and criminals of Knoxville. His one mature sexual relationship is with a prostitute, with whose earnings he buys a flash motor car. In one respect he leads a broken, day-to-day existence of no ambition and no progress, fishing for the prehistoric catfish that are the only things to survive in the polluted river, drinking, fighting, acting as confidante to the fatalistic, unnamed ragpicker, or as reluctant friend to the Indian, Michael, or even more reluctant father-figure to the comically criminal Harrogate.

But while it is possible to characterise Suttree as simply a loser or a deadbeat, that would offer only a superficial analysis, and a more complex interpretation is required. He may be failing, but he is not – quite – a failed man. There is innate goodness in him and his nonconformism is the product of ambivalence, not badness. Suttree is a significant progression from McCarthy’s three previous southern novels in that the central character has not significantly transgressed against civil law. In The Orchard Keeper, for example, there is murder and the making and running of illegal moonshine; in Child of God, Lester Ballard is a murdering necrophiliac; the problems of Rinthy and Culla Holme in Outer Dark date from the birth of their incestuous offspring. But while Suttree’s abandonment of his wife and child might be reprehensible it is not criminal, and it is significant that his imprisonment at the start of the novel is occasioned not by any illegal activity but simply because he happened to be drunk in the wrong place at the wrong time. Suttree rebels against his society, but other than drunken violence, he does not transgress against its laws. Rather, it is the metaphysical questions of life and death, and the role of God therein, that occupy Suttree. Thus, while in the earlier novels the focus was on the City of Man, in Suttree it is on the City of God.

Suttree is a deep character, and he is beset by a far deeper emotional, perhaps spiritual crisis than he would wish his fast-living companions to understand. His ruinous existence on the river barge is punctuated throughout the novel by attempts to escape. First, he leaves for the funeral of his son but is driven away by his family, and although the reason for Suttree’s initial flight from them is never explained, their subsequent anger towards him is palpable. Second, a quasi-mystical journey into the Smokies ends – perhaps in a deliberate subversion of the American myth of the nobleness of wild nature – in starved defeat. Third, his attempt to earn a living with the mussel-dredger Reese and his family ends in tragedy. Then, in a typhoid induced fever, he is transported to the very edge of consciousness, to that place where life and death converge and existence itself is compromised, but after a number of days of hallucinations he is drawn back, perhaps unwillingly, to reality and makes his recovery. Only at the end of the novel, when Suttree obtains a lift out of town without even hitching for it, is there any prospect of genuine escape. The last words of the novel are ‘Fly them.’ And Suttree flees. But from whom? Or what?

Again, one can approach this on either a superficial or a complex level. Initially, Suttree is fleeing convention, normality. In a crucial letter early in the novel, his father tells him:

If it is life that you feel you are missing I can tell you where to find it. In the law courts, in business, in government. There is nothing occurring in the streets. Nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and the impotent.

The anomaly here is that, unlike the rest of the inhabitants of McAnally Flats (and, indeed the characters of McCarthy’s three preceding southern novels) Suttree need not live in the ‘dumbshow’. He is articulate and educated but he has shunned an easy existence and has accepted, instead, a casual life of stunted ambition. Rather than impotence he has chosen indolence. This is suggestive of an existential tension in him, an unwillingness to fight against the inevitability of those vested interests of court and business and government. It is as though Suttree has resigned himself to not living a real life. Thus, his attempted divorce from the City of Man is reinforced.

This is not to say, however, that he has resigned himself to death. And that is where we approach the second, deeper interpretation of Suttree’s character. For Suttree is not an existentialist. Though he clearly accepts the absurdity of existence and, at times, goes so far as to wish for death, he is nonetheless driven by a spiritual hunger that grows throughout the novel.

Much of his torment comes from a need to reconcile life and death, man and God, and the past, present and future. This tension is revealed early with the introduction of Suttree’s stillborn brother. The contrast between them – the living and the dead – is revealed in a passage which takes us directly into the consciousness of Suttree himself, when he says: ‘He is in the limbo of the Christian righteous, I in a terrestrial hell.’ This is suggestive of a spiritual quest, of a search for meaning in this corporeal life, and until Suttree can reconcile his existence in this ‘terrestrial hell’, his brother – his double, his other self – cannot escape from the limbo of nothingness. The one is inextricably linked to the other. Throughout the novel, Suttree seeks to establish whether such nothingness is something to aspire to or to fear, and it is something he feels he must confront alone. In another scene which takes us directly into Suttree’s consciousness, he reflects at the graveside of his son:

How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.

Again, this is not to suppose that Suttree seeks the nothingness of death. In a powerful scene with the ragpicker, he tells him: ‘No one wants to die.’ The ragpicker disagrees. ‘Here’s one that’s sick of livin,’ he replies. What happens when you die, Suttree asks him. ‘Dont nothin happen. You’re dead.’ They then begin a discussion on God, and on how God may be called to account. ‘What would you say to him?’ Suttree asks. ‘And what do you think he’ll say?’ Once more, the ragpicker demonstrates a certainty that Suttree cannot – yet – attain:

The ragpicker spat and wiped his mouth. I dont believe he can answer it, he said. I dont believe there is a answer.

The ragpicker is thus – like the stillborn brother – another, deeper and more troubled representation of the state of Suttree’s consciousness. He it is who ‘always figured they was a God’, continuing laconically that he ‘just never did like him.’ It is this ambivalence that is at the root of the novel, and this hopelessness that Suttree is struggling to overcome. Later, when Suttree tries to be positive, telling him, ‘We’re all right,’ the ragpicker replies, ‘We’re all fucked.’

In time, Suttree comes close to agreeing with him. In his first descent into delirium, up in the mountains, he wonders: ‘Could a whole man not author his own death with a thought? Shut down the ventricle like the closing of an eye?’ Later, following his break-up with Joyce he reaches his nadir:

For there were days this man so wanted for some end to things that he’d have taken up his membership among the dead; all souls that ever were, eyes bound with night.

Suttree experiences the loneliness of a man disconnected. Throughout the novel we are presented with his doubles – the stillborn brother, the ragpicker, the comic Harrogate, depicting naivety and greed, the goat-man who presciently identifies Suttree’s loneliness, the Indian with whom Suttree, despite himself, longs to make friends. Each forces Suttree, in some way, to confront his reality and the reality of existence, the loneliness of it. Perhaps the key passage in the novel occurs on Suttree’s river barge, where he engages in a dialogue with his shadow – another double – on death and dying:

Tilting back in his chair he framed questions for the quaking ovoid of lamplight on the ceiling to pose to him:
Supposing there be any soul to listen and you died tonight?
They’d listen to my death.
No final word?
Last words are only words.
You can tell me, paradigm of your own sinister genesis construed by a flame in a glass bell.
I’d say I was not unhappy.
You have nothing.
It may be the last shall be first.
Do you believe that?
No.
What do you believe?
I believe that the last and the first suffer equally. Pari passu.
Equally?
It is not alone in the dark of death that all souls are one soul.
Of what would you repent?
Nothing.
Nothing?
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.

Longley suggests this ‘may be the definitive statement of the Existential consciousness.’ I would suggest it is quite the opposite. It is the definitive statement of the power of God and the meaninglessness of man. The reference to vanity clearly echoes Ecclesiastes, in particular a quote which could stand as an explication of McCarthy’s entire oeuvre:

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

Throughout McCarthy’s writing there are constant and consistent references to men and animals as being equal before God. To suggest otherwise, the Bible tells us, is vanity. In McCarthy it leads to hubris. In Suttree, we are drawn to an understanding that all are one in God. ‘It is not alone in the dark of death that all souls are one soul,’ Suttree decides. Canfield identifies this a ‘sort of Zen moment’, in which:

he is "one Suttree" because he surrenders to the mystery of the One and the Many. In recanting the Romantic myth of the alienated self, Suttree can now howl like the lone wolf precisely because he is not alone.

And, in this way, Suttree finds oneness in the end, and this is the key. He is reconciled with his God, at one with him. Throughout the novel he has either sought the companionship of others (such as the Indian, Michael) or felt the presence of others. In his sojourn in the mountains, for example, despite being quite alone, ‘He had begun to become accompanied.’ At the graveside of his son, again alone, ‘Someone touched his shoulder. When he looked up there was no one there.’ But finally, Suttree comes to understand that there is no other, nor any need for another, only oneness with God. At the start of his typhoid delirium he raves, ‘ Who is this otherbody? I am no otherbody.’ By the time he recovers, he declares, ‘I know all souls are one and all souls lonely.’

In this depiction of a man reconciled, finally, with God, many critics see redemption. John Rothfork goes as far as to call Suttree a ‘barefoot Jesus... who drinks with the poor, the sick, and the outcast, and who sweats blood in some Knoxville Gethsemane.’ Canfield suggests that it is through his acts of compassion in the novel that Suttree gains redemption, as indicated by the offering of water – the stuff of life – by the little boy at the end of the novel. Perhaps so, but here we seem to be in that twisted territory inhabited by the likes of Flannery O’Connor in which redemption is approached only through the greatest of suffering. One of the principal acts of compassion shown by Suttree is his refusal to continue his affair with the child-woman, Wanda. Longley indicates that this is because to do otherwise would inevitably result in: ‘Pregnancy, a shotgun marriage, more children and no way to provide for them.’ And yet it is this act of common-sense, or compassion, that results in the death of Wanda: had she spent the night with Suttree she would not have been beneath the cliff when it slipped and flattened her. Christian redemption, then, is a dangerous beast. It is predicated on the notion of a qualified free-will, over which God retains the ultimate sanction and the expression of which is inescapably compromised by the nature of mankind itself. In Outer Dark and, more especially, Child of God, McCarthy went out of his way to refute the Rousseauian concept of the noble savage. In Suttree, his target is the so-called ‘civilized man’ who, Rousseau believed, was so removed from reality that he depended on the opinions of others to establish his own identity. Suttree subverts that by removing himself from civilized men, and in so doing he attains an identity, a self. That in itself would be a noble attainment but, this being McCarthy, that attainment is necessarily constrained by the vision of this ever-present, brooding deity. It is clearly facile to blame the land slip which kills Wanda on God, and yet, it seems, whatever Suttree seeks to do – find happiness in the City of Man or redemption in the City of God – he is doomed to failure. Like all McCarthy’s characters, he is in constant flight from a fate from which there seems no escape.

And so we come back to the initial question. Flight from what? Canfield, suggesting an autobiographical slant to the novel, posits that, for Suttree, it is an escape from ‘the deadliness of the doomed East... like McCarthy himself, who abandoned Knoxville for El Paso around the time of the publication of Suttree.’ If that is the case, and it is not unfeasible, then this forces us to reassess the ending of the novel, which is generally regarded as upbeat, even hopeful. Suttree returns to his river barge after his near-fatal battle with Typhoid Fever and finds a decaying body in his bed. Thus, it is suggested, he has eluded Death. ‘Old Suttree aint dead,’ a character avers, and indeed he isn’t. He heads towards the freeway and, without even having to hitch a ride, someone stops and he is offered a free lift towards enlightenment, the real life, away from the doomed East of Lester Ballard and Rinthy and Culla Holme. It is certainly possible to interpret the ending that way and, indeed, the novel does give the impression of ending on a more uplifting note than McCarthy’s previous novels, but his meaning is, as ever, elliptical. We have the curious challenge at the end, ‘Fly them.’

We now know, having read the rest of McCarthy’s oeuvre, that the journey westward does not bring the redemption or happiness or even the reconciliation with the self that McCarthy and his characters seek. The first foray westwards ends in the slaughterhouse of Blood Meridian. John Grady Cole’s search for a good life becomes a Mobius-like circulation between Texas and Mexico, the present and the past, the corrupted and the corruptible. Billy Parham finds tragedy. So does John Grady. In The Road, amid the ruins of humanity, the father and son return eastwards in defeat. At best, then, Suttree’s flight will see him remain in the City of Man, surrounded by its ‘apocalyptic waste’. At worst, one must ask whether there is to be any escape at all? Has he, in fact, eluded Death, or is Death awaiting him in the car that gives the impression of offering him transport to the opportunity of new life? There may, indeed, be redemption for Suttree, but McCarthy’s characters are never permitted the luxury of peace. Or even life. Free-will, remember, only stretches so far: God reserves the final word.

27 comments:

jr_cummins@comcast.net said...

But the offer of water is not the end. It is merely a brief reprieve. In the end, the huntsman will follow him still, wherever he may go, eyes crazed with ravening for his soul. The darkness is not to be escaped....only to be fled: fly them.

Here, in knoxville, the judge first appears (with hounds now, not mercenaries)... and he, as we know, finds his way west.

It is not salvation through God that Suttree achieved...he is saved by overcoming the need to believe he can replace God (the vanity of such thinking)... and here is why the quote from his conversation with the lamp (note, the conversation was with the light and not a shadow) is indeed the important revelation.

The existential vanity is that, after disavowing God, we believe that we can replace him, we can stop-gap the nothing and re-create meaning in the world, for all others. Suttree is the existential hero (or post-existential) because he is able to overcome the negation of God, manifested as the need to be his replacement (which is the entire project of Reason).

In class, Canfield once called him (Sut, or Cormac) a Christian existentialist (when he wasn't busy making jokes about gettin ya a drink or screwing watermellons). As though Suttree had accepted something like Kirkegaard's faith (he too believed the boy with the water was a sign of a coming new age of sorts - or could be). Maybe. Maybe, like Nietzsche, or as Nietzsche appreciated in Dostoyevsky, McCarthy just has the understanding of what is LOST when we remove God, and weighs that heavily, without resorting to a papering over of the problem (read: nothingness) with words like Reason and Right as liberal theory (or Karma, in its way, or Kirkegaard in his) does.

The point: simply because all souls are one soul does not mean Suttree has found God. Perhaps it is simply that we are all in the same situation, all fighting a losing battle with the nothingness, all waiting until the judge finds us (in our tents, on the battlefield, or in the outhouse). Indeed, the book does not "end" on a positive note: it ends with a warning (a directive): fly them. run. do not stand and stare into the gaping nothingness. let it be. it will, sooner or later, catch you anyway. and the longer upon which it is dwelt, the closer approaches the huntsman (from the opening, there is a line about it being better not to dwell here...sorry, don't have the text handy).

Note: Compare the conversation with the lamp with another line from the opening:
'There is a moon shaped rictus in the street lamps globe where a stone has gone and through the constant aspiring helix of insects there falls a steady rain of the same forms, burnt and lifeless.'
Aspiring to the light can be fatal. As will be the darkness.
In between, is life (From John Grady Cole's brightest days on the plains to the kid's darkest birth where even there light pierced for it was the year the stars fell.)

I think making Suttree's redemption a finding of faith in God is too easy. After all, the huntsman's hounds are already sniffing out his escape route.

jrc

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks for this, fascinating stuff.

The darkness is not to be escaped....only to be fled: fly them.Yes indeed, there is a darkness in this, and the knowledge that flight is futile.

and here is why the quote from his conversation with the lamp (note, the conversation was with the light and not a shadow)Aha, interesting point. I’ll look at that again. I think you’re kind of attuned to look for shadows in McCarthy, but where there’s a shadow there’s usually some light, too…

Suttree is the existential hero (or post-existential) because he is able to overcome the negation of God,But I’m not sure he ever is able to ovecome the negation of God. I don’t see, in McCarthy’s work, how anyone is ever able to overcome the negation of God, because God is never negated. He is ever-present, in a realm and manner that we cannot see. To quote from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“But that "other world" is well concealed from man, that dehumanised,
inhuman world, which is a celestial naught; and the bowels of
existence do not speak unto man, except as man.”

This chimes with the description in The Crossing of the world as understood by the wolf, but not by man:

“He said that men wish to be serious but they do not understand how to be so. Between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world and in this world the storms blow and the trees twist in the wind and all the animals that God has made go to and fro yet this world men do not see. They see the acts of their own hands or they see that which they name and call out to one another but the world between is invisible to them.”

And it’s the same in Suttree, with his typhoid ramblings and his wandering in the mountains. It’s the same in most McCarthy: the descriptions of the primordial world that pepper The Road, Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark et al.

Indeed, the book does not "end" on a positive note: it ends with a warning (a directive): fly them. run. do not stand and stare into the gaping nothingness. let it be. it will, sooner or later, catch you anyway. and the longer upon which it is dwelt, the closer approaches the huntsman (from the opening, there is a line about it being better not to dwell here...sorry, don't have the text handy).Well, it’s a matter of interpretation I suppose. I can go along with the way you describe this – it’s pleasingly fatalistic. It reminds of the Jean Cocteau short story about Death and the Man. The man sees Death one day and Death gives him a threatening stare. In terror, the man borrows a horse from a prince and flees far away to Isphahan to escape him. Later, the Prince sees Death and asks him why he made a threatening gesture towards the man. ‘I didn’t,’ said Death. ‘It was a look of surprise, because I saw him here this morning and I know that I must take him tonight in Isphahan.’

So yes, what will be will be. But the problem I have with this is that it leads inevitably to the slaughter of Blood Meridian. Where is there any mediating goodness?

I think making Suttree's redemption a finding of faith in God is too easy. After all, the huntsman's hounds are already sniffing out his escape route.Yes, I agree. But it’s a case of – near enough literally – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I suppose that may well be a description of this mortal life, but it kind of eclipses hope, or aspiration.

jrc said...

Two things I'll sketch that I'd like to comment more on when I have the time...I'll try to come back soon.

On Damned if you do:
In at least two or three works, something like "the world is this way and not some other way." - the kid with the old man in the hut (but can ye make it be? - no, it's a mystery.)
See Marlow in season 4 of the wire (you want the world to be one way, but it's the other way).
Maybe the point is not, damned if you do, but more along the lines of, do not sacrifice yourself for an impossible vision of the future. McCarthy hints at this in the old interview with NYT (i think). It's his libretarian fear of giving up your freedom for a fantasy. It's Nietzsche's disdain for Christians.
Suttree leaves, free of the sacrifice of himself for the benefit of others (free of the vanity) - maybe.
(Deleted and currently gestating paragraph on valuing (re-valuing) in JGCole, Boyd, etc. - does McC offer any (specific) vision? - do we want one from him?)

2: The question of Light and Dark.
Is it that McCarthy can only see what is bright and vibrant from within the darkness? That only from within darkness does that which is truly bright become visible, whereas in the Christian world of bright, false (flourescent) light, true light (life) is invisible?
Notes: aspiring helix of insects, discussion with lamp, year the stars fell, jacob boehme, striking the fire from the earth that god put there, the stupid fire thing with the kid on the road, end of no country/dream from cities, ragman's beautiful burning train story....

I'm putting these fragment thoughts down for two reasons... in case you are interested in any of them, and so that I'll be more likely to come back a keep commenting.

Have greatly enjoyed the opening chat here. Maybe I'm trying too hard to defend McCarthy's grimness. Faulkner at least gave us Uncle Ike, for all his flaws, who had heart. But McCarthy, much more so than, say, Delillo in White Noise, confronts what it means to live in a world without God. Maybe he doesn't get too far past it...but he isn't Homer, he cannot create new worlds. But I see where the Nietzschean disappointment you feel comes from...it's like he can't get past the rejection, has no vision for what's next (over, beyond). I'm not sure yet where I stand.

Best.
jrc

Tom Conoboy said...

Excellent post again, thanks.

Yes, this idea that the world is what it is and man can do nothing to change it is present throughout McCarthy – most obviously in Blood Meridian, I guess. It pretty much informs the whole novel.

Maybe the point is not, damned if you do, but more along the lines of, do not sacrifice yourself for an impossible vision of the future.Yes, and this is where I could easily agree with McCarthy. But while Nietzsche undoubtedly would have advised that, he also focused on the past – on coming to some sense of reconcilement with the past. This is what was key to his idea of overgoing (and is also, I think, at the centre of his idea of eternal return, which I don’t think he ever meant totally literally). The trouble I have with most McCarthy characters is that they aren’t rooted in either future or past, and seem totally disconnected from either. It reaches the stage where things that happen to them seem not even to affect them much. Witness Blood Meridian, where despite the massive slaughter no-one ever seems much bothered, or even appears to suffer any pain.

Is it that McCarthy can only see what is bright and vibrant from within the darkness?Yes, I like that idea. Darkness and light (and, of course, blood red sunlight) appears so often in the novels. I think there’s a lot of mileage to be had from the list of light motifs you mention, and others.

McCarthy’s grimness: I think, to an extent, that’s what draws me to him. I first became interested because I read and detested The Road. I’ve now read them all and I’m attracted and repulsed in equal measure. Partly I want to argue that he is totally and utterly wrong, but another part of me recognises a certain naivety on my part that McCarthy would have no time for.

I think what he does do is take Christian-inspired writing beyond that achieved by Flannery O’Connor, who was an amazing writer but essentially built straw men so she could dismantle them. McCarthy’s constructions aren’t so easy to dismiss. Which is why I keep coming back to them, trying to understand them.

Really appreciate the discussion.

regards

Esoth said...

Fascinating dialog about a fascinating book. But to me, "Suttree" is first a foremost about the pathology and psychology of alcoholism and addiction. Suttree's drinking is no mere agent of ambivalence and anarchy, but an organic part of Suttree's self. McCarthy does not use drunkenness as a plot device in service of exposing larger questions, like the existence and attitude of God and how that impinges on humanity.

Drunken waste is something Suttree sidles repeatedly up tor, resulting in a series of predictable disasters, yet the drinking is bereft of pathos and there is no tragedy in the long series of choices to drink. Suttree is self-selectively surrounded by the poor and uneducated, yet they share a communal choice to dose rather than to deal and the individual weight of their excuses and justifications have little gravity. Alcoholism in "Suttree" is not disease, but an election in the face of the human condition, and Suttree's keen observations throw that escape in a stark light not often seen in fiction.

Suttree's acts of kindness and compassion do not produce an expectation that he will dry out and clean up and lead everyone on the way to higher ground. The abounding condition that each character still must face is reason enough for anyone, and Suttree's coarse at the end of the novel is by no means certain and his choice is not without honor or courage.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello Esoth, thanks very much for this. That's an extremely interesting idea, and I think you may well be right. There is certainly a great deal about alcohol in this work, and it fits your thesis well.

Alcoholism as choice, not as disease, is quite a provocative stance, I guess, and you're right, such ideas are not often presented in fiction - or anywhere, for that matter.

I'm going to be re-reading Suttree soon, and I'll be giving close attention to this idea. Thanks again.

Tom

Anonymous said...

I was born in Newport, Tn in the heart of Cormac McCarthy Country.
Like yall,I'm a fan, but yall are better at it.
I would however like to be in the audience for a weekend panel discussion between McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson and maybe Ron Rash; Rash who examines similar territory of McCarthy of East Tenn period, Rash over the mtn in Western North Carolina.
Yall know Lucas Black was Jimmy Blevins in All the Pretty Horses. I went lookin for Black twice totalk about some roles, but he was gone both times in NW Alabama.
I talked to his neighbor.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi there, thanks for commenting. It's fascinating to hear from someone who comes from McCarthy's area.

I haven't come across Ron Rash, but I did some searching and he looks very interesting. I've ordered one of his books from Amazon, and I'm looking forward to giving him a go.

thanks again

Reader2 said...

Marilynne Robinson is Cormac McCarthy's intellectual match and my take is that she does keep up if not surpass in discourses of history, religion and science with regards to the contemporary state of society. In my opinion she is Cormac McCarthy's female literary counterpart. As for use of language in fiction could it be a tie? They are arguably the best living poets of fiction...Ms. Robinson is currently writing her next book of non-fiction for Yale Press. Perhaps Mr. McCarthy will accept the challenge of reading it.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks for commenting. I keep hearing about Marilynne Robinson. I did try Gilead some time ago but couldn't get into it at all. I will have to try again, however, as she is so consistently praised. I must have been missing something.

Reader2 said...

You won't miss a thing if you read "Housekeeping". She wrote it while living in Paris(FSG hardback 1980)"For even things lost in a house abide, like forgotten sorrows and insipient dreams" Absolutely beautiful language...words that transcend there space and sensual descriptions much like McCarthy. She too influenced by Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. For your part of the world "Mother Country"(FSG 1989) may be of intrest to you. She wrote it while on a teaching fellowship at the University of Kent. It is an essay on her thoughts of a nuclear facility called Sellafield on the Cumbrian coast. She was very unpopular for her outspoken opinion of radioactive pollution being dumped into the Irish Sea. When I handed her my copy for signing at a reading in 2008 she stated "Come to Mama" making reference to this work of non-fiction as her baby or possibly only something a mother would love. "The Death of Adam" is a collection of essays with critical thoughts evaluating thinkers such as, Darwin, Calvin, Bonhoeffer.

Tom Conoboy said...

I'll give Housekeeping a go. I've just started a Ron Rash as a result of a comment on this thread, so I'm picking up some great tips.

Funnily enough, my partner comes from not far from Sellafield. She'll probably enjoy Mother Country too.

thanks again for the advice. Much appreciated

Reader2 said...

Your Welcome. Thank you for your honesty about McCarthy. I share some of the same contentions that you do regarding his craft. I do acknowledge his immense talent in the use of language and perhaps it is only in recognizing the dark that we can appreciate the light.

Carlos said...

Hi Tom,

I just came across this thread from early last year. I wish I had read it before posting re Suttree more recently. -Not that it would've changed my views, but I could've engaged more directly with the ideas you were already wrestling with, and acknowledged that others had some similar ideas as my own. In particular, JRC's ideas about the hunter image, as well as his notion that McCarthy is diagnosing the problems of having a dead god without knowing exactly what comes next-- I think that's spot on. Also, the comments about addiction though I think too narrow, speak to the idea of pathology I was trying to address in the "The Wasteland and Suttree" thread.

In either case, I think the threads dovetail pretty nicely. You do well to illicit good comments.

Thanks and kind regards-

Tom Conoboy said...

Do you think that, for McCarthy, god is dead? Or just impotent?

Carlos said...

No, pardon me, that was short-hand. I meant that in McCarthy’s world god is dead in the hearts of man. The translucence of the saving tale has gone opaque and so it no longer saves. ‘Impotent’ is a better way to put it.

(Heh... if he's dead in McCarthy, he sure makes a lot of appearances to be so... :o)

Rick Gauger said...

It's been years since I read this book, and it was pretty obscure to me at the time. Yet I had the impression that the reason for his estrangement from his family and class were that he had been sexually abused by a priest in the parochial school in Knoxville, and his family had failed to come to his support. Anybody else get that from the book?

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello Rick, thanks for commenting.

Well, that's an interesting thesis. I haven't heard that one before and can't say I've read that interpretation into the text. Next time I read it I'll have a think about that.

thanks again

Tom

Pete Lyons said...

I just finished Suttree last night after a multi-year effort to complete the novel. Your fascinating analysis and the comments that followed really helped me pull together the disparate images I'd collected from the work. Thanks to all.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Pete, well done on finishing it. Hope you enjoyed it, and glad you've got something out of the discussions in the thread here. I know I did.

Joe said...

Hidy, Tom and friends. I hope this thread is still active. I just read Suttree for the second time. I wish I would've found you guys two years ago when I first encountered this glorious novel.

I'd like to leave a few brief comments about the hound at the end of the book. This image recalls a folk belief prevalent in early African American culture. Indeed, an obsession with all things satanic pervades the work of almost all the early Delta blues artists.

The motif was especially important to the elusive and demonic Robert Johnson. The guitarist actually wrote a song called "Hellhound on My Trail." His chilling "Me and the Devil Blues" contains a line that evokes the image of Suttree at the end of the novel: "You may bury my body down by the highway side / So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride." Johnson died under obscure circumstances, a victim of a poisoned glass of whiskey. The fatal drink had him crawling around on all fours and barking like, um, a hound.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Joe, thanks for commenting.

I'm a huge fan of Robert Johnson, and he had a fascinating life, for sure, what little of it we know. He would have fitted in with Suttree and his friends pretty well, I think.

I don't think Suttree makes a pact with the devil, but I do think Culla does, in Outer Dark. And look what happens to him...

Ehren Bienert said...

I always thought that Suttree was the story of a city in the throes of change. Coming out of the era of wealthy southern land owners, hinted at by Suttree's upper class past. Ending with 'the fisherman' leaving he city. After he recovers from Typhoid fever, he finds that many of his friends are gone and his old haunts are demolished. Basically he finds himself dead in his own houseboat. I also noted that while he is waiting for a final ride out of the city, he is observing men building a highway, signifying the end of the isolated south.

Daniel Myers said...

There's another very common take on Suttree, my favourite American novel. Full stop. It is that he is living in a Gnostic world: That is, an essentially evil world created by an evil being. I could go on about this "terrestrial hell", but I wanted to make a comment on the huntsman and his dogs that begin and end the book, as well as being interspersed throughout it. They remind me of nothing so much as an inverted version of Francis Thompson's overtly Christian "Hound of Heaven". But in Suttree the dogs and their master are overtly evil. Fly them! Indeed. I hope this thread is still open. Nothing I have read on Suttree makes this contrast/comparison with that famous poem, and I wonder what others think of it.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello Daniel

Yes there is a lot of criticism out there which relates gnosticism to all of McCarthy's works. Dianne Luce has made a superb job of relating gnostic impulses in Suttree in her book on the Tennessee novels. There is clearly some gnostic element to the novel - it even refers to "gnostic workmen" who are demolishing the old Knoxville and building "new roads" in its place at the end of the novel.

As for the Thompson poem, this has indeed been picked up before. John Cant referred to the link between it and Suttree in his book on McCarthy and the Myth of American Exceptionalism. Like you, he notes the inversion of the Christian symbolism in the original.

Nick said...

I love this book but lack the eloquence to properly explain why it moves me so.

Joker said...

Just came across your essay. Really enjoyed it. Have been reading Suttree and McCarthy for over twenty years. In discussion with a friend today, I offered the idea that this is the most essential form of literature in that it voices what is generally unvoiced. It goes to places that are usually not entered and in doing so, and in bringing his characters there, the character Suttree suffers an existence of his own without causing suffering to those around him. In this, I think, is the kernel of truth that McCarthy is getting at. If each accepted the unknowing, the fear, the uncertainty, of this world, all of us would be redeemed. There is no redemption for a solitary character except in living the questions and thus when one asks the most of oneself, one becomes more of oneself. The answers in this world that are chosen are always the problem. McCarthy gives us the questions and in that the quest for Suttree is like that original modernist, Homer, an epic undertaking. And if he follows on to Blood Meridian, it is a writing of another epic voyage that is governed by the certainty, and the gravity, of the Judge for whom there are no questions that cannot be answered, not matter how they are answered. To the Judge, answers i.e. judgements are what make us human though they inevitably end up embracing horror, which is all too human. Our origins are not answers but more questions. The inability to hold the tension of the unanswered question is what causes the worst of pains. I would suggest Cormac read deeply into Joyce's Ulysses and I offer the alternative endings that say much about both books and how they end :


from Ulysses :

"and then i asked him with my eyes again yes and then he asked me would i yes to say yes my mountain flower and first i put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going mad and yes i said yes i will Yes."

from Blood Meridian

"The judge was seated on the closet. He was naked and he rose up smiling and gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him."

There is progression from Suttree to Blood Meridian in that the latter ends with the hero approaching the female figure who is dead and nothing but a desiccated corpse. This opens up the possibility of his next 3 novels which end with the dreamer dreaming in Cities of the Plain but only after the world has been traversed, not before.

No quest can answer itself. I think McCarthy lived this and still does which is why at is ripe old age, he is still a curious questioner of those around him in Santa Fe. Something that I think is the unseen grace of his books.