A BRIEF REVIEW OF SUTTREE by Cormac McCarthy

I am not quite sure what to make of this book.

No doubt, in between the layers of a confusing narrative, there are bits and pieces of brilliant writing. I suppose if you have the energy to keep a thesaurus or dictionary by your side to look up the meaning of all the words McCarthy uses, you’ll do all right and maybe even love the story. Considering it has a rating of 4.2, (Goodreads) some do love it.

Me? I did not love it. I don’t like struggling to understand what an author is trying to say. When I read I want to be entertained and I usually read to relax. Often I felt frustrated more than anything, although there were moments when I laughed at the antics of one of the more lively characters, Gene Harrogate, a.k.a City Mouse or City Rat – it seemed interchangeable.

I tackled SUTTREE because I read CHILD OF GOD, and despite the need to get “used to” McCarthy’s style of writing, and the subject matter, I loved CHILD. The first sentence of the Prologue should have been a warning. Others have quoted it, but just in case you missed it, here it is:

Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.”

Fine.  I get it. He (Suttree) is walking the city streets alone, early morning. He sees a cat. He sees homeless people here and there. This gives you a good idea of just what you’re in for if you decide to read on.  The entire prologue is like this.  You could skip it altogether.  It’s like McCarthy was…, I don’t know…, warming up?  Let’s move on to the first sentence of what we can consider Chapter One (no Chapters are identified) as the book begins:

“Peering down into the water where the morning sun fashioned wheels of light, coronets fanwise in which lay trapped each twig, each grain of sediment, long flakes and blade of light in the dusty water sliding away like optic strobes, where motes sifted and spun.”

That is the sentence that begins the story of Cornelius Suttree, bum/alcoholic extraordinaire. From the back of the book we understand he’s shunned his rich upbringing to live among the rabble rousers of Knoxville Tennessee, and ekes out a living running his little trot lines, making just enough selling carp and catfish to hear the jingle of coins in his pockets and keep from starving. If it hadn’t been for this brief explanation of what the story was about, I think I’d have been more lost than him.

Aside from McCarthy’s extensive knowledge of words – some I’ve never laid eyes on –  he also breaks rules a lesser writer like me must use. No quotations when people speak. (in an interview he said they weren’t necessary. I beg to differ – at least in this book) Very little comma usage, etc. Ho boy.

He also has a tendency to take common, everyday words and run them together, so at first glance it makes you back up, only to realize it’s just two basic words strung together. Some are in the quoted sentences above.

More examples:
ragestrangled
sealedbeam
churchclothes
graylooking

And on and on.

The book is filled with nicknames for the other characters, like Oceanfrog, Trippin Through The Dew, Gatemouth, Jabbo, J Bone, Bucket, Boneyard, to name a few.

There were parts where I felt physically ill at his descriptions of Suttree being sick from too much alcohol, being urinated on, and the illnesses he contracted, like typhoid fever.  Somehow, I happily made it to the end. One thing was clear…, the book delivered on it’s ability to confuse me right on up to the last page. Here is the last sentence – which, trust me, contains no spoiler:

I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.”

And there you have it. I guess this is one of those works you’ll either love or hate, like the THE GOLDFINCH, GONE GIRL, or FIFTY SHADES.  Some loved those, others hated them.  I can’t say I hated this book.  I’m just glad I’ve finished it.

Anyone else read SUTTREE?  What did you think?

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