Three Books

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Love and Death in the American Novel by Leslie A. Fiedler. First edition hardback published by Criterion in 1960. Cover design by Sidney Feinberg. I was dismayed when I first found Fiedler—he’d arrived at his thesis—and supported it with a big fat book—decades before me. I was hipped to this by a kindly professor in graduate school, who suggested I read and then credit Fiedler. I pulled this book out to help me in an American lit course I’m teaching this fall.

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Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. First edition trade paperback published by Vintage Contemporaries. Cover design by Lorraine Louie; cover photo illustration by Marc Tauss. I’ve already written about my love of Vintage Contemporaries covers, and finding this copy of Suttree a few years ago was glorious. I’ve been rereading the novel—auditing it, really, through a superb reading by Michael Kramer. I’ve had this edition out as I go. Suttree, by the way, fits nicely neatly perfectly into Fielder’s thesis about American lit.
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Grooks by Piet Hein. Cute little pocket-sized paperback. Second-edition published by the M.I.T. Press. Cover illustration is by Hein; I can’t find a credit for the designer. I found this in the bookstore the other day when I was looking for something else in the poetry section. Hein’s grooks can be clever, but also occasionally a bit too pithy, if that makes sense. Still.

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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?

Who?

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.

What?

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

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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.”
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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?

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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 in 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 muck, 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?

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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)

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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.

“Technologies of Heartbreak” — Josephine Demme

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Illustration for a syllabus by Ben Marcus. (via)

Literary Recipes

Fat Kitchen, Jan Steen

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Enjoy Thanksgiving with our menu of literary recipes:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

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

Review: Tim O’Brien’s Novel The Things They Carried, Read by Bryan Cranston

thingsI’ve used Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” in the classroom for so many years now that I’ve perhaps become immune to any of the tale’s rhetorical force.Trekking through the story again with a new group of students can occasionally turn up new insights—mostly these days from veterans going back to school after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan—but for the most part, the story “The Things They Carried” is too blunt in its symbols, too programmatic in its oppositions of the physical and metaphysical, too rigid in its maturation plot. There’s no mystery to it, unlike other oft-anthologized stories which can withstand scores of rereadings (I think of Hawthorne or O’Connor here; when I reread “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, I always understand it or misunderstand it in a new, different way).

But my students invariably love “The Things They Carried,” and I love reading it with them.

Despite reading the story “The Things They Carried” semester after semester, I hadn’t gone back to the novel The Things They Carried in years, until the kind people at Audible sent me a new audiobook version read by character actor Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the MiddleSeinfeld). I enjoyed the audiobook over a week of commutes.

The Things They Carried is a loose collection of stories that centers on a character named Tim O’Brien and his time with Alpha Company during the Vietnam War. The book also focuses on O’Brien’s experiences, as well as the experiences of some of his fellow soldiers, before and after Vietnam. O’Brien ties the book around a few major stories, fleshing it out with fragments, and telling tales from different viewpoints and even different chronologies. If a character dies in one story, he’s welcome to show up in a later story or vignette. That’s how memory works. And when memory fails, there are stories:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

O’Brien’s major concern in The Things They Carried isn’t just the experiences of regular soldiers in the Vietnam War. He’s also deeply concerned with how to frame, recall, tell, and retell those experiences. In this sense, the formal aspects of the novel—its fragmentary, decentered structure—carry out its themes. The result is a strange beast, a novel that is simultaneously postmodern metafiction and dirty realism. Almost every single story in The Things They Carried attempts to suss out its own telling; indeed, how to tell, how to witness to (horror, violence, war) is probably the book’s real aim. Nowhere is this more evident than in “How to Tell a True Story”:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The notation of a “rule of thumb” there is a dark little sick joke, a thread that O’Brien picks up from the opening title story. Moments like these, little threads, little images, help the work to cohere as a novel, even as O’Brien does his damnedest to fracture the whole business. His hand-wringing about truth and fiction and reality begins to wear on the reader. It’s not that O’Brien isn’t right to be concerned about these issues, but The Things They Carried spends a bit too much time dithering over its own right to imagine a truth.

O’Brien is better at the dirty realism, I think, which we can see in the brutal vivid details in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a story about a guy who brings his teenage girlfriend to Vietnam. “Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that,” O’Brien writes at the beginning, “but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane.” In “Sweetheart,” O’Brien toes that line to great effect. The story culminates in imagery that seems borrowed from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’m tempted to share the story’s strongest image but won’t. No spoilers.

“Sweetheart” is less concerned with the frames and edges of its own telling than some of the other stories in The Things They Carried, but O’Brien still highlights the essential problem of witnessing:

“Patience, man. Up to now, everything I told you is from personal experience, the exact truth, but there’s a few other things I heard secondhand. Thirdhand, actually. From here on it gets to be … I don’t know what the word is.”

“Speculation.”

I think it helped me to hear The Things They Carried in a different voice, a different tone or mode or mood than my own. Bryan Cranston does a wonderful job here. I’ve written before about how a good reader makes all the difference in an audiobook. Cranston, surely most famous for his iconic performance as hapless father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, telegraphs O’Brien’s tales in a straightforward but sonorous voice, injecting pathos and wry humor at the appropriate moments. Cranston inhabits each voice in The Things They Carried, imbuing every character with his own tone and rhythm. The result is a compelling and moving interpretation of The Things They Carried. Cranston opens up what I had thought to be a more-or-less closed book.

This new audiobook features a bonus essay called “The Vietnam in Me” which recounts O’Brien’s 1994 return to Vietnam with his young girlfriend. The essay reads as a condensation, repetition, and extension of the book that precedes it, with O’Brien repeatedly admitting as much—reminding us again and again of the relationship between memory and story. O’Brien reads the essay himself in a reedy, often shaky voice. The recording quality seems to depart from the clean studio perfection of the book proper—there’s more hiss, more crackly, longer gaps. More dirty realism. Strangely, O’Brien’s quaver suggests a man less in control of the story than alter-ego Cranston’s confidence suggested. The divergence in the two readers underscores the book’s core theme, reminding us that it’s not just the story that matters, but the storyteller

You can see/hear Cranston read bits of the book in this video:

Teaser Trailer for James Franco’s Film Adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Novel Child of God

So James Franco has taken a stab at Faulkner and one of Faulkner’s literary descendants, Cormac McCarthy—in the same year no less. Franco has adapted McCarthy’s 1973 novel Child of God; the film will play this weekend at the Toronto Film Festival.

Here is my review of McCarthy’s novel Child of God.

Suttree, Cormac McCarthy’s Grand Synthesis of American Literature

In his 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” McCarthy’s fourth novel, 1979’s Suttree is such a book, a masterful synthesis of the great literature — particularly American literature — that came before it. And like any masterful synthesis, Suttree points to something new, even as it borrows, lifts, and outright steals from the past. But before we plumb its allusions and tropes and patterns, perhaps we should overview the plot, no?

The novel rambles over several years in the life of Cornelius Suttree. It is the early 1950s in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Suttree ekes out a mean existence on the Tennessee River as a fisherman, living in a ramshackle houseboat on the edge of a shantytown. This indigent life is in fact a choice: Suttree is the college-educated son of an established, wealthy family. His choice is a choice for freedom and self-reliance, those virtues we like to think of, in our prejudicial manner, as wholly and intrinsically American. Suttree then is both Emersonian and Huck Finnian, a reflective and insightful man who finds his soul via a claim to agency over his own individuality, an individuality poised in quiet, defiant rebellion against the conforming forces of civilization. These forces manifest most pointedly in the Knoxville police, a brutal, racist organization, but we also see social constraint in the form of familial duty. One thinks of the final lines of Huckleberry Finn: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Like Huck, Suttree aims to resist all forces that would “sivilize” him. His time on the river and in the low haunts of Tennessee (particularly the vice-ridden borough of McAnally) brings him into close contact with plenty of other outcasts, but also his conscience, which routinely mulls over its place in the world. Suttree is punctuated by–perhaps even organized by–several scenes of hallucination. Some of these psychotrips result from drunkeness, one comes from accidentally ingesting the wrong kind of mushrooms (or, the right kind, if that’s your thing), and the final one, late in the novel, sets in as Suttree suffers from a terrible illness. In his fever dream, a small nun–surely a manifestation of the guilt that would civilize us–accuses him–

Mr. Suttree it is our understanding that at curfew rightly decreed by law in that hour wherein night draws to its proper close and the new day commences and contrary to conduct befitting a person of your station you betook yourself to various low places within the shire of McAnally and there did squander several ensuing years in the company of thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsmocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.

The passage is a marvelous example of McCarthy’s stream-of-consciousness technique in Suttree, moving through the various voices that would ventriloquize Suttree, into the edges of madness, strangeness, and the sublimity of language. The tone moves from somber and portentous into bizarre imagery that blends humor and pathos. This is the tone of Suttree, a language that gives voice to transients and miscreants, affirming the dignity of their humanity even as it details the squalor of their circumstance.

It is among these criminals and whores, transvestites and gamblers that Suttree affirms his own freedom and humanity, a process aided by his comic foil, Gene Harrogate. Suttree meets Harrogate on a work farm; the young hillbilly is sent there for screwing watermelons. After his release, Harrogate moves to a shantytown in Knoxville. He’s the country mouse determined to become the city rat, the would-be Tom Sawyer to Suttree’s older and wiser Huck Finn. Through Harrogate’s endless get-rich-quick schemes, McCarthy parodies that most-American of tales, the Horatio Alger story. Simply put, the boy is doomed, on his  “way up to the penitentiary” as Suttree constantly admonishes. In one episode, Harrogate tries to buy arsenic from “a grayhaired and avuncular apothecary” to poison bats he hopes to sell to a hospital (don’t ask)–

May I help you? said the scientist, his hands holding each other.

I need me some strychnine, said Harrogate.

You need some what?

Strychnine. You know what it is dont ye?

Yes, said the chemist.

I need me about a good cupful I reckon.

Are you going to drink it here or take it with you?

Shit fire I aint goin to drink it. It’s poisoner’n hell.

It’s for your grandmother.

No, said Harrogate, craning his neck suspectly. She’s done dead

Suttree, unwilling father-figure, eventually buys the arsenic for the boy against his better judgment. The scene plays out as a wonderful comic inversion of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” from which it is so transparently lifted. McCarthy borrows liberally from Faulkner here, of course, most notably in the language and style of the novel, but also in scenes like this one, or a later episode that plays off Faulkner’s comic-romantic story of a man and a woman navigating the aftermath of a flood, “Old Man.” Unpacking the allusions in Suttree surpasses my literary knowledge or skill, but McCarthy is generous, if oblique, with his breadcrumb trail. Take, for example, the following sentence: “Suttree with his miles to go kept his eyes to the ground, maudlin and muttersome in the bitter chill, under the lonely lamplight.” The forced phrase “miles to go” does not immediately present itself as a reference to Robert Frost’s famous poem, yet the direction of the sentence retreats into the history of American poetry; with its dense alliteration and haunted vowels, it leads us into Edgar Allan Poe territory. Only a few dozen pages later, McCarthy boldly begins a chapter with theft: “In just spring the goatman came over the bridge . . .” The reference to e.e. cummings explicitly signifies McCarthy’s intentions to play with literature. Later in the book, while tripping on mushrooms in the mountains, Suttree is haunted by “elves,” the would-be culprits in Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” The callback is purposeful, but tellingly, McCarthy’s allusions are not nearly as fanciful as their surface rhetoric might suggest: the goatman does not belong in Knoxville–he’s an archaic relic, forced out of town by the police; the elves are not playful spirits but dark manifestations of a tortured psyche.

Once one spots the line-lifting in Suttree it’s hard to not see it. What’s marvelous is McCarthy’s power to convert these lines, these riffs, these stories, into his own tragicomic beast. An early brawl at a roadhouse recalls the “Golden Day” episode of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; a rape victim’s plight echoes Hubert Selby’s “Tralala”; we find the comic hobos of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row–we even get the road-crossing turtle from The Grapes of Wrath. A later roadhouse chapter replays the “Circe/Nighttown” nightmare in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ulysses is an easy point of comparison for Suttree, which does for Knoxville what Joyce did for Dublin. Suttree echoes Ulysses’s language, both in its musicality and appropriation of varied voices, as well as its ambulatory structure, its stream-of-consciousness technique, its rude earthiness, and its size (nearly 600 pages). But, as I argued earlier, there’s something uniquely American about Suttree, and its literary appropriations tend to reflect that. Hence, 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).

Making a laundry list of writers is weak criticism though, and these sources–all guilty of their own proud plagiarisms–are mentioned only as a means to an end, to an argument that what McCarthy does in Suttree is to synthesize the American literary tradition with grace and humor, while never glossing over its inherent dangers and violence. So, while it appropriates and plays with the tropes of the past, Suttree is still pure McCarthy. Consider the following passage, which arrives at the end of a drunken, awful spree, Suttree locked up for the night–

He closed his eyes. The gray water that dripped from him was rank with caustic. By the side of a dark dream road he’d seen a hawk nailed to a barn door. But what loomed was a flayed man with his brisket tacked open like a cooling beef and his skull peeled, blue and bulbous and palely luminescent, black grots his eyeholes and bloody mouth gaped tonguless. The traveler had seized his fingers in his jaws, but it was not alone this horror that he cried. Beyond the flayed man dimly adumbrate another figure paled, for his surgeons move about the world even as you and I.

Suttree’s dark vision points directly toward the language of McCarthy’s next novel, 1985’s Blood Meridian, roundly considered his masterpiece. Critics who disagree tend to point to Suttree as the pinnacle of McCarthy’s writing. I have no interest at this time in weighing the books against each other, nor do I think that doing so would be especially enlightening. For all of their sameness, they are very different animals: Suttree provides us intense access to its hero’s consciousness, where Blood Meridian always keeps the reader on the outside of its principals’ souls (if those grotesques could be said to have souls). And while Blood Meridian does display some humor, it is the blackest and driest humor I’ve ever read. Suttree is broader and more compassionate; it even has a fart joke. Blood Meridian, at least in my estimation (and many critics will contend this notion) has no flawed episodes; much of this results from the book’s own internal program–it resists love, compassion, and even human dignity. In contrast, Suttree is punctuated by two deaths the audience is meant to read as tragic, yet I found it impossible to do so. The first is the death of Suttree’s child, whom he has abandoned, along with its mother. As such, he is not permitted to take part in the funeral, observing the process rather from its edges. The second tragedy is the death of Suttree’s young lover in a landslide. The book begs us to empathize with Suttree, just as he often empathizes with the marginal figures in the novel, but ultimately these tragedies are a failed ploy. They underwrite a sublime encounter with death for Suttree, an encounter that deepens and enriches his character while paradoxically freeing him from the burdens of social duty and familial order. McCarthy is hardly alone in such a move; indeed, it seems like the signature trope of American masculine literature to me. It’s the move that Huck Finn wishes to make when he promises to light out for the Territory to escape the civilizing body of Aunt Sally; it’s the ending that Hemingway was compelled to give to Frederic Henry at the end of A Farewell to Arms; it’s all of Faulkner, with his mortification of fatherhood and the dramatic responsibility fatherhood entails. It is a cost analysis that neglects any potential benefits.

But these are small criticisms of a large, beautiful, benevolent novel, a book that begs to be reread, a rambling picaresque of comic and tragic proportions. “I learned that there is one Suttree and one Suttree only,” our hero realizes, but this epiphany is set against a larger claim. Near the end of the novel, Suttree goes to check on an old ragman who he keeps a watchful eye on. He finds the man dead, his shack robbed, his body looted. Despairing over the spectacle’s abject lack of humanity, Suttree cries, “You have no right to represent people this way,” for “A man is all men. You have no right to your wretchedness.” Here, Suttree’s painful epiphany is real and true, an Emersonian insight coded in the darkest of Whitman’s language. If there is one Suttree and one Suttree only, he is still beholden to all men; to be anti-social or an outcast is not to be anti-human. Self-hood is ultimately conditional on others and otherness. To experience the other’s wretchedness is harrowing; to understand the other’s wretchedness and thus convert it to dignity is life-affirming and glorious. Suttree is a brilliant, bold, marvelous book. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published a version of this review on November 27, 2010].