Does Suttree die? | A riff on Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree

Does Suttree die?

At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, I mean?

Look, before we go any farther, let’s be clear—this little riff is intended for those who’ve read the book. Anyone’s welcome to read this riff of course, but I’m not going to be, y’know, summarizing the plot or providing an argument that you should read Suttree (you should; it’s great)—and there will be what I suppose you’d call spoilers.

oarsman2
Oarsman is a sculpture by David Phelps, located at the northwest corner of Gay and Church Streets in Knoxville, TN. This photo is by Wes Morgan, part of his Searching for Suttree series.

So anyway—Does Suttree die at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree?

This question percolated in the background of my brain as I revisited Suttree this month via Michael Kramer’s amazing audiobook version (I also reread key sections—especially the last), in large part because of comments made on my 2010 review of the novel.

The first comment suggesting that Suttree dies at the end of the novel came in 2012 from poster “Jack foy,” who suggested that Suttree “has died in the boat and that it is his corpse cariied [sic] from there and his spirit and not his body hitching a ride at the finale.”

Earlier this year, a commenter named Julie Seeley responded to Jack foy’s idea; her response is worth posting in full:

I kind of agree that Suttree dies at the end also–or at least there are a lot of indications that the ending is meant to be ambiguous. Suttree reflects on his life, saying something to the effect of “I was not unhappy.” He visits his own houseboat and finds the door off and a corpse in his bed. A driver picks him up and says, “Come on,” even though Suttree had never even stuck out his thumb to hitch-hike It feels oddly similar to Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” All of the scenery whizzing by faster and faster does feel like (sorry for the cliche) his life sort of flashing before him. This was a thought-provoking novel that I am looking forward to reading again soon.

Julie Seeley’s analysis is persuasive and her connection to Dickinson is especially convincing upon rereading the book’s final paragraphs. In my Suttree review, I argued that the book is a synthesis of American literature, tracing the overt connections to Faulkner and Frost, Poe and Cummings, Ellison and Steinbeck, before laundry listing:

…we find Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams, to name just a few writers whose blood courses through this novel (even elegant F. Scott Fitzgerald is here, in an unexpected Gatsbyish episode late in the novel).

Revisiting Suttree this month I found myself again impressed with McCarthy’s command of allusion and reference. Its transcendentalist streak stood out in particular. (Or perhaps more accurately, I sensed the generative material of the American Renaissance writers filtered through the writers that came before Suttree). But one American Renaissance writer I failed to name in my original review was Dickinson’s (near) contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work of course filters through all serious American novels. There are plenty of echoes of Hawthorne in Suttree—Hawthorne’s tales in particular—but it’s the way that Hawthorne ends his tales that interests me here. Like the dashes that conclude many of Dickinson’s poems (including “Because I could not stop for Death”), Hawthorne’s conclusions are frequently ambiguous. Like the conclusion of Suttree.

So: Does Suttree die at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree?

Well, wait. Let’s go back to the beginning. Of the novel, I mean. Like I said, I’d had this question buzzing around in the back of my head as I revisited the book.

So, the beginning. Well, I’d forgotten that Suttree had a twin brother who had died at birth. The twin resurfaces a few times in the text, and there’s even a scene in the musseling section featuring a set of twins. Does Suttree’s twin brother’s death in infancy prefigure Suttree’s own death? How could it not? But—at the same time—hey, it’s ambiguous if Suttree dies; should I have stated my answer to my own damn question earlier?—hey, at the same time, the twin brother’s death is not Suttree’s death sentence, right? It simply introduces a motif—the dead body.

Or rather reintroduces a motif. The novel opens with a suicide on the river. I’ll return to this. Swear.

Let’s fly through the novel’s rich fat body. The motif repeats (as motifs do). Deaths, and near-deaths structure of novel. Suttree’s twin’s death is twinned in the death of Suttree’s son. Suttree figuratively dies repeatedly—an assault with a floor buffer, f’r instance. Or a weird trip on mushrooms in the woods lovely dark and deep. Or that final bad illness, with its hallucinatory sequence—hey, there’s even a priest there, last rites, etc. And then there are all those characters who meet their demise in the narrative—Jones and the ragman and Suttree’s young young lover. Suttree’s ancestor, hanged for a murder. The old dead man whose body Suttree helps dispose of. And of course the final corpse, resting in Suttree’s houseboat, in Suttree’s bed. Etc. Death punctuates the novel—like Dickinson’s dash—simultaneously connecting and disconnecting the novel’s episodes.

And then back to the end, yes? I suppose let’s pick up with the witch Suttree visits, the deathtrip he takes in her weird hut; a deathtrip bursting in vibrant decayed deathimages—” a dead poodle”; “a mooncalf dead in a wet road you could see through, you could see its bones”—and the episode ends with Suttree “half waking” (like Young Goodman Brown who surely must have wondered, Was it all a dream?)—“his feet together and his arms at his sides like a dead king on an altar”—death image, right?—but the image ends:

He rocked in the swells, floating like the first germ of life adrift on the earth’s cooling seas, formless macule of plasm trapped in a vapor drop and all creation yet to come.

The deathtrip is a lifetrip; a transcendental vision: life|death—all creation yet to come.

Life|death. Should I note all the sex in this novel? Or at least highlight Suttree’s erection in the hospital, when he’s on the verge of death? At least point out that sex organizes the novel as much as (No, almost as much as) death? No? Move on? Okay.

Or move back, just a few pages before the witch scene, to when Suttree performs his own last rites—or, no, but at least a catechism of sorts:

Suppose there be any soul to listen and you dead tonight.

They’d listen to my death.

No final word?

Last words are only words.

You can tell me, paradigm of your own sinister genesis construed by a flame in a glass bell.

I’d say I was not unhappy.

You have nothing.

It may be the last shall be first.

Do you believe that?

No.

What do you believe?

I believe that the last and the first suffer equally. Pari passu.

Equally?

It is not alone in the dark of death that all souls are one soul.

All souls are one soul. Side by side. Emerson. Etc. Pari passu. “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance,” wrote Whitman in Song of Myself

So does Suttree die?

I think we’re working this out, no? Yes? Yes|no.

But wait—I’ve failed to let Suttree finish his catechism. Or was it confession?—

Of what would you repent?

Nothing.

Nothing?

One thing. I spoke with bitterness about my life and I said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it and that I would stand a stone in the very void where all would read my name. Of that vanity I recant all.

Oversoul oversoul oversoul. That triplet sounds too cynical. Isn’t Suttree’s repentance beautiful?

So—does Suttree die? Well hell’s bells don’t we see a reconciling with death in the citation above?

But back to the end. J-Bone fetches Suttree from the hospital; “They seemed a long time going,” the text notes, echoing the voyage in Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” The ride back shows McAnally a wasteland—Eliot’s Wasteland:

…nothing stood save rows of doors, some bearing numbers, all nailed to. Beyond lay fields of rubble, twisted steel and pipes and old conduits reared out of the ground in clusters of agonized ganglia among the broken slabs of masonry. Where small black hominoids scurried over the waste and sheets of newsprint rose in the wind and died again.

But Suttree “knew another McAnally, good to last a thousand years. There’d be no new roads there.” His transcendental vision here does seem to suggest that J-Bone’s horseless carriage heads toward eternity.

And yet and yet. Suttree parts way with J-Bone, meets a few folks, does a last few errands.

He meets the sister of his erstwhile disciple Gene Harrogate. She’s looking for the lad, who’s landed in the penitentiary (just as Suttree forecast). The prison is in Petros, a word she stumbles over and repeats. And repeats. Petros. Peter. The rock. Upon this rock I will build my church. Harrogate, witness to Suttree.

And then Suttree meets Trippin Through The Dew, calling him by his Christian name John. This is the last narrative confirmation of Suttree’s existence by another named character in the text. “After that nothing. A few rumors. Idle word on the wind.” But not the last witnessing.

What happens to Suttree when he parts from Trippin Through The Dew?

He lifted a hand and went on. He had divested himself of the little cloaked godlet and his other amulets in a place where they would not be found in his lifetime and he’d taken for talisman the simple human heart within him. Walking down the little street for the last time he felt everything fall away from him. Until there was nothing left of him to shed. It was all gone.

I think here of the “uncanny token of a vanished race” Suttree finds—likely too that someone will ages hence take up Suttree’s amulets. And I think of Walt Whitman, who, in the last stanza of Song of Myself, describes his own falling away into nothing, into spirit:

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

Whitman bequeaths his spirit to us, advising us to look under our boot soles for such talismans as we may.

Suttree, in giving up his identity, his ego, makes good on his repentance and performs  Whimtan’s transcendental affirmation of life—a rejection of the suicide that opens the novel.

But Whitman’s death at the end of Song of Myself is purely symbolic, entirely metaphorical. The speaker of the poem gets up and walks on. Does Suttree, like, actually die? Is that his corpse in his bed? We’re told that the ambulance that comes to take the dead body away gets stuck in the mud; “After a while three tall colored boys in track shoes came along and pushed the ambulance out.” The ambulance driver tells them that a man died in the house and asks if they knew who lived there. This triumvirate lies and then the ambulance leaves. And then:

Shit, one said. Old Suttree aint dead.

Which I think is a perfectly good answer.

The last few paragraphs of the novel find Suttree in new clothes, leaving the construction wasteland of Knoxville. He meets a youth with a water bucket, whose “pale gold hair” appears “like new wheat.” Suttree “beheld himself in wells of smoking cobalt, twinned and dark and deep in child’s eyes, blue eyes with no bottoms like the sea.” The imagery here perhaps suggests a reconciliation of Suttree to his own lost twin, or his soul, which he is now in possession of’. The phrase “twinned and dark and deep” recalls Frost’s snowy woods, lovely dark and deep, a condensation of death-urge with the sublimity of nature. The bottomless sea from which a new Suttree may emerge “the first germ of life adrift on the earth’s cooling seas.”

And then—the last driver: “A car had stopped for Suttree, he’d not lifted a hand.” Because I could not etc. Move on.

The final images of the novel dwell on a huntsman. Or rather the huntsman. I think we know who this guy is. This is the last paragraph:

Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn and in the castellated press of the cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.

Fly them. There’s the command—or let’s call it a suggestion. But that’s what Suttree does—Suttree flies from the hounds, departs to new space, escaping the agents of evil. Like Huck Finn, he’s got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest. Consider the vitality there. Admire the spirit. And even if that is Suttree’s corpse back there in the bed, in the ambulance, in the muck, his spirit moves forward, flies the hell hounds. And his spirit remains too—remembered, witnessed to, both by the characters in the novel and, of course, the readers. McCarthy offers a vision of transcendental spirit here, an overcoming of the modern world’s abject deathliness. Shit. Old Suttree aint dead.

14 thoughts on “Does Suttree die? | A riff on Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree”

  1. He doesn’t literally die but he is somewhat reborn. This is, in some way, a simple point to make, but to quote from Scott Esposito’s excellent piece on the McCarthy canon at The Quarterly Conversation, at the end of the novel the titular protagonist emerges from his hallucinogenic fugue and “Suttree makes his one great choice to no longer stand apart from humanity.” Old Suttree has to die so New Suttree can move forward, progressing, like America, inexorably, a product of unstoppable inertia, just like Hawthorne and Fitzgerald (and Dickinson and Whitman et al) knew.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is fascinating. I think it might be one of your best riffs. I confess I never considered before now that Suttree dies at the end of the book. But the suggestion is certainly there, not to mention the textual evidence; moreover, I can definitely see McCarthy intending for it to be read that way. McCarthy, of course, is to blame for all of this. He presents such an exquisite smokescreen of language and allusion that only the close reader (like yourself) can make out his true purpose, while a casual reading of the book can hope at best to scratch the surface of that dense and obfuscate earth. But this is why he’s such a pleasure to read! I really want to read Suttree again now.

    There’s another reason why I’m so willing to reconsider the end of Suttree, especially as to who dies and who doesn’t, and it is because I was recently led to do the same thing for Blood Meridian. I never questioned who came out of those jakes. But now I think the judge does not, at least not in corporal form (and what a corpus it is). I think neither kid nor judge came out alive. They destroyed each other, as was foretold. Well, then who is it dancing and fiddling at the end? I think it is merely the spirit of the judge presiding over the evening’s festivities, while the grotesques grin hideously over their canted instruments. He says that he will never die, and the judge never will, but I’m convinced now that the body of Judge Holden from Texas lies in the mud at the bottom of those jakes, like the broken avatar of some fallen demi-god of war.

    Will we ever come to the end of McCarthy’s books?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Listening to Blood Meridian being read aloud would be great. I’ll have to try it myself. You said it was the audiobook read by Richard Poe. That guy and Michael Kramer must be impressive vocal performers. I don’t think I could get out some of those intricate McCarthy sentences with any fluency. *laughs*

        I’ve read Blood Meridian a dozen times, but something always changes with each re-reading of the text. I’m like you, I’ve always thought the kid gets raped and killed by the judge. But when I read the book again earlier this year and got to the end I felt the slightest twinge in the back of my mind that I’d been reading it wrong all this time. It might all be nonsense. I’d be interested to see what you reckon. Maybe Richard Poe’s voice will offer some revelation.

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      2. Yes, I think that’s right.

        Somewhere in the book the judge talks about the earth: “This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.”

        The judge is the world and of it, and this is his realm. He’s outraged that there’s parts he can’t get at.

        But the Kid is from somewhere else, or perhaps more accurately, belongs to someone else.

        In fact, I think up until the near end of the book he is protected by what the judge calls the “corner of clemency he reserved for the savages.” That corner keeps the kid innocent, and in his guiltlessness the savage country he travels through doesn’t really touch him at all.

        It is, after all, Adam’s pure state that makes Eden a paradise, and after the fall the world is just brothers killing each other.

        The fall in this case comes when the Kid kills the young boy with the rifle a little before the end of the book. At that point he kills something in himself — his innocence, I’d say. I don’t have the book in front of me, but when he kills the boy doesn’t he say something like “you wouldn’t have lasted anyway?” Who wouldn’t have lasted? The Kid? His mirror image? His twin? Who’s getting killed here?

        Anyhow, after he has surrendered that “corner of clemency” — the key to the whole book, I’d say — he is fair play for the Judge, who can have his way with the kid, at long last.

        After the fall sex, like everything else, takes place in the filth and the muck.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I was thinking about the end of Blood Meridian again today and I think the truth may be a combination of my original reading and the one I gave above. It is merely the shade of the judge (the devil) fiddling and dancing at the end, but only the kid is killed in those jakes.

    Fort Griffin. That entire final scene. The judge isn’t really there at all, or isn’t real in the physical sense. How could he be? It’s been 28 years. He looks exactly the same. He is sitting among, but apart from, all manner of people in the saloon who notice him not. He smiles as soon as the kid comes in as if he’s been waiting for him. I’ve always wondered what this exchange meant:

    You ain’t nothing.
    You speak truer than you know.

    Now I think I know. During that final conversation the judge asks at length why the kid is here, why he himself is here, at the end, when everyone else has gone under, has been relegated to the past. The shade of the judge, or shall I just say the devil, has one final soul to take.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] …speaking of Gass—well, I read his essay “Even If, by All the Oxen in the World” in conjunction with a reread of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which turned out to be most rewarding—both the rereading and the reading-in-conjunction. Reading Infinite Jest for the first time since 2001 ended up being a deflating, even depressing experience, but I wouldn’t trade it. I also reread against the second reading of Gravity’s Rainbow. Other rereading highlights included Pynchon, Ursula K. Le Guin, High Rise by J.G. Ballard, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (which I’ve reread every year since I first read it). But it was McCarthy’s Suttree that I got the most out of rereading this year. […]

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  5. I think Old Sutt is definitely dead at the end; that end section is altogether a fantasy of a man dying, and it is his spirit that hears the boys claim he is living even as his body is carried from the boat.

    Of course, that is the point of the entire novel: old Suttree has been dead for a long time. Or, more precisely, many times. He died a death when he left his family; when he buried his son; every day as the sun set on his existence as a river rat.

    But then he does die. Really die. A death of the body. In the hospital all feverish and alone and confused.

    But that isn’t the worst of it. The worst of it is that there is more after death. There is watching the boys watch your body carried from your boat swearing you ain’t dead.

    There is the huntsman and there are his hounds. And they hunt on. Across whatever landscape you traverse in life. Across wherever you seek to hitchhike to in death.

    There is no resting.

    There is no absolution.

    There is only running away and being hunted by one thing, or another.

    Fly them indeed.

    That is the point of the book.

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  6. In the long view, I am in favor of anything that inspires discussion of this novel, and know that it’s all in fun, but this seems to be one of those cases where literary criticism adopts too casually the machinations of conspiracy theories, when the most obvious explanation (that Suttree earns life affirmation through a near-death experience) is the right one.
    How did Sut’s dead body get from the hospital to the houseboat?

    The most essential aspect of the novel that I think people DO tend to miss is that it’s essentially McCarthy’s Portrait of the Artist. As quoted above: “(Suttree) knew another McAnally, good to last a thousand years. There’d be no new roads there.”
    This is Suttree deciding to write his story, to capture this particular place and time in prose. He has learned, clearly, that trying to stand apart from humanity is foolish, but his mode of engagement (ironically?), and of earning dignity, is to become a writer. “Another McAnally” is the book he has decided to write, making the reader a participant in the true ending of the story — you are holding the evidence of Suttree/McCarthy’s success in your hands. In this sense, the novel is even more postmodern, and autobiographical, than many realize.

    Am I rejecting one tenuously supported theory in favor of another? Yes! But it makes more practical sense, in my opinion, and is cleverer and more life-affirming than the theory that he’s dead at the end.

    PS:
    I alluded to Joyce. Henry Miller is also a clear influence, or inspiration, particularly in the less meaningful (for Suttree) sex scenes. It is very well put by Mr. Turner that the book is a “synthesis of American Literature,” but the Joyce influence, especially, is major.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. in my opinion the corpse in the boat is actually the indian’s, who knocked at the motel door while suttree was starting to hallucinate and too sick to get up. then the indian goes to the boat, finds it empty and lodges there. in a few days the cops come for suttree (because he’s thrown the police car in the river) and kill the indian in his sleep thinking he is suttree. so the indian pays for the white man. blood meridian is about to begin, ah?

    (sorry for my english, I’m italian)

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