Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

“But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse.”

Imagine William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury crossed with It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia and you have something close to Suttree. One main character is a brooding rebel who has rejected his family’s wealth and lives on a river catching fish, spending his time drinking heavily and living painfully. Another fucks watermelons.

This is an outrageous and astounding novel. Seemingly aimless, true, but if you stick with it you’ll love how it can both amuse and devastate you.

A good way to approach this is as if it’s the adult equivalent of Huckleberry Finn, a series of loosely connected short stories that make up a greater whole. You follow a vagrant named Suttree as he travels through the underbelly of filth-encrusted Knoxville, Tennessee. There is no obvious plot, merely life in all its banality and wonder in a harsh place where angry, drunken homeless men maraud the streets and life can “always get worse.”

The writing is great, but McCarthy has most stunning prose of anyone alive so that can be taken for granted with him at this point.

I tend to keep a few simple notes while I’m reading a novel so I can keep track of moments or themes that strike me as particularly important or interesting. Despite the fact that, as mentioned above, Suttree is essentially plot-less, I had almost three times as much written when finishing than I normally do. Part of that is probably length, as this is a hefty book, but this also speaks to just how rich in detail and subtext it is. You could re-read each page and find a fascinating detail you missed the first time round. With a great mixture of the profound and the hilariously crude, this was a fitting and satisfying book for me to finish my reading of McCarthy on.

Still, it didn’t fully hook me until quite late in the story. I needed to get used to the strange, drifting narrative. Let Suttree wash over you like cold water: adjust, be patient. You’ll be rewarded. There’s something great lurking beneath the murky surface.

The Stonemason by Cormac McCarthy

Confession: I wouldn’t have picked this up if I wasn’t working through every piece of Cormac McCarthy writing ever. This was the last thing left to read before I finish his oeuvre with the novel Suttree. Screenplays or short works also haven’t been the highlights of this project, as McCarthy is at his best when he gets grandiose and epic, and there’s often just not enough time, so while sub-par McCarthy is still tremendously well-written I went into this with tempered expectations.

The Stonemason is an interesting play about a black family in the States. The Telfairs are about to undergo an unavoidable, unpredictable series of catastrophes (like many of Cormac McCarthy’s main characters do).

In theme, this was similar to many of McCarthy’s works: the degradation of traditional life, the value of physical work, all with death looming over every moment. The perspective of a black family means issues of race and time are at the forefront here: the more abstract, mental pains of the new age are contrasted with the physical oppression old, so societal progress is presented more evenly than in, say, No Country For Old Men. 

The Stonemason is above all earnest. The problems here are still enormously difficult to deal with, but they’re things nearly everyone experiences: death, money troubles, the ability to trust. Definitely one of the more heartfelt and the most subdued of McCarthy’s works, and it was an interesting change of pace.

Cities on the Plain [Border Trilogy #3] by Cormac McCarthy

“He sat a long time and he thought about his life and how little of it he could ever have foreseen and he wondered for all his will and all his intent how much of it was his doing.”

Cities of the Plain is the most focused of The Border Trilogy. It’s less grandiose than All the Pretty Horses, and less ponderous than The Crossing, but extraneous elements which either dragged or elevated the preceding books — depending on your point of view — have been removed: the prose is smoother; there are (fewer) page-long discussions with wise strangers imparting wisdom; there is less rumination on the landscape. This is because this novel is more eager to focus on two subjects more directly: obsession, and the world’s disregard for what you think it should be.

Modernity has swept into McCarthy’s South West. Cars are as common to see as horses, and the lights of cities in the distance are ever-present. The army is trying to claim the land our protagonists live upon. A sense of dread hangs over proceedings like storm clouds.

John Grady Cole and Billy Parham return. They occasionally venture across the Mexican border, which unsurprisingly does not, as those that have read the preceding books can guess, keep their lives simple.

Cole’s fixation on a young prostitute showcases his naivete and with Parham’s dry wisecracking mouth at his side he comes across as more relatable than the confident horse-whisperer of the first book. He is out of his element here, and more interesting for it. The dual-protagonists play off each other in funny and tender ways, echoing lost relationships from the last books which might otherwise have been forgotten, giving a sense of poignancy to the events.

There’s a great sense of suspense as the novel falls into place, the feeling that things cannot end well. When I put it down after finishing I felt catharsis. It’s a great end to an inspired, occasionally fun but deeply sad series that I enjoyed a massive amount. Highly recommended.

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

“I look for the words, Professor. I look for the words because I believe that the words is the way to your heart.”

A play which is short but far more powerful and engaging than it should be considering its basic setting. This is nothing but a conversation between two men after one stopped the other from jumping in front of a train named The Sunset Limited. Why believe? Why not? McCarthy preaches but offers no answers, and leaves your head ringing as his characters orate with what I imagine as voices like thunder and light rain. The dialogue here is careful and very, very well written.

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

“And he no longer cared to tell which were things done and which dreamt.”

In rural Tennessee, in the years leading up to World War 2, a boy named John Wesley Rattner’s father doesn’t return home one night. He was killed by a whiskey smuggler named Marion Sylder. The boy and outlaw meet after a car wreck, and neither knows their connection to the other. Nearby, an old man watches over the remains of a body.

Reading this novel was strange. The actual writing was, as is to be expected for McCarthy, distinct and powerful, but the story itself just dragged and dragged. The characters were fleshed out and felt distinct and interesting, but there was just no pull to their narratives. I think it was a pacing problem.

The Orchard Keeper is obviously heavily influenced by Faulkner, with its interweaving stories and bizarre structure, but lacking the precision. This makes the novel feel at times incoherent. When it’s good it’s great, but the majority of this book feels watered down by its weaker elements and as such can feel like a slog. It’s definitely my least favourite of the McCarthy novels I’ve read.