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 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.