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?
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.
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.