I have recently been reading, once again, a novel published in 1978. The novel’s title is Suttree, its author Cormac McCarthy. At the beginning of this fourth, longest, and most ambitious of McCarthy’s stories the reader receives a brief, grim notice. We are to visit an “encampment of the damned,” McCarthy tells us. Suttree, like all of his previous novels, is set in Knoxville, Tennessee, and points nearby. The city is abandoned, decaying. And not only this one city. “A curtain is rising on the Western World,” we are told. Even those who comprise “the audience” are sitting “webbed in dust.” As for the man who is about to give us a story, “within the gutted sockets of the interlocutor’s skull a spider sleeps and the jointed ruins of the hanged fool dangle from the flies, bone pendulum in motley.” The world as we know it is inhabited by “four-footed shapes.” In this world, only “ruder forms survive.”
With that spiritual diagnosis (or prognosis) in mind, we are taken to a Knoxville that turns out to be a living hell — a place where the “righteous” live on one kind of turf, and the lowly, the aberrant, the mad, and the derelict make do as best they can in their own precincts. The novel is meant to be a description of one person’s time on earth. But the introductory letter informs us that something considerably larger is being constructed — an account, perhaps, of what might happen when the moment of Armageddon arrives.
The story proper begins with a man soon identified as “the fisherman” navigating his boat down a river — which is certainly the Tennessee, and by suggestion also the Styx. As Suttree operates his skiff, he sees evidence everywhere of the decay of a so-called civilization — “gouts of sewage faintly working, gray clots of nameless waste.” The pilot is running his lines, intent on catching a fish or two. But the natural world is by no means promising: “The grimy river littoral lay warped and shimmering in the heat and there was no sound in all this lonely summer forenoon.” Soon the river offers not fish but a dead man — a suicide — brought to land by rescue workers. Suttree is neither surprised nor alarmed. He continues gathering his catch — distributed, we soon learn, to the lost ones, the outcasts, the scorned and rebuked, the black and white people who live near the river in shacks or on the river in flimsy boats.
Who is this Suttree, and what are we to make of him? We are given some of his background, but the author has no great interest in understanding the psychology of his principal character. His full name, we eventually learn, is Cornelius Suttree. He is of an educated, influential background (on his father’s side) but has severed all connection with his family — including a young wife and their small son. Instead, he does his fishing and drinks a lot.
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