"A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging his slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse."
- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
The city is Knoxville, the river is the Tennessee, and the story is about Cornelius Suttree. Suttree is a fisherman who lives on and off the river. We meet him as he lays prone "With his jaw cradled in the crook of his arm" as he "watched idly surface phenomena, gouts of sewage faintly working, gray clots of nameless waste and yellow condoms roiling slowly out of the murk like some giant form of fluke or tapeworm."(p 7) This is the milieu of Suttree and he does not stray from it very far throughout his picaresque journey chronicled in Cormac McCarthy's fine novel. His city is made of a "Curious marble architecture, stele and obelisk and cross and little rainworn stones where names grow dim with years."(p 3) His world is "a world within the world . In these alien reaches these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams."(p 4)
As the novel opens Suttree, who comes from a prominent family, has abandoned his wife and infant son and has chosen to live on a houseboat near McAnally Flats, among the drifters and derelicts of the town. He keeps himself alive by fishing in the filth of the Tennessee River, but his existence is apparently meaningless, given over to destructive drinking, fighting, and carousing. As the narrator explains in the introduction to the story,
“We are come to a world within the world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams. Ill-shapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in everyland.”(p 4)
Suttree has been accepted as part of this other world. He shares bottles, stories, and jail cells with the “ruder forms” that inhabit the region. They recognize that Suttree is different, has had opportunities denied them, but they never question his decision to live among them. To them, he is simply “old Sut.”
The reader follows him through apparently random experiences. The book is thus constructed in episodic fashion and depends on the cumulative effect of these episodes to develop its structure and identify its theme. Some characters come and go, touching Suttree only for the moment. Others, however, form a constant in his life, forcing him to come out of his self-imposed isolation and renew, in however meager a fashion, his connections with humanity. The themes hold the book together as they recur from time to time. Most prominent among these is McCarthy's ability to use his Faulknerian prose to capture the essence of death. The book opens with a horrifying realistic scene of a suicide in the river - "as Suttree passed he noticed with a feeling he could not name that the dead man's watch was still running."(p 10) This reminder that 'life goes on' will be brought home again as Suttree passes through the "alien reaches" that he inhabits. In a later scene as he visits a cemetery he sees an old vault that nature as begun to dismantle. "Inside there is nothing. No bones, no dust. 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."(p 153)
Although the book is large and its contents rich and varied, several episodes do stand out as significant events in the sweep of Suttree’s life. While in prison for having taken part, unintentionally, in a robbery, Suttree meets Gene Harrogate, a foolish country boy who later follows Suttree back to Knoxville to become part of the marginal world of the outcasts. Although Suttree tries to avoid being involved with Harrogate, he often finds himself drawn into the boy’s irrational schemes, and on occasion has to rescue the boy. A couple of these scenes provide a broad sort of humor that I have not encountered in McCarthy's other novels. Other characters also place demands on Suttree’s humanity despite his best attempts to deny them, and he forms special relationships with a number of the doomed inhabitants of the region. Among them are Ab Jones, a giant black man who fights constantly with the police; an old ragpicker, whose wisdom and stoicism Suttree admires; the Indian named Michael, who offers Suttree a quiet and dignified friendship; and the pathetic catamite Leonard, who involves Suttree in a grotesque scheme to dispose of the decaying body of Leonard’s long-dead father. The longest episode in the book tells the story of a man named Reese and his bizarre family of shellfishermen who entice Suttree, despite his better judgment, away from Knoxville to the French Broad River with the promise of pearls and adventure.
Although Suttree’s experiences are often horrible and degrading, the book ends with at least the possibility of hope. Nearly dying of typhoid fever, Suttree faces in his lengthy delirium the waste and cowardice of his life. When he recovers his strength and returns to McAnally Flats, he finds most of his companions either dead or absent. In his own houseboat, he discovers the rotting corpse of some unknown figure who has usurped his very home and identity. In death, however, there is new life, and Suttree leaves Knoxville, breaking with his past. His destination is unspecified. As he stands by the side of the road, a mysterious boy offers him a drink of water and smiles. Then a car stops for him without his making the effort to flag it. Both acts are, in one sense, minor, but they are also acts of grace.
This is a mighty epic in a modern sense and I recommend it to all readers who want to challenge their perspective through a visit to the "alien reaches" seldom seen from the comfort of their reading rooms.