In preparing for my article on Kentucky Route Zero I am reading contemporary southern gothic fiction, and Suttree is the latest on my list. Thoughts:
- I never completely understood why I was reading this – there is no driving plot tension, no looming epiphanic moment, no sense that Suttree will emerge triumphant. And yet at points I could not put this book down. Suttree actively rejects his previous privileged life, and for the most part destroyed his relationship with all those in his previous life including his children (!), but his ability to form bonds with people not of his same socioeconomic milieu made me keep reading.
- McCarthy pulls no punches – the area he lives in (on a houseboat on the Tennessee River) is degraded environmentally as well as in a million other ways, Suttree is at best a bit of an asshole, racial lines are purely maintained, life is violent and disturbing and with not much to redeem us.
- We get no nostalgia, either – this is 1951, after which we as Americans should be celebrating the end of the war and moving into our golden age, but Suttree rejects all that as well.
- But (of course) what struck me was that this novel was actually funny. I go into reading McCarthy thinking that I will be dragged through the worst of humanity, and while that sort of comes true in this novel it also made me chuckle gently to myself multiple times, with humor that was not directed at the inanities of the characters in the novel.
- The narrative voice is dramatically different from the dialogue, which was my first clue that this wasn’t Tortilla Flat and that it was instead someone who is doing more than simply slumming – he has all-out rejected his family.
- At times Suttree drives me crazy because of his reliance on the kindness of strangers: he recovers from beatings and from typhoid fever without paying a dime, and he has two relationships with women that are troubling at best. Again, McCarthy makes sure that we know that Suttree is no hero.
- The language is so beautiful and imaginative, though, that I found myself repeating phrases and admiring McCarthy’s eloquence, and I also found the contrast between the narrative and the dialogue attention-grabbing.
- We get a clue as to what McCarthy’s doing after we are three-fourths of the way through (Suttree is having a conversation with himself):
Of what would you repent?
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 that very void where all would read my name.
Of that vanity I recant all. (365)
The vanity of insisting that we are here for something more than just muddling through is the vanity that I think all of McCarthy’s fiction wants to recant from. Can’t say that I’m there yet, but I also feel that if this is the vanity at the heart of all southern gothic fiction (which might be his point) then KRZ is definitely not there.
- Another passage for your consideration (this is the last paragraph of the novel, one that provides a clue as to the fecundity of the narrative voice:
Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn in the castellated pres of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them. (422)
Fly them indeed.
- The only part of this novel that a bit self-serving was Suttree’s embrace at the end (after surviving typhoid fever) of all marginalized groups in Knoxville society, even gay men. He has gone out of his way to seek out criminals, drunks,
and other folks he hasn’t associated with. He then seeks out friends in the black community (and I think the novel applauds itself for moving from a broad use of the n word to not using it at all by the end, a mark of Suttree’s own transition I’m guessing). This feels a bit too much like a working class hero schtick, even if Suttree still remains a bit of a scumbag.
- Suttree does all kinds of wild things in his rejection of his family – he goes on a vision quest in the Smokies (which almost kills him); he falls in love with a bipolar hustler woman (who almost kills him); he goes on long drunks and steals cop cars. Each one points to that recanting, I think.