Writer’s Review of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree

I have decided to review books not just as a reader, but as a writer. What does this writer do well, and how? Where do they miss the mark, and why? Most books get dozens, hundreds or even thousands of reviews. My aim here is to provide book reviews specifically for writers, learning their craft and developing the tools to write great books themselves.
So often I read a book that leaves me unimpressed, unmoved by its characters, themes and story. Most often I would not review those books at all. The ‘If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing’ school of thought. But I realized there are lessons to learn from a book that doesn’t hit the mark. And when a book exceeds our expectations, what is it that makes it great? I will try to find those things and point a light on them, positive and negative.
My first attempt here will be at Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’.
As a writer in training, I am learning the different ways to express character. Physical descriptions help the reader see the characters in their mind’s eye. The actions of a character show what is important to them. The speech and mannerisms develop character, and the thoughts, actions and words of other characters reflect on the main characters. And the strongest method in first or close third person is to give the reader access to the mind of the characters. In close third person a reader can become intimately involved in the main characters’ minds and emotions.
McCarthy provides superb descriptions of setting and often uses these descriptions to reflect on the mood of the characters. But the reader’s understanding is inferred and not confirmed. The physical character descriptions are rudimentary enough to differentiate characters, and the reader’s imagination can fill in the blanks. The language of speech is stilted and barren. ‘Hidy, says one. Hidy back, says another. Come back soon.’ This suffices for conversation. We fall back on the actions of the characters, and the actions of the main character Cornelius Suttree speak well of him. He checks on his friends, arranges food and shelter. He cares. We think. He didn’t care for his family or provide for them, so we don’t know what to think about his character beyond superficial friendship. He drinks, falls down, gets in fights, gets arrested and passes out. Near the end of the book he lives on the avails of prostitution, not quite a pimp. So much of McCarthy’s work is like turning over a rock and watching what levels of degeneracy man can fall to. I suppose it makes a statement about nihilism and shakes a fist at good society. But as incisive an eye as he has for scenery, he balks at exploring the inner mind and heart of men. I am left wanting more.
Writers are told to be brave. Here, I think McCarthy fails. He is afraid to look into that cold dark place, the actual heart and soul. He muddies the water with senseless violence, hoping to distract from the real issues. Questions remain about why and how. Questions literature is supposed to at least try to tackle.
I read Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’ and I enjoyed it, but it was ultimately unsatisfying. I am learning to read as a writer and so I can better see why I am unsatisfied. McCarthy describes in great detail and with an amazing vocabulary the settings of the stories. The river in Suttree is a character we get to know through a full wave of sensory language. The impression verges on poetic as the flotsam and jetsam of society flow down in front of Suttree’s houseboat. The plants and birds and animals are all observed in excruciating detail. Sights, smells and sounds envelop the reader, almost to excess. Yet the people, the characters, are barely explored. Why Cornelious Suttree abandons his wife and children the reader is left guessing at.
I think ‘Suttree’ will be the last Cormac McCarthy book I read. I am disappointed. The story degenerated into debauchery. Maybe rich, cultured Texas folk can take pleasure in that, like a guided tour through Amsterdam’s Red Light district. But anyone who has seen this thing in real life knows there is no honour or grace in it. Drunks are all alike. And the pained existence of an intellectual outcast is too much of a cliche. You’re not twenty-one anymore, grow up Cornelius.
This is what passes for intellectual art, edgy storytelling. This idea that unless an artist has suffered outrageous misfortune their voice is not worth hearing. Bullshit.
So I was disappointed. While some of the writing is great, it borders on self indulgent. The descriptions go on too long. But I was most disappointed with the characters, the understanding of their thoughts and motivations, and the weak story.
The reader is left guessing at too many points. Why did Suttree abandon his family, what happened to his mother? (Was she mentally ill? It ran in the family. Is Suttree ill?) What did he study at University? Why is he a bum? Is it just the alcohol?
It is a long book, over 400 pages, but not much happens and we don’t know even if Suttree grows. Does he leave town for a better life or just to run from the law?
There is a term in literature, third person. Third person omniscient, third person single character, third person close. My writing and reading preference is close third person, where the reader experiences the action of the novel with a main character, and gets to know the thoughts and feelings of that main character. I think McCarthy’s writing can best be called distant or remote third person. We don’t get close to the main characters and so are held at a remove. We are observers of the action, watching a city from the safe confines of that hop-on-hop-off tour bus. Look at that, we think, but we are unmoved. It is a movie rather than an experience.
And that is the greatest flaw of ‘Suttree’. A reader reads to ‘Experience’ a different world. Good literature immerses the reader into the story and allows the reader to feel the thoughts, fears, hopes, needs and wants of the main point of view characters. We can engage in a bar fight without the fear of being killed. We can fall in love without risking a broken heart. We don’t have to take that real risk. But ‘Suttree’ keeps the reader at a distance and we never feel what they feel. We watch them, and can pity them. But we never connect with them.