The river which courses through this novel about life in Knoxville, Tenn., during the early 1950s is thoroughly uninviting. It is clogged with "gouts of sewage," with "gray clots of nameless waste." The fisherman's bobbers "lay quietly in the scum. Ringent pools of gas kept erupting in oily eyes on the surface." These are "leprous waters," far from the "upland pastoral."
On its banks dwell the "legions of the maimed and mute and crooked."
It is a homologue of hell itself, a realm of the dead and dying. And through it moves Suttree, descended from a reputable family, equipped with a university education. He dwells in a squalid houseboat on the river. He drinks passively with the violent. He visits his derelict friends who have set up makeshift shacks under the bridge's arches. With him, we breathe the fetid air and walk amidst the filth.
Cormac McCarthy, author of three earlier novels, has, through a verbal virtuosity that runs to bloated excess -- like some of the rotting corpses he describes -- left nothing innocent in this river hell. Like some latter-day Virgil with an unabridged dictionary -- in but a few pages we have words like "littoral," "gambreled," "incruent," and "davited" -- he guides us with his images through the nether-world. Singing throats are "veined like the welted flanks of horses"; a derelict's face "hung in sagging wattles"; drunks lie in beds in "painless crucifixion." And Suttree himself is a fisherman in "the terrestial hell," who, upon the scummy river surface looks like "some latter-day Charon" upon a latter-day Styx "He might have been a fisher of men in another time," he thinks. But now, one of his first sights of the novel is of the literal fishers of men lifting a dead man out of the river.
Suttree's adventures, then, are weighted with significance. He moves in a world so violent it nearly becomes comes a parody of our darkest ends.
The recurrent horror is muted only by the brackest of humors, jests on the imagery of hell. Harrogate, an 18-year-old, descends into the "under-world" of caves beneath Knoxville, accidentally dynamites a sewage pipe and nearly drowns. He is brought up by Suttree, who similarly helped rescue a hound that was buried in a huge "slopdrum" on a hog farm.
But these assaults on the power of death change little in this "terrestial hell": sunken dead bodies are resurrected to the surface, still dead. Characters move from one horror only to find another. The novel, even in its humor, does not seem to fulfill its allegorical promises. And though Suttree left his family and the surrounding industrial world for this hell, and leaves Knoxville when that outer world begins to expand upon it, the links between the two worlds are unclear. These hells have no distinctions, no circles of evil: There is uniform unmitigated horror, universally encroaching death. One tires of this, as do the characters. Sentiments about God -- like the ragman's: "I just never did like him" -- just don't have the force they once had.
It is a measure then, of McCarthy's skills that the reader becomes engaged with those of that world, even intoxicated by the miasmatic language. For every image that is tiresomely weighty, there is one which illuminates dark crevices. For every horror, there is a sensitive observation. For every violent dislocation, there is a subtly touching dialogue or gesture. And the resultant picture of Knoxville's "encampment of the damned" is often so authentic that one begins to wonder where McCarthy himself has spent time between novels. These skills at least partly counteract the loose construction, the aimless wanderings, the sufferings of victims, the irony, the violence, that have become familiar in the modern novel. After all, if we are going to live in the kingdom of the damned, we had best develop an affection for it.