Cornelius Suttree is at all times the focus of this novel, but Cormac McCarthy gives the reader only a sketchy sense of how and why he has broken with his family, left his wife and child. Suttree is a lapsed Catholic born with a sense of guilt. His twin brother died in birth, and Suttree questions why he was chosen to live. “Mirror image. Gauche carbon. He lies in Woodlawn, whatever be left of the child with whom you shared your mother’s belly. He neither spoke nor saw nor does he now. . . . He in the limbo of the Christless righteous, I in a terrestrial hell.”
Although Suttree’s parents are alive, he refuses to have anything to do with them. While at the University of Tennessee, he met and married a mountain girl by whom he had a son, but he has returned her and the child to her family. Near the beginning of the book, he learns that the child has died, but when he attempts to go to the funeral, he is attacked by his wife’s mother, mad with grief, and then run out of town by the sheriff. His life is a series of self-imposed failures. He dooms himself, invites his own destruction as a kind of just punishment. He also gives of himself, however, and in doing so acknowledges his humanity.
The character that stands in opposition to Suttree is Gene Harrogate, the country boy who is put in prison for sexually molesting watermelons. Harrogate is a perverse and comic character, thoroughly dishonest and without common sense, a fool whose...
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