I read Suttree about four months ago and, honest to God, I can remember near nothing about it. Reviewing it, then, is almost impossible, but let it not be said that I can’t cobble together some inane bollocks in order to keep my post count high. Indeed, I’m hoping that writing this acts as a kind of review-hypnosis, i.e. that it brings back to me memories of the book that are clearly currently hidden deep in my subconscious.
The one thing that I do remember vividly is the prose style. McCarthy is known for his wonky grammar, his resistance to speech marks and commas, and so of course, having read many of his books, I expected that to be the case here too. However, I wasn’t prepared for his writing to be so relentlessly descriptive, so indulgently, almost greedily, or lustily, preoccupied with detail. At times it is difficult to get one’s bearings, to see what McCarthy is seeing. His rather archaic language doesn’t help, but it’s more to do with a kind of sensory overload. Indeed, McCarthy pounds your brain with a lush verbiage that is occasionally disorientating and frequently distracting.
Lavish prose is often – wrongly, in my opinion – compared to poetry; and, from the reviews that I have read, people fall into that trap when writing about Suttree. To my mind, these reviewers probably know very little about actual poetry because poetic does not, or at least should not, simply denote an ornate or flowery style. For me, the style of Suttree isn’t poetic, but it is a form of hyperrealism. At its best it reminded me of Jose Lezama Lima or Alejo Carpentier, but there were unfortunately points where I felt the book was simply overwritten…
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 blades of light in the dusty water sliding away like optic strobes where motes sifted and spun.
It didn’t help that, to my mind, there was no obvious justification for the style being the way that it is; for example, I understand what Carpentier was trying to do; his style, at least in his best work, illuminates his ideas, but I never got that from Suttree; the style in this particular book, for me, does not serve the plot or the author’s ideas in the way that it does in, say, The Lost Steps or Swann’s Way and therefore felt somewhat affected.
On the plot, the most one can say of it is that a man, the title character, has dropped out of conventional society to live on a boat. He gets involved in numerous incidents or episodes [this is very much an episodic novel], including a bizarre bar fight. The most long-running, and perhaps satisfying, of these episodes is a sort of friendship with a young hoodlum called Gene Harrowgate. There’s nothing much of any camaraderie between them [this certainly isn’t a buddy novel], but Harrowgate is welcome comic relief. Indeed, he provides all of the book’s funniest moments, the most oft-mentioned of which is the melon-fucking incident that sees him sent to the work cramp where he meets Suttree. In fact, throughout most of the novel I wished that McCarthy had focussed more, or even solely, on him; I think if Harrowgate had been the focus McCarthy could have produced a fine picaresque novel in the tradition of Tom Jones or Don Quixote. As it is, the book feels unfocussed, is let down by a weak central character.
Cards on the table, Cornelius Suttree is pretty much a void; I doubt I could say anything interesting about him even if I’d read the book nine times. My gut feeling is that it’s probably the case that McCarthy himself was more interested, more taken up with, the style than anything else [despite Suttree often being described as semi-autobiographical]. The plot and characters, therefore, sometimes strike one as like drab-looking fish in a spectacular tank.