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Knoxville gave Cormac McCarthy the raw material of his art. And he gave it back.

by Mike Gibson

Summer dusk had crept long and blue and shadows risen high upon the western building faces when he came up Gay Street. He went along the shopfronts like a misplaced poacher, his eyes squirreling about and his broken clown's sneakers flapping. At Lockett's he paused to admire dusty charlatan's props in the window, small boxes of sneeze powder, cigars laced with cordite, a stamped tin inkstain... Harrogate filled with admiration at such things. He stepped slightly back to note the merchant's name and then went on. Passing under the Comer's Sports Center sign, a steep stairwell and the muted clack of balls overhead. There it is, he said. Bigger'n life.

—from Suttree

The trick shop is gone now, its charlatan's props and trinkets and frivolous parlor games long removed, half-witted relics given over to vulgar oblivion. So too are the pool halls, their beer-varnished countertops and oaken floors and rag-topped pool tables absent, replaced now by a prosaic sprawl of yellow weeds and crab-grass at the corner of Church Avenue and Gay Street. The yellow-green sprinkling of slight foliage, withered, huddles noontime in the muscular shadow of the decidedly modern Centre Square building and its bronze frontispiece, the statue of a lone oarsmen laboring desperately to right his scuttled craft.

There's a rumor, unconfirmed, that the boatpilot is meant to be Cornelius Suttree, the disinherited blue-blood roustabout who is the hero of the forenamed book.

And gone is the man who would be Gene Harrogate—John Sheddan, scholar, schemer, hustler, melon paramour. He died in recent years, at age 62, purchased by the ravages of his own excess. Gone are the Roxy Theatre and the Gold Sun Cafe and the motley vendors who every weekend peopled Market Square, ghosts of mid-century Knoxville held forever in the attitudes of the living in the pages of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree.

Maybe you've heard of McCarthy. Author of the best-selling All the Pretty Horses, he only this year saw his sixth novel animated on the big screen. The movie itself is akin to any number of other modern celluloid renderings, afflicted with the suffocating bloat attendant to any project albatrossed by the weight of big stars, big directors, and even bigger budgets.

But the modern literary classic that is the movie's source material distinguishes the film from others of its sensational ilk, other big-screen book adaptations that draw from the colossally mundane oeuvres of Crichton, Grisham, and the like. Simply put, McCarthy's book is a testament to both the savage beauty of the American Southwest and to the raw power of language, especially as commanded by the author.

Now living in El Paso, Texas, McCarthy has finally realized the sort of acclaim which those ensconced in the insular confines of literary circles have always known he deserved. The so-called Border Trilogy of Tex-Mex novels made up of Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain has marked him as perhaps the most accomplished practitioner ever to work in the often disposable, pulp-ish genre of the American Western.

But that popular understanding of McCarthy's work is woefully incomplete. Born in Rhode Island, Charles McCarthy, Jr. moved with his parents to Knoxville when he was yet a small child. It was here that he would spend the greater part of his (now) 67 years; four of his eight novels—including Suttree—are either based in, or draw inspiration from, the profligate carnival of vivid flora, fauna, and rawboned countryfolk that comprises East Tennessee.

Rife with elements of morbidity, violence, squalor and the frailty of human virtue, these works identified McCarthy unequivocally as a child of Faulkner and O'Connor, a Southern Writer in the phrase's every sense. Yet even hereabouts, little was known about the man who (apologies to James Agee) had arguably penned our city's definitive tome.

McCarthy's anonymity was by design, however, not unkind happenstance. The elusive genius has been diligent, even savage in the protection of his private affairs ever since the publishing of his first novel, The Orchard Keeper, in 1965. As the demands for his audience grew, the man whom the New York Times once branded a "gregarious recluse" grew only more guarded, a fugitive from his own acclaim. Many of his family members and close associates are trained to spurn reporters and other leprous information seekers; McCarthy's brother, a Knoxville lawyer, would not pass along an interview request out of respect for his sibling's privacy.

But apparitional traces of both McCarthy and his city do linger, taking more palpable form in the minds of his childhood friends and passing acquaintances and lost (or maybe abandoned) loves; in the words of those who knew him in other, simpler times. And also in the dense particulars of his books, which at times draw hand-to-mouth from very real places and events.

Those stories are worth hearing, those details worth accounting not only for the illumination they cast on this almost spectral literary giant, but also for the sometimes glaring light they shed on Knoxville and East Tennessee, for their unflinching perspective on a region worthy of both love and abhorrence—perhaps all at once.

McCarthy's early years manifested no portents of the terrors invested in that scene from The Orchard Keeper, when the elderly caretaker Ather Ownby discovers Kenneth Rattner's mired corpse. Taken at its face, his childhood was idyllic; but some friends suggest Charles McCarthy, Jr.'s restless internal muse was never calibrated to the measures of ordinary life.

The home the McCarthy family took as its own in the Vestal community off Martin Mill Pike in 1937 still stands today, though probably far the worse for wear. The elegant old frame house, now wind-swept and beaten, was doubtless warmer, cleaner, more inviting then, its venerable face and its seven gables sheltering Charles and Gladys McCarthy and their six children. The home is scarcely visible from the road now, its yard impenetrable with a thicket of kudzu and loose brush and cane.

"We were considered rich because all the people around us were living in one- or two-room shacks," he told journalist Richard Woodward, in one of his infrequent interviews. McCarthy and his siblings were raised Catholic, attending parochial schools and spending their free time in such quintessentially Southern pursuits as fishing and frogging and backwoods exploration.

In a previous interview, the lovely English dancer who became McCarthy's second wife, Annie DeLisle, recalled that her ex-husband told of sleeping alongside his younger brothers on a mattress the three would drag into the yard during warmer months.

But perhaps young "Charlie" McCarthy was in many ways not reconciled to his milieu. He would eventually take the sobriquet "Cormac," after the first King of Ireland—some say to differentiate himself from his father, with whom he often crossed swords. He reportedly hated Catholic schools. In a New York Times Magazine interview, he told Woodward, "I felt early on I wasn't going to be a respectable citizen."

In his early teens, McCarthy aligned himself with three similarly predisposed youngsters: Hugh Winkler, Jerry Reed, and Jerry Anderson, Catholic High School outcasts united by their social standing as well as their love of the outdoors.

Winkler is now deceased, and Reed moved years ago to the Northeast. But Anderson, a beefy, broadly smiling fellow in his early 70s, still lives in Knoxville not far from his old Vestal home. Enjoying the bowl of soup that constitutes his usual fare at West Knoxville's Rafferty's, he tells that much of The Orchard Keeper's foundation—its setting, its natural details, the secondary characters and foibles that provide the backdrop for the novel's larger storyline—were lifted almost wholesale from the foursome's associations and sundry misadventures.

"We spent an awful lot of time running around Brown's Mountain," Anderson remembers, referring to the Vestal foothill renamed Red Mountain in the book. "And there was an old orchard up there, all red brick dust; a dirt road where we all hunted and fished around. When I read his descriptions of it today, I'm always amazed at his eye for detail. He didn't just see a dirt road; he saw the lizard paths that crossed it and the lichens that grew on the nearby rocks."

Anderson says that on one occasion, the boys were roaming a thicket of honeysuckle when they spotted a green-striped frog, a turtle, and a pit four feet deep and bottomed with green slime. The pit had been excavated so as to allow the orchard's caretakers a natural vat for mixing insecticides. It found its way into the book as the site where keeper Ownby discovers the wasting corpse of Rattner, buried to the cheekbone.

All three of McCarthy's cohorts are present in the book: Winkler as John Wesley, youngest of the three protagonists, Reed as a man named Warn, and Anderson himself in the person of several secondary characters. Many of the novel's Twain-ish sidelights—such as an instance where a boy named Johnny Romines sieges an unsuspecting gaggle of birds with an old transformer—were lifted from the real-life trials of the Vestal four. (Anderson admits, rather sheepishly, that it was he who pulled the transformer stunt.)

What Anderson can't figure is whence came "Charlie's" prurient interests in the harsher and randier episodes evidenced in the Keeper's pages.

He had one more question:

Standing up?

Naw, well...she sort of sat down and leant back and I...she...But that was beyond his powers of description, let alone Sylder's imagination

You mean to say you—Sylder paused for a moment trying to get the facts in summary—you screwed her in a nigger shithouse sittin on the...

Well Goddamnit at least I never took her in a Goddamn church, June broke in.

That bawdy passage caused Anderson, then a pastor at a Methodist church in Cleveland, Tenn., some embarassment; when he brayed to his flock of a new novel authored by a boyhood chum—not having read the book himself—some members of the congregation sought and read the tome and wrongly assumed that that incident was modeled on the amiable reverend's own experience. "When I finally read it," says Anderson, "my hair stood on end. I'm sure he had a dark side, but I didn't see it when we were growing up."

He remembers instead a youngster precocious, articulate, possessed of a contagious laugh, and yet spiritually disconnected even from his outcast friends. "He was smarter than all of us," he chuckles. "He could out-talk any of us; he could always hold his ground."

Anderson finishes his soup, opens his yellowed first edition copy of The Orchard Keeper and stabs with his sturdy fore-digit at a particular passage, a brief, silent monologue in the mind of Ather Ownby.

"If I was a younger man...I would move to them mountains. I would find me a clearwater branch and build me a log house with a fireplace...And I wouldn't care for no man."

"That," exclaims the jovial Anderson, closing the volume with some finality. "That was Charlie."

Fate looked at him and then hollered at me, said: John, come here and see this. I went on up there and the old boy is standin by the side of the car lookin down and the sheriff is lookin down, got the light on him. We're all standin there lookin down at this old boy and he's got his britches on inside out. Pockets hangin outside all around. Looked crazier'n hell.

—from Child of God

Gary Goodman remembers that incident—and he does so with precious little shame, as he'll be happy to reiterate. It really happened, to him, more than 30 years ago when he was living and working as a salesman in Asheville, N.C.

"Every now and then we gave a day over to prospecting for pussy; if we made a sale, it was a bonus," roars Goodman, a curmudgeonly old lion, grey-maned and solitary, who lives in a scattered household near the Karns community on Andes Road. A long-time friend and good-natured rival, Goodman appeared several years ago in a movie, "The Gardener's Son," which McCarthy scripted for public television. (McCarthy is said to have once visited his friend's musty, beercan-strewn home, and, having basked for an hour in its sootstained ambiance, remarked that he "felt like a smoked ham.")

On the day in question, Goodman's excavation yielded gold, when a pretty young hostess at a mountain country club agreed to go driving with him. "We went up a one-lane road and drank a brewski and climbed into the back seat," remembers Goodman. "One thing led to another..."

When the lights of a car piloted by a member of the local constabulary began making their inexorable way up the mountain's lone artery, Goodman panicked, shot two legs back into his trousers and leapt from the car.

"I looked down and there in the light of the flash was white pockets hanging out of black pants, inside out," says Goodman. "The cops just laughed and let me go."

Goodman estimates his own foibles have been recounted perhaps a dozen times in the pages of McCarthy books—although he's often less than complimentary in his appraisal of his old friend's adaptations. "I tell him, 'There's no pathos in your books, no sadness, no love!'" Goodman bawls, in a jagged detonation of verbiage. "Incest, murder, necrophilia, and rape. I'm not interested in these things. There's enough of it all around us without having to read about it."

McCarthy graduated from Catholic High in 1951; he entered the University of Tennessee as a liberal arts major, dropped out, entered the Air Force, then resumed in 1957 the studies he would never complete. It was during this period, however, that he began writing The Orchard Keeper, and that he forged the experience, cultivated the associations that would fuel later works.

"I don't know why I started writing," he would later tell another interviewer. "I don't know why anybody does it. Maybe they're bored, or failures at something else."

In college, he launched friendships with kindred spirits such as Goodman and Bill Kidwell, now a semi-retired contractor, as well as a deviant cast of oddballs and ruffians—John Sheddan and Jim Long and Red Callahan—who now dwell for all time in the vigorously rendered pages of Suttree and Child of God.

McCarthy's second novel, Outer Dark, draws least from his personal associations, but perhaps most, when set against its fellows, from his almost spiritual connection to the natural world. The setting is a woodland dreamscape, a darkly pastoral otherworld wherein a brother and sister bear a child, incestuously, and abandon it in the wood. As if fated to some inexorable mandate, both siblings come to wander the densely foliaged terrain in search of the infant, pursued by a trio of wraithish horsemen.

Though unspecified, the place is unmistakably redolent of Appalachia, of East Tennessee. It speaks to McCarthy's immersion in Southern Appalachian culture, to his unparalleled cataloging of physical and natural details.

"Charlie really loved the land, had a real appreciation of nature itself," says Anderson. "In all of his stories, the land comes through beautifully and graphically; he had an uncanny way of putting those things into words in such rich detail."

The book, published in 1968, was the transitional link in a personal evolution, of sorts, demarcating the point where McCarthy would begin chronicling the experiences of his young adulthood. His was a restless spirit, and he often shifted locales, from Knoxville to Asheville to Europe to Waldens Creek outside Pigeon Forge. It was on his European sojourn, financed by an American Arts and Letters travel award for The Orchard Keeper, that he met Annie DeLisle, who in 1967 would become his second wife. (His first union, to Lee Holleman years earlier, produced a son, Cullen McCarthy.)

DeLisle, pert and red-headed, was a former USO performer, and her infatuation with the young writer, a gentlemanly rogue with sculpted features and dark hair, was immediate and reciprocal. Upon marrying McCarthy, she moved back to Knoxville with him and saw firsthand much of the spiritual fodder and human clay he would reshape into the aspect of his third and fourth books. She still harbors an abiding fondness for her former husband, despite the sundering of their union in 1981.

Now living in Palm Beach, Fla., she remembers visiting Waldens Creek, where McCarthy had lived for a time in a clapboard shack, and meeting a rugged cast of woodsmen and moonshiners and rocker-bound Sevier County old-timers, and drinking clear mountain whiskey from a mayonnaise jar, its rim still haloed by creamy white paste.

"'She's a right purty little thing, but she don't speak much Anglish, do she?'" DeLisle giggles, affecting a remarkably authentic Appalachian cluck in spite of her naturally melodious Brit-speak. "I dressed up in my prim little skirts to go meet these old moonshiners. But Cormac taught me these people were the real salt of the earth, the real people of Tennessee. 'Do anything fer ya' if they like ya', and anything to ya' if they don't.'"

Such experiences were the backbone of Child of God, the grim—yet latently affecting—story of Lester Ballard, a Waldens Creek outcast (circa 1965) who loses his farm, his dignity, and finally, his sanity. Ballard evolves into a necrophiliac, a stone killer whose twisted character is intermittently illuminated by flashes of humanity, a feral miscreant who somehow evokes pity as well as revulsion.

The book is rife with details indicative of McCarthy's life in the area and his fluency with its ways and wares. It recalls the whelming '60s-era flood that beset Sevierville, leaving merchants to traverse downtown streets in boats; in Ballard's character, it recalls the early settling of the Waldens Creek area by a real-life Ballard clan; it captures the raw essence of the area's uniquely guttural dialect, and catalogs the minutiae of sundry mountaincraft.

With an almost bilious chagrin, Goodman recalls an instance in Child when Ballard, axe in hand, walks five miles to have his tool sharpened by a smith, who then laboriously explains the process by which he applies metal to grindstone.

"It don't take much to sharpen a damned axe," Goodman snorts. Much like McCarthy's own writing, his speech is a strangely musical admixture of deliberate precision and loosely issued colloquialisms.

"He walked five miles to sharpen a damned axe because Cormac wanted to show that he knew how to sharpen an axe," Goodman gnashes. He adds vehemently, then pauses: "It's makes me want to go inside right now and pour a drink that would blow the shoes off of Rasputin..."

He passed under the shade of the markethouse where brick the color of dried blood rose turreted and cupolaed and crazed into the heat of the day form on form in demented accretion without precedent or counterpart in the annals of architecture...Huge fans wheeled slowly in the upper murk and marketers shouldered past with baskets, eyes stunned by the plenty through which they moved, shy women in wrappers of gingham print with the armpits eaten out and trailing small streaked children in tennis shoes...Suttree wandering among the stalls where little grandmothers offered flowers or berries or eggs...

—from Suttree

McCarthy's (and, by extension, Suttree's) Market Square is a kaleidoscopic and madly vibrant spectacle. As are the other earthy and squalorous downtown settings of his fourth novel. As are the alternately murderous and pitiful hobo princes who are the most important characters, other than Suttree himself, in the book.

His accuracy in depicting mid-20th century Knoxville is almost uncanny, and even today old friends like Bill Kidwell can still guide the curious to the locations—most of them tectonically altered or structurally excavated, a precious few of them still intact—where many of the protagonist's seedy misadventures took place: the Corner Lounge on Central Ave., its front window shattered and replaced with plywood ("a beautiful place," Kidwell deadpans), a haunt where Suttree drinks on two occasions in the novel; the Old General Hospital on Wray Avenue (now Serene Manor Medical Center), the site of Suttree's convalescence early in the book; and the rough-neck McInally Flats community that borders Mechanicsville along Middlebrook Pike beneath Interstate 275.

Some of that neighborhood still bears the unseemly remains of its former guise, old shotgun houses scattered about Wray, clapboard and used brick hovels, bent and misshapen, leaning, sullied with piles of wood and brush and scrap aluminum, spent metal hulks.

"My God, I hated going through here when I was a kid," Kidwell sighs, driving through the relatively placid community on a wind-burned Saturday afternoon. With a thick and wavy ream of silvery locks, Kidwell today is at once a man of dignified carriage and approachable demeanor, his face lined and softened in much the same fashion of a particularly well-worn house shoe.

"Ducking in alleys to avoid getting my ass whupped, rocks whizzing by my head," he continues. "Can't say as I miss it one bit."

He draws upon a section of McInally, once a trough of tawdry clubs and gin-houses, now overlaid with warehouses and truck beds and industrial fixtures. One of the spots Kidwell points to formerly hosted the all-black nightclub where Suttree fell brutally drunk and doused with urine before lurching to find the relative safe haven of a nearby cemetery.

But more precise yet than his place descriptions are McCarthy's character renderings, persons such as Jim Long ("J-Bone"), whose actual name, Fort Sanders address, workplace, and phone number are printed in the novel. And Gene Harrogate, Suttree's ne'er-do-well tag-along, who most associates state unequivocally was drawn directly from the real-life John Sheddan. In what is quite possibly the book's most memorable sequence, a farmer catches Harrogate in flagrante delicto, in an unholy sexual congress with a non-consenting melon patch.

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 didn't believe it. But yonder they lay.

What you aim to do?

Hell, I don't know. It's about too late to do anything. He's damn near screwed the whole patch. I dont see what he couldnt of stuck to just one. Or a few.

"I recognized him [as Sheddan] straight off in Suttree," Goodman grumbles. "I don't think there's anyone in the know who doesn't. I've heard the watermelon incident was true; I have no knowledge.

"He [McCarthy] primarily inhabited his books with riff-raff...horrible fucking people, in or out of a novel." (Goodman awards special recognition to another real-life Suttree character, a carrot-maned poolroom ruffian named Big Red Callahan, whose actual shooting death was faithfully portrayed in the book. "He was an asshole," Goodman growls. "He got his early, but it wasn't early enough.")

But to concentrate on the alternately loving and black-hearted chroniclings of '50s Knoxville is to evade at least half the novel's significance. Says Kidwell, the mishaps, misdeeds, and misanthropies that lie at the heart of Suttree are most indicative of Cormac McCarthy himself, of his sense of uniqueness and alienation, of his almost voyeuristic fascination with his surrounding tableau.

"I think Suttree was totally autobiographical, moreso than anyone will ever know," avers another acquaintance. "I don't think anybody could have written in those depths without having experienced it. He was well-off, a Northern transplant, yet I think he grew to love Knoxville very much. He felt at home in this place, and I think that made him feel very different."

Why his affections would be expressed in the context of such tumult and wracking ambivalence—fraught with darkness and nihilism, blasphemous pathologies and lesions of the soul—is a true enigma. Goodman, the critic, suggests such subject matter is mere writerly affectation.

"It's a copy-cat of the Faulkner, Southern Gothic thing," Goodman says, adding scornfully, "And he's really a Yankee carpet-bagger. Must we eat all the egg to know it's rotten?"

Kidwell believes the question drives more at the nature of his back-slidden Catholicism, with the sometimes uneasy relations his apostasy fomented within the family. "I think it [Catholicism] embittered him. Because of that, he was never fully at peace with his parents. That's directly reflected in Suttree, the same story, essentially an autobiography."

"Maybe he felt guilty he couldn't encompass [his family's beliefs] in his work," DeLisle speculates. She suggests rather that her former husband's singularly authentic literary bent has more to do with a centuries-old theological construct, with the notion that God, in His grace, can justly bestow life, and therefore adoration, on even the most imperfect creatures.

"He's a very sweet, gentle man; I don't believe he was absorbed with the morbidity of it all in any way," she posits. "He always said 'Just because something isn't pleasant doesn't mean it doesn't exist.' He felt for those who were less blessed, and that world the rest of us would ignore, he would delve into it, see where it came from.

"Cormac saw the raw beauty of Knoxville, of Appalachia. He delved into its heart, not just dwelling on the circumstance. And when his Knoxville, the real Knoxville disappeared, he disappeared. It was no longer the place as he saw it."

March 1, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 9
© 2001 Metro Pulse