Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Suttree

Suttree Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ‘conversation’ between Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, two of the great writers we still have. DeLillo, it seems to me reflects on the ways in which we, as contemporary Americans, find ourselves trapped inside our culture. We understand ourselves as in a bubble of our own collective creation, and our implicit sadness (a sadness that rises to tragedy in Underworld) is that we realize we cannot escape it.

As a result, DeLillo’s work is at its best when the culture – more specifically the art – at its heart is at its best. Mao II is great because Bill Gray (whose work we never read) feels like a great novelist, a great silenced novelist. White Noise fails for me because the “art” at its center – the parody of academia he calls Hitler Studies – is flimsy and forgettable.

I say that because I see McCarthy arriving at a similar frustration from the other end. He dismisses art and culture almost out of hand. Instead, he calls us to remember that, no matter our accomplishments as a culture, we remain “primates” as much at the mercy of the greater heavens as when we huddled in caves 15 millenia ago. He presents his thesis in every sentence he writes. No matter the story, his subject stays the same. He’s like an Old Testament prophet in the clarity of his warning: we are not special in the eyes of creation.

As a consequence, I’m not sure it matters which McCarthy you read. Everything he does has an almost equal excellence. There might as well be a McCarthy Reader, a collection of his greatest sentences and set-scenes. (And it would be a very long collection.)

That’s all prologue to saying that Suttree is just as great as virtually everything else I’ve read by McCarthy (and that’s everything he’s written in the last 30 years). Very little happens in this portrait of a determined loner, a man who’s turned his back on what privilege he has and determines to live by his means, but so what. Very little happens in Seinfeld and very little happens in Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple. And that was the point of each. If you have a gift for exploring tone and the character of a person who is interesting even at rest, then you have all you need.

There are brilliant scenes here, too. In the opening, Suttree is fishing and he reflects on the idea of St. Peter as a “fisher of men.” Then, not much later, he sees a police barge that has just dredged up a suicide. He sees the body, a hook lodged through its check, and the metaphor becomes real…and staggering. You can’t help asking, “What are we?” What kind of creatures are we if we can die in such a tawdry and undignified way? And the answer is one we simply don’t want to hear.

Another brilliant passage comes when he is looking at an album of old photos with his aunt. He looks at the once beautiful faces of people he knows in their old age, and he gets off a passage (I can’t find the exact words just now) so staggering that it made my jaw drop, asking what sort of a god would choose flesh like ours as the site of a presumed individuality.

It’s blunt, brutal and deeply theological – theological in the oldest sense of the term, in the sense of a lost and dazed creature looking to the sky to make sense of suffering. It’s flat-out awe-inspiring work. To take just one example, “I always figured there was a god,” says an old man who has extracted from Suttree a promise to burn his body after he dies. “I just never did like him much.”

That said, I find myself thinking that part of McCarthy’s project is to explore genre with his powerful voice and focused imagination. He came to fame as a writer of “Westerns,” in Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy. That’s four novels and 20 years, but it’s also only two projects. Since then he has clearly been playing in other genres; The Road is a post-apocalyptic book, and No Country for Old Men is, by narrative structure, a hardboiled noir thriller.

As such, at least in retrospect, I see Suttree as a kind of Southern-flavored Beat novel. Like On the Road, it has no real structure, and it’s driven by a perpetual hunger for experience. What’s more, that experience sits in opposition to – is subject to the disapproval of – law-abiding and conventional society.

I’m not saying it’s merely a Beat novel; it’s infused with all of McCarthy’s meditations on the primal power of the world and with his exploration of inherited religion to explain it. Still, as I wrap this one up, it seems to me interesting to think of this novel confirming the extent to which McCarthy – with that mythic voice and prophetic focus – needs the structure of genre to tell his take in its entirety.

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