(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Suttree takes place during the early 1950’s in the slums of Knoxville, Tennessee. Cornelius Suttree, who comes from a prominent family, has abandoned his wife and infant son and has chosen to live on a houseboat near McAnally Flats, among the drifters and derelicts of the town. He keeps himself alive by fishing in the filth of the Tennessee River, but his existence is apparently meaningless, given over to destructive drinking, fighting, and carousing. As the narrator explains in the introduction to the story, “We are come to a world within the world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams. Ill-shapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in everyland.” When the story begins, Suttree is an accepted part of this other world. He shares bottles, stories, and jail cells with the “ruder forms” that inhabit the region. They recognize that Suttree is different, has had opportunities denied them, but they never question his decision to live among them. To them, he is simply “old Sut.”

There is no conventional plot line in Suttree’s story. Rather, the reader follows him through apparently random experiences. The book is thus constructed in episodic fashion and depends on the cumulative effect of these episodes to develop its structure and identify its theme. Some characters come and go, touching Suttree only for the moment. Others, however, form a constant in his life, forcing him to come out of his self-imposed isolation and renew, in however...

(The entire section is 645 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Much distinguishes Suttree, McCarthy’s fourth novel, from his previous fiction. More expansive and ambitious than his earlier work, Suttree traces the life of one single central character, Cornelius Suttree, from October, 1950, to the spring of 1955. The world the novel displays is primarily urban, with most of the action taking place in McAnally Flats, a down-and-out district of Knoxville, Tennessee, whose grim landscape McCarthy describes with startling precision and beauty. The comic elements of the novel offset the continual presence of death and despair.

At the heart of the novel are Suttree and the river on which he lives on a houseboat at various intervals in the story. Rejecting the sober, comfortable middle-class values of his father, he chooses instead to explore the more essential, unseemly side of life on the edge in the underground world of McAnally Flats—home of drunks, derelicts, gamblers, whores, homosexuals, murderers, evangelists, and thieves. Suttree continuously returns to the river, where he sets up his fishing lines, until the end of the novel, when the Flats are threatened by demolition for the construction of a freeway. His is a search for living authentically, reconciling himself to the world around him.

Much of the heavily populated novel chronicles Suttree’s intermittent interactions with a constellation of colorful characters: the ragpicker, J-Bone, Oceanfrog, an old former railway worker, a family of musselhunters, hulking black Ab Jones, an Indian fisherman, Blind Richard, a black sorceress, the gay Trippin Through the Dew, a whore he shacks up with for a spell, and, most memorable of all, Gene Harrogate, the infamous watermelon humper whom he first meets in the workhouse where both are serving time for their dubious wrongdoings. Anytime Harrogate appears, the reader is assured of some comic mishap. Suttree himself, a solitary creature whose main difficulties in life seem to be associated with living with himself, proves to be immensely tolerant and compassionate. He stands by his fellow outcasts, regardless of their race, creed, or felony, and lends a hand when they are in need—fleeing from the law, trying to get rid of a dead...

(The entire section is 902 words.)