“I learned that there is one Suttree and one Suttree only,” says the hero of Cormac McCarthy’s fourth novel, Suttree. He is referring to himself, but the eponymous novel is also a singularity. As the prologue addresses the reader, “Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town . . . no soul shall walk save you.” As its pages are turned, the novel is also each man’s one and only Suttree.
Set in Knoxville in 1951, the novel opens with a fisherman on the Tennessee river, running his lines and stopping to watch the police haul up the body of a suicide. The fisherman, having pulled his skiff ashore for a better view of the proceedings, is spotted by an acquaintence: “Hey Suttree,” the man calls. We have now been formally introduced to Cornelius Suttree, a man who makes his living on the river, a river which transports as well as inspires, entombs, provides, swallows or baptizes the rudest of surviving forms (some of which finally do not survive). Suttree himself lives alone on a houseboat moored beneath the bridge used by the suicide for his final leap.
Suttree has abandoned his wealthy family and his intellectual past to wander the slums of Knoxville like some latterday Leopold Bloom (and the novel’s evocation of Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, is often palpable) and to apprentice himself to the Tennessee River. In addition to fishing skills, he would learn the river’s indefatigable will to continue. However, the business of man does not allow him to succeed at either enterprise. The river and the city present him with supplicants in response or reaction to whose needs and sufferings his powers of navigation, in the widest sense, are shaped. He encounters spirits domitable and indomitable alike: hermits, drunks, thieves, bullies, prostitutes, transvestites, blind men, grifters, preachers, gravediggers, mussel harvesters, parasites, innkeepers, and a witch, even a youngster with an unnatural attraction to watermelons. These human distractions often draw him from his work, which grows harder to resume each time he returns. No savior or fisher of men, Suttree defines himself more laboriously with each encounter.
Many of the novel’s most moving and hilarious episodes revolve around Suttree’s young friend Gene Harrogate, whom he meets in a prison workhouse. A glorious and infuriating fool, a naive yet ingenious criminal, he is amorality uncorrupted. Like Tom Sawyer in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (another classic novel against which McCarthy’s tale may well be read), Harrogate, the “city rat,” is an absurd antagonist, folly in search of an identity. Suttree cannot help but act as his paternal protector despite his better judgment, hoping to save him from his own shortsigthedness and obsessive desire to be somebody who counts. Reading Suttree is like sorting through the entrails of an eviscerated saint. Upon finding the heart there is a desire to shout “Eureka! Here, at last, is profound wisdom!” But the thing, once found, is still not it.
Note: Knoxvillian Wes Morgan has compiled a Web-based photographic tour of many of the locations featured in Suttree in his own Web site, Searching for Suttree.
The preceding précis is Copyright © 1996 by Raymond Todd.