Saturday, September 22, 2007


Cornelius Suttree, an educated man from a privileged stratum of society, has for some unknown reason abandoned his family and chosen to live among the poorest and most disadvantaged of Knoxville, Tennessee.

The women are long-suffering, while the men like to drink, fight, and spit. There is a ragman, a junkman, a witch, an Indian, a huge black man who cannot stop brawling with the cops, a transvestite who keeps his dead father in a fridge, a young grifter whose idea of a big score is stealing coins from payphones.

Suttree goes to jail, ends up in hospital after a barroom brawl, steals a police car, falls in love with a whore, and ekes out a living catching fish.

There are some fine comic lines, but this is no Tortilla Flat celebrating the simple lives of the poor. "Doomed" is the word that best describes Suttree and all his acquaintances, and probably (I'm guessing) most characters in any McCarthy novel.

McCarthy writes like an Old Testament prophet, his prose mesmerizing in its intensity, Proust-like in its detailing of the physical world, and weighty with diction that requires frequent recourse to the OED. A typical line:

Great cleavers and bonesaws hung overhead and truncate beeves in stark abbatoir by cambreled hams blueflocced with mold.

When I heard that his most recent novel is set in post-apocalyptic America, I guessed the chief difference between it and Suttree (or perhaps any McCarthy novel) would simply be a smaller cast of characters.

McCarthy is a great and fearful writer.