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I just finished reading Cormack McCarthy’s Suttree, a novel he wrote over a span of thirty years and that is so rich in vocabulary and description it occasionally makes the reader want to shower. It’s been compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, a book I’ve personally avoided because my friend Paul, who makes a point to finish every book he starts, never finished it. Suttree reminded me vaguely of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude and most of what I’ve read by Charles Bukowski. I read ‘Solitude‘ toward the end of my first stint in Manhattan, shacked up with the flu in a tiny West 81st Street apartment. Perhaps the flu link brought Lethem’s book to mind while reading Suttree, whose protagonist of the same name is gripped by hallucinatory typhoid fever at the end of the novel. Both books are also possessed of a particular sprawling ambition that made me think the author set out to write his magnum opus and resigned to not finishing until he got all this shit out of him. That said I’d recommend either, though The Great Gatsby or a Raymond Carver short they are not.

Cornelius Suttree foresakes a life of privilege to live on a dilapidated houseboat and fish catfish on the polluted Tennessee River. He drinks, screws, goes to jail, keeps company with assorted marginal outcasts and survives dime to dime on his wits. It’s the sort of existence that begs the question “why live this way?” – particularly if one has options. I suspect it isn’t an entirely unseen phenomenon, persons of potential means choosing to cut strings and exist on the fringes. I’ve known a few who have tried then eventually come in from the cold. No man is an island, after all, and the romanticism of turning up one’s proverbial collar and walking headlong in to the bitter wind loses some of its punch when you realize nobody gives a shit. Old bitterness is replaced with new and the cycle continues. Suttree himself isn’t bitter though and the novel survives on this premise. Why live this way? Why live any way?

I did some quick math and determined McCarthy was sixteen years old when he started writing Suttree and well in to his forties by the time he finished. This may account for the difficulty I had in pinpointing the protagonist’s age, which I took to be somewhere between thirty and fifty. Perhaps it’s in there if I went back and read it again but it’s the kind of book you have to forge ahead with if you have any intention of finishing. The other McCarthy book I’ve read, The Road, was published twenty-seven years after this one and contains some of the same rich, descriptive writing. But the narrative is linear and easily comprehended; almost as if he learned from his early work that less is more. I for one can’t fathom sticking with something thirty years to completion let alone finishing another nine novels. In the Wikipedia article on McCarthy it’s noted that his Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter, a machine he’d bought for $50 in a Knoxville pawn shop, kept for forty-six years and typed some five million words on, was auctioned in 2009 at Christie’s. They figured it would fetch as much as $20,000 and it sold for $254,500. I’m guessing that it wasn’t some Cornelius Suttree type who bought it but he may have gotten his money’s worth anyway.

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