A BRIEF REVIEW OF SUTTREE by Cormac McCarthy


I am not quite sure what to make of this book.

No doubt, in between the layers of a confusing narrative, there are bits and pieces of brilliant writing. I suppose if you have the energy to keep a thesaurus or dictionary by your side to look up the meaning of all the words McCarthy uses, you’ll do all right and maybe even love the story. Considering it has a rating of 4.2, (Goodreads) some do love it.

Me? I did not love it. I don’t like struggling to understand what an author is trying to say. When I read I want to be entertained and I usually read to relax. Often I felt frustrated more than anything, although there were moments when I laughed at the antics of one of the more lively characters, Gene Harrogate, a.k.a City Mouse or City Rat – it seemed interchangeable.

I tackled SUTTREE because I read CHILD OF GOD, and despite the need to get “used to” McCarthy’s style of writing, and the subject matter, I loved CHILD. The first sentence of the Prologue should have been a warning. Others have quoted it, but just in case you missed it, here it is:

Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.”

Fine.  I get it. He (Suttree) is walking the city streets alone, early morning. He sees a cat. He sees homeless people here and there. This gives you a good idea of just what you’re in for if you decide to read on.  The entire prologue is like this.  You could skip it altogether.  It’s like McCarthy was…, I don’t know…, warming up?  Let’s move on to the first sentence of what we can consider Chapter One (no Chapters are identified) as the book begins:

“Peering down into the water where the morning sun fashioned wheels of light, coronets fanwise in which lay trapped each twig, each grain of sediment, long flakes and blade of light in the dusty water sliding away like optic strobes, where motes sifted and spun.”

That is the sentence that begins the story of Cornelius Suttree, bum/alcoholic extraordinaire. From the back of the book we understand he’s shunned his rich upbringing to live among the rabble rousers of Knoxville Tennessee, and ekes out a living running his little trot lines, making just enough selling carp and catfish to hear the jingle of coins in his pockets and keep from starving. If it hadn’t been for this brief explanation of what the story was about, I think I’d have been more lost than him.

Aside from McCarthy’s extensive knowledge of words – some I’ve never laid eyes on –  he also breaks rules a lesser writer like me must use. No quotations when people speak. (in an interview he said they weren’t necessary. I beg to differ – at least in this book) Very little comma usage, etc. Ho boy.

He also has a tendency to take common, everyday words and run them together, so at first glance it makes you back up, only to realize it’s just two basic words strung together. Some are in the quoted sentences above.

More examples:
ragestrangled
sealedbeam
churchclothes
graylooking

And on and on.

The book is filled with nicknames for the other characters, like Oceanfrog, Trippin Through The Dew, Gatemouth, Jabbo, J Bone, Bucket, Boneyard, to name a few.

There were parts where I felt physically ill at his descriptions of Suttree being sick from too much alcohol, being urinated on, and the illnesses he contracted, like typhoid fever.  Somehow, I happily made it to the end. One thing was clear…, the book delivered on it’s ability to confuse me right on up to the last page. Here is the last sentence – which, trust me, contains no spoiler:

I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.”

And there you have it. I guess this is one of those works you’ll either love or hate, like the THE GOLDFINCH, GONE GIRL, or FIFTY SHADES.  Some loved those, others hated them.  I can’t say I hated this book.  I’m just glad I’ve finished it.

Anyone else read SUTTREE?  What did you think?

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11 Comments

There’s not a sentence or word of you’ve quoted from Suttree here that doesn’t excite me.
The sentences are so musical, and I think anyone who reads it and tries to understand line by line, myself included, would go a bit loopy and end up giving it two stars or whatever.
But for mine, this sort of writing is best devoured without letting your conscious thought processes try to work any of it out. Read it like you’re listening to music, and let it wash over you, and it might be magnificent.

Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers is kind of like that, and I was surprised, recently, when some one asked what was the best novel I’d read, and it popped into my brain as the one. And yet, in some ways, intellectually, I could find reasons to judge it as poor. But it’s a masterpiece, and maybe Suttree is too. Maybe. Or not.

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    Maybe I need to be drunk? 🙂

    Here’s another interesting tidbit about SUTTREE I just discovered. And b/c I’m spending so much time dwelling on the man’s writing, maybe that says something?

    I have an app called “Hemingway Editor.” You cut/paste – or write – parts of your WIP into it, and hit an EDIT button. It comes back and shows sentences in passive voice, where you have too many adverbs, which sentences are difficult to read, etc. The goal – according to not only this app, but what I’ve heard/read elsewhere is to make your book “readable,” your goal is to aim for less than a 10th grade level. In other words, if your passages score 9th grade or lower, the “readability score” = good. If it’s higher = bad.

    I put the passages above into the app…and it scored a grade of 32. It has college level b/c my first page in my WIP scored that…and I had to seriously think about changing it (I didn’t). But…Grade 32???? What is that? Ph D? Or beyond? Mensa material? IDK.

    And of course, the rank of readability = bad. I’m going to give reviews on the other McCarthy works when I finish them. And now you have me intrigued about Leonard Cohen. I’ve heard of the book, Beautiful Losers, but I never considered reading it.

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      Yes, I’ve used the Hemingway app, and find it useful for reminding me my natural tendency is to write sentences that are too long.
      But it’s easily fooled into making extremely complex writing into grade 4 or whatever just by using a lot of full stops, and also you can do the reverse with it.
      It’s quite useful for finding passive voice though, if you have that problem

      Not sure if being drunk would help. Worth a try I guess. I’ve forgotten what that’s like. Some years and Not bothering to count…

      As for Beautiful Losers, I can imagine a lot of people would hate it. It’d be off the chart on the Hemingway app — I’m pretty sure it has sentences longer than a page. But man, I’ve only read it once, maybe three years ago, and it’s still with me. Like, really inside me, which I didn’t realise was happening when I read it. But try the sample first … you might REALLY hate it.

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Thanks for the review! I’ve never really gotten into McCarthy. Like you, I want to relax and be entertained when I’m reading. I do enjoy books that make me think, but not books that I have to stop and re-read to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes I think the author wants me to feel intellectually inferior.

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    Hi Nicole,

    I’m almost (almost) willing to give McCarthy the benefit of my doubt, generous person that I am…ha! I still have two other books of his to read before I decide if I’ll get more and honestly, I may have picked his hardest ones. I did like CHILD OF GOD, despite the taboo subject matter. And there were parts of SUTTREE I liked…but most of it was so far over my head, I honestly wondered if he was writing in English! I love a book that simply makes me want to turn the pages as fast as possible…the kind of read that takes me into that world.

    What I was left with here was a feeling of perplexity. I’ve found out it took him twenty years to write it, on and off. He wasn’t well known until his book ALL THE PRETTY HORSES won the National Book Award. That’s a little consolation. If SUTTREE had won, I’d really be worried about my gray matter, and those feelings you speak of, inferiority.

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Ugh, no. He takes himself so seriously that I can’t help but roll my eyes.

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    I told my husband, it’s one of two things. Either he’s been told he’s THAT good so many times, he simply will sit down and write anything, or…, he’s drunk. I have no idea if he even drinks. I swear though, some of those passages I thought he must be drunk, or SOMEthing. I have two more to read and then I’m done for a while. IDK. LIke all writers, sometimes the writing is just… shitty.

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I hadn’t even heard of SUTTREE, though my knowledge of McCarthy’s novels is not encyclopedic. Maybe I’ll give it a shot? When I have time to read? (writing really edges into that….)

I feel as though Cormac McCarthy is the granddaddy of not using quotation marks when people speak (and being lax/nonexistent with other punctuation). I’m not into that aspect myself, but I’m willing to overlook it if the rest of the book grabs me. I’ve only read two books by him, THE ROAD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and loved both. That first line of the prologue actually doesn’t put me off, though I can see how it would. There is a certain mood one must be in to be word-drunk, and sometimes the words are still even not to one’s taste.

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    I read THE ROAD as well and really liked it a lot. I have OUTER DARK and BLOOD MERIDIAN to read next while I’m on the McCarthy kick. The few pages I’ve flipped through of OUTER DARK remind me of CHILD OF GOD, so I’m pretty sure I’m going to like that one. A couple other folks out in blogosphere recommended BLOOD, so, it ought to be good. But SUTTREE…I’m still pondering that one. I gave it (did I dare??? Oh yes I did) two stars on Goodreads. I don’t give low ratings like that much b/c I generally expect to like what I’ve picked out to read.

    The first line is the first line of about 439 pages of… that kind of writing. It’s not so off putting (you’re right) if that was it…and, I guess you could say it didn’t deter me either, but honestly, my poor feeble brain felt wrung out by the time I finished! 🙂 To give credit where credit is due…a character I mention above, Gene Harrogate, or City Mouse/Rat…was HILARIOUS. McCarthy’s delivery on his dialogue was IMPECCABLE and I did find myself LOL when I read his parts. Goodreads 2 stars = “It was okay.” That about sums it up.

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This Is A Movie? | DONNA EVERHARTAugust 1, 2015 at 3:54 PM

[…] COG was the second book I’d ever read by Cormac McCarthy.  The first was THE ROAD.  Both prompted a McCarthy frenzy which sort of petered out before I read the last book I’d bought by him, BLOOD MERIDIAN.  I’ve blogged about this in the past, with this book, and this one.  […]

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