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.
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?
What do you believe?
I believe that the last and the first suffer equally. Pari passu.
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?
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.