What We Thought: If I had read only the first 300 pages of this novel I would have said it was undiluted genius. However … but more of that later.
There is genius here – Suttree, the protagonist, is a superbly imagined character. Veering between riverfishing and drunkeness, he is his own worst enemy. Having broken from his well-to-do family, abandoned his wife and child, done jailtime and settled for selling catfish to local fishmongers for a living, he seems to have achieved a kind of peace. The action takes place in the early 1950s when Suttree is around 30. He works a stretch of the Tennessee river near Knoxville, where he lives on a leaky houseboat. McCarthy’s descriptions of the river – even of its filth and flotsam – render it beautiful.
Occasionally things seem to be going well for Suttree – he receives a legacy, or he pimps out his girlfriend (I said there was a ‘However’) and he struts a while in new clothes. But just when you’re rooting for him to turn his life around, he meets up with his pals from the wrong side of town and goes on another bender. The clothes are torn, his body is battered and the arm of the law reaches out to him again.
Sutree is a likeable character (most of the time – see below). He looks out for his friends, buys them booze when he’s in the money, helps them hide the bodies. And his friends are loyal to him – when he’s short of cash, someone will buy him a beer or hand him some hooch.
Though sadness and despair are never far away, this novel is often hilarious. Suttree’s pals are great characters in their own right – especially Harrogate whose adventures in the melon patch are laugh out loud funny.
But what about the pages that come after the first 300 or so? Well, there’s still a lot to like; unfortunately there’s a lot that’s uncomfortable reading too. Suttree (and his creator McCarthy) is seriously misogynistic. More so than a man of his time might be expected to be. What comes across most strongly is that McCarthy himself, not just his character, really hates and fears women. There’s probably a touch of racism and homophobia too, but not much more than you would find in any novel of the period – it’s the feminine he really can’t cope with.
So, read and enjoy the first 300-odd pages – and if you love words, and love fine writing, and welcome great characters and bizarre events, you will not be disappointed. But once Suttree takes up with the musselfisher’s daughter, McCarthy’s distrust of the female starts to reveal itself more blatantly.
Please don’t let this put you off though. It would be a shame to let the writer’s inability to curb his prejudices in this semi-autobiographical novel make you miss out on such an otherwise great book.
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Fine writing, original phraseology and word usage, wry humour.
Avoid if you dislike: Mostly male characters, drunkenness.
Ideal accompaniments: Beer, whiskey, moonshine, hooch, more beer.
Genre: Literary Fiction