Uncanny token of a vanished race (Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree)

In the afternoon he sat in the cool under the bluff. Summer thunderheads were advancing from the south. He leaned back against the rock escarpment. Jagged blades of slate and ratchel stood like stone tools in the loam. Tracks of mice or ground squirrels, a few dry and meatless nuthulls. A dark stone disc. He reached and picked it up. In his hand a carven gorget. He spooned the clay from the face of it with his thumb and read two rampant gods addorsed with painted eyes and helmets plumed, their spangled anklets raised in dance. They bore birdheaded scepters each aloft.

Suttree spat upon the disc and wiped it on the hip of his jeans and studied it again. Uncanny token of a vanished race. For a cold moment the spirit of an older order moved in the rainy air. With a small twig he cleaned each line and groove and with spittle and the tail of his shirt he polished the stone, holding it, a cool lens, in the cup of his tongue, drying it with care. A gray and alien stone of a kind he’d never seen.

He took off his belt and with his pocketknife cut a long thin strip of leather and threaded it through the hole in the gorget and tied the thong and put it around his neck. It lay cool and smooth against his chest, this artifact of dawn where twilight drew across the iron landscape.

Another excerpt from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.

They found his head. Man had it in a shoebox. (Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree)

I used to work on the river. The Cherokee. Then I was on the Hugh Martin. The H C Murry. It had a better store than them uptown. After the first war they wasnt no more packetboat trade. I was born in nineteen and hundred. Of a night you could hear them boats howlin on the river like souls. The old Martin had a steamhorn could and used to did bring the glass out of folks’ sashes. I went on the river when I was twelve. I weighed a hunnerd and eighty pound then. This white man shot me cause I whipped him. I didnt know no better. I was older then, must of been fourteen. Dumb as shit. I went home and got better and fore I could see him to kill him somebody had done done it. Cut his head off. Wasnt no friend of mine. Thowed my black ass in the jailhouse. Went up the side of my head with they old clubs and shit. I laid there in the dark, they aint give me nothin to eat yet. That was my first acquaintance of the wrath of the path. That’s goin on forty year now and it dont signify a goddamn thing. These bloods down here think it’s somethin to whip up on some police. They think that’s really somethin. Shit. You aint got nothin for it but a busted head. You caint do nothin with them motherfuckers. I wouldnt fight em at all if I could keep from it.

Suttree bent to see his face. Jones blinked, eyeballs like eggs in the mammoth black skull. He must have read his pale friend’s look because he said almost to himself: That’s the truth.

How did you get out?

They found his head. Man had it in a shoebox.

He was unscrewing the bottlecap, taking a drink. His eyes closed and opened slowly in the gloom. This man was a gambler and a whoremaster. He never drunk nor smoked. Run a whorehouse on Front Street that was well known in them days. Boats come in, the hands would all turn out for his place. Streets full of whores, queers any color. Thieves. They come out like roaches whenever you had a dockin. Then this feller cut his head off and carried it around in a shoebox with him. He got drunk one night down on Central Avenue and started showin the old head around. Folks runnin screamin into the streets. Next day I’s out.

Was he crazy?


The murderer.

I dont know. He didnt kill him to rob him. I guess he was a little bit crazy.

Would you have killed him?

I dont know. I reckon I would if that was how he’d of wanted it.

Suttree took a sip of his beer. He could hear Smokehouse in the outer room again, puttering about, glass clinking. He looked at Jones. Have you ever killed anyone? he said.

Not on purpose, said Jones.

From Cormac McCarthy’s SuttreeI read an echo of Huck and Jim in Sut and Jones, perhaps—a faint, distorted, reverberated echo, sure—but an echo. This episode also seems to obliquely reference Queequeg’s adventures with the shrunken head in Nantucket.

It was September now (Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree)

It was September now, a season of rains. The gray sky above the city washed with darker scud like ink curling in a squid’s wake. The blacks can see the boy’s fire at night and glimpses of his veering silhouette slotted in the high nave, outsized among the arches. All night a ruby glow suffuses the underbridge from his garish chancel lamps. The city’s bridges all betrolled now what with old ventriloquists and young melonfanciers. The smoke from their fires issues up unseen among the soot and dust of the city’s right commerce.

Sometimes in the evening Suttree would bring beers and they’d sit there under the viaduct and drink them. Harrogate with questions of city life.

You ever get so drunk you kissed a nigger?

Suttree looked at him. Harrogate with one eye narrowed on him to tell the truth. I’ve been a whole lot drunker than that, he said.

Worst thing I ever done was to burn down old lady Arwood’s house.”

“You burned down an old lady’s house?

Like to of burnt her down in it. I was put up to it. I wasnt but ten year old.

Not old enough to know what you were doing.

Yeah.–Hell no that’s a lie. I knowed it and done it anyways.

Did it burn completely down?

Plumb to the ground. Left the chimbley standin was all. It burnt for a long time fore she come out.

Did you not know she was in there?

I disremember. I dont know what I was thinkin. She come out and run to the well and drawed a bucket of water and thowed it at the side of the house and then just walked on off towards the road. I never got such a whippin in my life. The old man like to of killed me.

Your daddy?

Yeah. He was alive then. My sister told them deputies when they come out to the house, they come out there to tell her I was in the hospital over them watermelons, she told em I didnt have no daddy was how come I got in trouble. But shit fire I was mean when I did have one. It didnt make no difference.

Were you sorry about it? The old lady’s house I mean.

Sorry I got caught.

Suttree nodded and tilted his beer. It occurred to him that other than the melon caper he’d never heard the city rat tell anything but naked truth.

Another vignette from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree—a transition scene perhaps, but one that draws Suttree and Harrogate closer, even as it underlines their differences.

In my review of Suttree a few years back, I argued that the novel is a grand synthesis of American literature, brimming with literary allusions. I singled out Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” as the basis for a later scene with Harrogate, so I can’t help but think of Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” here.

Crimes of the Moonlight Melonmounter (Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree)

Still Life with Watermelons, Frida Kahlo

Two pairs of brogans went along the rows.

You aint goin to believe this.

Knowin you for a born liar I most probably wont.

Somebody has been fuckin my watermelons.


I said somebody has been …

No. No. Hell no. Damn you if you aint got a warped mind.

I’m tellin you …

“I dont want to hear it.

Looky here.

And here.

They went along the outer row of the melonpatch. He stopped to nudge a melon with his toe. Yellowjackets snarled in the seepage. Some were ruined a good time past and lay soft with rot, wrinkled with imminent collapse.

It does look like it, dont it?

I’m tellin ye I seen him. I didnt know what the hell was goin on when he dropped his drawers. Then when I seen what he was up to I still didnt believe it. But yonder they lay.

What do you aim to do?

Hell, I dont know. It’s about too late to do anything. He’s damn near screwed the whole patch. I dont see why he couldnt of stuck to just one. Or a few.

Well, I guess he takes himself for a lover. Sort of like a sailor in a whorehouse.

I reckon what it was he didnt take to the idea of gettin bit on the head of his pecker by one of them waspers. I suppose he showed good judgment there.

What was he, just a young feller?

I dont know about how young he was but he was as active a feller as I’ve seen in a good while.

Well. I dont reckon he’ll be back.

I dont know. A man fast as he is ought not to be qualmy about goin anywheres he took a notion. To steal or whatever.

What if he does come back?

I’ll catch him if he does.

And then what?

Well. I dont know. Be kindly embarrassin now I think about it.

I’d get some work out of him is what I’d do.

Ought to, I reckon. I dont know.

You reckon to call the sheriff?

And tell him what?

They were walking slowly along the rows.

It’s just the damndest thing I ever heard of. Aint it you? What are you grinnin at? It aint funny. A thing like that. To me it aint.

One of my favorite passages from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree. The title of this post also comes from the novel, several pages later, after the melonmounter has been apprehended.

I’ve salvaged not a word (Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree)

From all old seamy throats of elders, musty books, I’ve salvaged not a word. In a dream I walked with my grandfather by a dark lake and the old man’s talk was filled with incertitude. I saw how all things false fall from the dead. We spoke easily and I was humbly honored to walk with him deep in that world where he was a man like all men. From the small end of a corridor in the autumn woods he watched me go away to the world of the waking. If our dead kin are sainted we may rightly pray to them. Mother Church tells us so. She does not say that they’ll speak back, in dreams or out. Or in what tongue the stillborn might be spoken. More common visitor. Silent. The infant’s ossature, the thin and brindled bones along whose sulcate facets clove old shreds of flesh and cerements of tattered swaddle. Bones that would no more than fill a shoebox, a bulbous skull. On the right temple a mauve halfmoon.

I read Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree five years ago and still haven’t recovered.

I started listening to the audiobook of it this week as I returned to my fall work (school) commute—the language is marvelous in the reading—but I have to go back and dwell on passages, like the one above, which resonates strongly with so much of McCarthy’s work—the son or grandson communing with the dead father, out of dimness, opposite equals advancing. And damn, somehow I’d forgotten that Suttree had a stillborn twin brother. And that the novel begins with a suicide. More to come.

Cool color signature covers


Cool article from Wired (yeah it’s a few years old now but hey) about artist Jaz Parkinson, who indexed the references to colors in various novels and created visual signatures of them. From the article

 Jaz Parkinson, an art student from England, was curious about how the written imagery in the work would translate into color, so she decided to chart the color signatures of some of her favorite books.

Using the color-related data pulled from novels, Parkinson visualized how famous books would look if you could only read them through a visual signature. “I think the charts are beautiful and informative, which is a very special mix of the subjective and the objective,” she says. “They reveal a new dataset which hasn’t been associated with the book before.”
book-The-Little-Prince book-Revelation

Reading There Will Be Blood as the expanded epilogue to Blood Meridian

Watching (again) Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood last night, it struck me that the film can be read as an expansion of the epilogue to Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian.

Here is that infamously perplexing passage, a strange note that punctuates the devastating infanticidal horror at the novel’s core:

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.

I’ve heard numerous interpretations of this passage over the years. Many of the interpretations dwell on the metaphorical power of the epilogue—it’s the final gnostic clue in the Judge’s web of mysteries; it’s the Promethean redemption of humanity against the Judge’s evil; it’s the spirit of civilization that will measure and conquer the bloody West, a progressive new dawn; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s signature, his designation of himself as the writer who carries the fire.

I’m fine with all of these interpretations, for I foolishly take Judge Holden at his word when he points out that, “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.” Let me eschew the symbolic then, at least momentarily, for the literal.

The epilogue’s literal imagery suggests a man working with post hole diggers: Is he building a fence? Constructing telegraph poles? Exploring? Surveying? Whatever his intentions, he marks and measures the land.

Whether the digger is a leader or not, he has followers, “the wanderers in search of bones” as well as “those who do not search.” Bones of what? Are the searchers hunting relics? (To revert to the metaphorical—sorry—are these bones the dead eyes Emerson warned us not to look through?). Or are the bones something else—dinosaur bones, Texas tea, carbon, fuel?

there will be blood

So There Will Blood and there will be bones: Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, a misanthropic, near-malevolent, and ultimately murderous oil man—what I want to say is that he is (a failed version of) McCarthy’s Epilogue Digger. Is not There Will Be Blood  a film about digging, about holes, falling in holes, dying holes, striking fire from holes? And is not There Will Be Blood also a film about the abjection of holes—the oil, the mud, the much, the blood that coats hands and faces, eyes, lips, ears burst? Of the recapitulation of the hole as the primal space for culture—a fertile, generative, fecund, deadly space? The hole as the space of shame and possibility? Daniel Plainview, surveying California, marking lines for his followers to follow, striking oil, striking fire. No?


We might see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film a repetitious revision of McCarthy’s novel—a recasting of sorts, with Plainview possessed by Glanton’s maniacal spirit—and Glanton in turn possessed by the spirit of the Judge, the dark omnipresent bad father. Both film and novel mediate their Oedipal dramas in an utterly masculine world. Blood Meridian affords more speaking roles to women than There Will Be Blood does, but both see fit to discharge any notion of a mother from the Oedipal contests they depict, rendering the kid in each narrative the warden of strange gangs, strange wanderers. Anderson allows H.W. to suffer but live and perhaps thrive, to find a mate, to escape into new and alien territory, outside of the holes his surrogate father has dug. Our would-be hero of Blood Meridian, the kid, dies in an outhouse, an abject hole.

And Daniel Plainview—he murders the false priest (which the judge failed to do—although Tobin was a true priest though ex-priest), murders a version of himself—another brother, another Abel. He’s not a good guy. If we read McCarthy’s epilogue through his latest novel, The Road, or even through some of the lines in No Country for Old Men, we can see that “the good guys” are charged with carrying the fire—and is this not what the Epilogue Digger is doing? Carrying the fire, freeing the fire from the earth? Plainview would like to carry the fire, to generate new life, new communities, but he fails, he falls, he crumbles. He abandons his child, and then denies his child. “I’m finished!”

Am I finished? I’m now more confused than when I started this riff. The germ of the idea woke with me this morning—the alien landscape of PTA’s film seemed to restage for me moments in McCarthy’s novel in some waking dream—and like a dream seemed perfectly illogically logical. But bound up in my language I’m not so sure. What I did detect in the film, last night, that I had previously perhaps missed, or maybe forgotten, was how admirable Daniel Plainview often is, especially early on in the film—decisive, bold, asserting his own agency and working with his own hands, he’s a Nietzschean figure. But his paranoia gives way to madness and corruption. Okay. I’m finished.

A Bunch of Literary Recipes

Enjoy Thanksgiving with this menu of literary recipes:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding

The book club discusses Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (Kicking and Screaming)


Ben Marcus on the Rhetoric of Blood Meridian

SP: Blood Meridian is another intense book on the syllabus. How does Cormac McCarthy’s distinct, sparse writing style convey the violence of the story he’s telling?

BM: His use of language is completely tied to how you feel when you read it—it certainly seems like the delivery is all. Blood Meridian is among the most rhetorically hyperbolic of McCarthy’s books. In fact, the book that followed, All the Pretty Horses, looked like it was written by a totally different writer. Often we’re looking at work that’s a lot more stylistically mild than Blood Meridian, so what is the emotional effect when language is cycled up the register like that?

He does this recurring thing where some character spits and someone else spits, and someone says something and someone else doesn’t answer, and then he’s like, “Off in this distance, they saw two riders hanging as if by strings, like some pale marionette set adrift in a world long since cooled and died.” He’s constantly serving up the world as this mechanical, contrived, hollow place. Where everybody’s a puppet or a mannequin or skeleton, or everything’s dead or fake, and everything’s manipulated by unseen forces. We’d ask a question in class like, why describe a landscape at all? What is that ever for in fiction? Is it to be pretty? The answers are sort of obvious. At its best, it creates mood, the same way music does in a movie. But McCarthy would use those sometimes bland tools from the writer’s toolkit and make them really bleak, reminding you every time he describes the landscape how empty it is and how pointless everything is.

Ben Marcus discusses his MFA syllabus with Stephanie Palumbo at The Believer.