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toil under the sun,
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This review is from: Suttree (Modern Library) (Hardcover)
Prior to reading Cormac McCarthy's "SUTTREE" (1979), my only experience with the author was with his highly touted work, "BLOOD MERIDIAN" (1985). Although the latter work is a unique masterpiece ( utilizing a lightning pace and truly spectacular language ) the breadth and easy flow of "SUTTREE" is completely true to its own quirky nature. Oddly enough, given the stomach churning violence and ( apparent ) triumph of evil portrayed in "BLOOD MERIDIAN", McCarthy's earlier novel is actually the more profoundly sad ( and certainly more humorous ) of the two.
It is fair to speculate that this work was special to McCarthy since he was drawing a portrait of the town and era in which he grew up ( Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1950's ). Others, who are familiar with the work of William Faulkner ( as I am not ) will be better equipped to discuss whether this "southern" novel bears any major resemblance to the late master from Mississippi. My "take" on "SUTTREE" can only come ( as is natural ) from past literary experiences and, perhaps more importantly, a particular "world view". Although stronger and more learned readers will undoubtedly shed more light on the work, I hope nonetheless that the following thoughts will help others reflect on "SUTTREE" and decide for themselves what it's "all about".
After a short and soaring descriptive prelude ( a wasteland grotesquerie ), the novel's namesake Cornelius Suttree is introduced. Appropriately enough, this first glimpse takes place alongside the silent and abused Tennessee River, a Styx-like emblem of eternity running through the mid 20th century "Hades" of Knoxville, where Suttree lives on a rundown houseboat. Suttree's desultory "neutrality" towards existence is mixed with hallucinogenic dreams and flashbacks ( a key "vision" in the wilderness is reminiscent of "Snow" from Thomas Mann's "THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN" ). Seemingly carefree, going about his life in moment-to-moment fashion amidst his derelict companions, Suttree in fact lives completely in his past, haunted by ( among other things ) the memory of his patrician upbringing, failed marriage and a mysteriously significant "other". At times he seems an Old Testament prophet, full of insight and sublimated rage ( a contemporary Qoheleth ), his thoughts and actions reflecting the weary ruminations of a man trapped in hopelessness. Suttree's spiritual quandary is in recognizing that while others in his Knoxville circle seem damned by dint of fate, he himself chooses to live in a kind of purgatory, with the possibility of transcending his lot.
As opposed to the mythological archetypes displayed in "BLOOD MERIDIAN", the quirky and entertaining lost souls so sympathetically rendered in "SUTTREE" are all too human. There are several laugh out loud scenes in the book, many focusing on Suttree's oddball friend Gene Harrogate. Though the humor is intertwined with immense sadness, this aspect of McCarthy's style is a delightful surprise.
"SUTTREE" is a hard but compassionate glimpse at the tragedy and triumph underlying the human drama (a "story" in which we all play a part). On the basis of the two works with which I'm familiar, Cormac McCarthy writes with both purpose and artistry; surely he deserves his reputation as a modern literary master.