by Carnac McSorley
Fans of Cormac McCarthy, winner of the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses, consider the Knoxville-based novel Suttree to be one of the author's finest. The protagonist, who has been called "a doomed Huckleberry Finn," is a middle-class Knoxville man who chooses to live among Knoxville's riverfront derelicts, ca. 1950. The one frustration of the novel is that we never learn what becomes of Cornelius Suttree who, when last we see him, is on his way out of town, headed west.
Literary scholars have since learned that many, perhaps most of the characters and events in Suttree concern real people. The elusive author, who now lives in New Mexico, is famously mum.
We received this epilogue over the transom in a dirty, bloodstained, and frankly very smelly envelope monogrammed C.M. That is, in itself, remarkable, because we don't have a transom. Could this enigmatic tale represent the fate of Cornelius Suttreeor is it a subliterate hoax? We submit it to our readers to let them judge it for themselves.
Good friend now in the stinky hours of the town in the directionless years of an unforeseen third century, the mongrel city constructed with no known identity, beset by a thing unknown, sulks above the river's interstitial wastes. Unbranded city of fleabitten sorcerers and gaelic alchemists unsaved by gnomish bowlers or wellgroomed binominal consultants from foreign climes. Hyperactive pavers moil on asphalt projects beyond mortal reason like men beset with intestinal worms. University deserted by legislative gibbons.
Abominable drainage from dire northern wastes flows along broadway by the gnumgrumous fellinikroger and the doomed baseballstadium then afreight with krystalwrappers slouches into horrid subterranean culverts beneath multilaned asphalt highway. Below the improbably multiballed skyline of the city where a concrete hotel looms like a barren Aztec hydroelectric dam the firstcreek culvert vomits its frothy trashbedizen waters into the dank stoutbrown river.
Fragrant ribbones and fruitrinds in rubber garbagecans. Doomy weddingparties in doubledecker sternwheeler. Gnambrous chubbymen in volparties. Freeparking at airconditioned welcomecenter: unnumbered distended chromewagons of dread purpose unknown. Across the snappercut grass fourfooted shapes go to and fro, leaving fetid stinkpiles of poop. Twofooted forms come behind them and chronicle the excrement of quadrupeds with multicolored plasticflags. Relics of forgotten dogmeals thus adorned: fecal colorguards, standardbearers of putrefaction in grassy battle.
Ruder forms make a decent living.
From parts unknown to literature Cornelius Suttree poled his skiff upriver past a corrugated arena, hatbox of a gargantuan mad hatter, peering warily overhead beneath the henley bridge to dodge plummeting unmedicated depressives, ahead a sandcolored baptist hospital, great silver tanks of holston gas, a grievous dearth of tavernboats. He poled to the northshore, up to his old spot in the riverbank. He recognized it by sighting the morning shadow of the Gay Street Bridge, but at the old mooring things were askew. No mudbanks but concrete steps. In his halfcentury gone, the derelict wharf had given way to new forms. There was not the jackstrewn clutter of whorebitten shackboats. Now clean fiberglass hulls in bright orange and white. There was no longer the familiar smell of leprous pariahs and ancient corpseflesh, but in the air fresh barbecue and alpine deodorant. The encampments of the damned were now greenways of concrete and tasteful indigenous plantings. He tied his boat to a hawser and emerged into a demented carnival of aberrant colors and bellyshapes. Men in bowlingshirts, women in powersuits. Orange, bright shades of convictwear.
He had a dozen pounds of fish to sell, and he loaded them up in a canvas sack and heaved them over his shoulder. First Creek given way to asphalt. Ab Jones' Tavernboat gone. A place called Regas Riverside. Strange shift of Regas's old sidewalk lunchcounter.
Front Street was eight times as wide as it used to be and was now named for a footballcoach Suttree knew as Ney-Bone. He waited to cross, as swollen automobiles that looked like bulbous truck cabs bereft of trailers whooshed by like bewheeled keloid tumors; then he climbed up the old hill, wondering for a moment if he'd put in at the wrong city, this inchoate city of no known brand. He looked around for the courthouse tower, harder to find now but still there somehow among a mad funhouse of mirrored buildings reflecting distorted shapes.
From under the Henley Bridge he heard men's voices, men calling his name. It was old Knoxville after all. He climbed to their perch. They were clean-shaven, and wearing suits. One of them had a folding keyboard in his lap. Two of them held tiny telephones to their ears.
Well, if it's not the Sutmeister. Suttree thought the voice sounded familiar, but changed.
It's Boniard now. Scott Boniard. Things have changed since you left. Our dear friend Mr. Harrogate invested the money he earned from knocking over traffic meters in the dot.com boom. Then, right about three years ago, he cashed out. Right before the crash.
Old Harrogate, said Suttree. He always knew when to pull out.
Then everybody started moving downtown, said Boneyard. Even professors and architects. We were already here so we became lifestyle consultants at Sterchi Lofts. We're urban professionals now.
As he spoke, Boneyard was still on his cellphone. Suttree looked at the faces subtly altered by age and soap. Slowly he recognized them. Bucket?
Beauquette, if you please, said Bucket. I'm an image consultant. Ever heard of ImagePoint? That's my
There was a strange noise in Bucket's pocket, remnant of Chopin. He pulled out a telephone, then unfolded a keyboard and began typing.
Sorry, said Boneyard. We're all multitasking these days. Remember at Ab Jones', when we used to drink and pee at the same time? That's multitasking. Same thing, more or less.
In the shadow of the bridge he thought he recognized old Hoghead. What are you calling yourself now?
Hoghead. I couldn't think of anything. He handed Suttree a mason jar. Have ye a snort, Sut. Long time gone.
Suttree took a draw from the Mason jar. The strong taste surprised him, and he spat it on the ground. What the hell is that, he said.
Scotch, single malt. It's what we drink down here now. Except for Scott.
I've given it up, said Boneyard. I'm a latte man now. Hell, most of us are in recovery. And you know what, Sut? You should consider Prozac. It can do wonders for your outlook. Talk to your doctor.
Boneyard took a foamy sip from a coffeecup. Suttree wasn't sure what to make of his old friends. His fish was beginning to smell, so he bid them farewell.
Stay in touch, said Hoghead. Are you on line?
Suttree hauled fish down where Market Street used to run, through a collegiate courtyard with a statue of a voluptuous woman with tumescent lips that reminded him of a girl he knew in McAnally Flats.
On past parkinglots and barristerdens. Stench of bradfordpear. Giant rubikscube aslant, abandoned by some misbegotten Goliathchild. Block of treestumps and yellowtape. At the end was a place that looked like it could have been Market Square, except the old Market House was gone, transformed to fencemud and aberrant pinoaks of a number that could be counted on one hand by an inbred mutant with six fingers. He stopped a woman who looked like a fishmonger and showed her his best catfish.
Ew, she said. What are those things.
Catfish. You eat them.
Oh I get it, she said. I saw that on Fear Factor. She pulled one out and chomped off its face, whiskers and all, with a crunch. Where are the cameras, she said, as she crunched fishfacebones.
Suttree felt ill. He walked into a cornerbar called Macleods and sat under the flag of the white mule.
Give me a redtop, he said.
A what, said the woman behind the bar. Is that like a killians red.
Never mind. A beer. She drew him a pale ale in a pint glass. There were about 30 people in the place. A young blonde woman approached him. Suttree sat up straight and stowed his fish under the table. She was carrying a clipboard.
Sign this petition, she said. Suttree looked at the paper, but he didn't understand.
It's about dog poop, she said. We're against it.
Suttree looked at her, his mind befogged by fifty years gone.
We put little flags on each turd to show how many there are, she said. For the benefit of those who wouldn't otherwise notice.
Suttree had no choice but to sign. The woman looked at his signature.
I know that name from somewhere, the woman said. Did you run for City Council? But by Address, I think you need a little more information. I'm not sure it's not enough to say Encampment of the Damned.
Suttree thought, and added precincts perhaps where dripping lepers prowl unbelled. Thank you, said the woman.
Another woman, a brunette, approached.
We want to cut down the trees they left and bring back the trees they cut down, she said. We want to save the pigeons except on Thursday nights. We're in favor of Worsham but not Watkins. We support Kinsey but not Probasco. We like Crandall but not Arambula.
Suttree signed that one too.
Hey, you're Suttree. She pulled out a paperback book, the size of a New Testament with Accordance, that had his name in big letters on the front, and a picture of a bridge.
I'm almost to page four, she said. Two old men turned their heads. We drove down from Ohio, they said. We teach American Lit at Ohio State and Kenyon. We wanted to see your old haunts.
I would too, said Suttree.
We know why you're here, said one of the women with petitions. You've been sent to save Market Square.
He looked over at the bastard mudbedizen Square, and he heard his name again.
This is Mr. Suttree, the new urban-design consultant.
They bought him pints of beer. Welcome to our charrette, said a man with a ponytail. It's an honor. Here, let's give you a nametag. What do you think Market Square needs?
There should be poolhalls, said Suttree. A shooting arcade. A burlesque show. Farmers. Rotarians. Wild street preachers. Unlegged dobroists. Mute peddlers. Gnostic infidels. Febrile Druids. Babylonians. Catamites. Pariahs. Cowled gnomes.
In haste the officials pecked at palmpilot and laptops. Inebriated condors pecking at the scabrous corpses of deranged acrobats. There were also architects in the room, and soon there were drawings. There, one said, unfurling the excapscious blueprint. The Worsham Probasco Suttree Arambula Plan.
Okay, Suttree said, and left. In the street he saw J-Bone.
Hey, Sut. Long time.
Let's go to the Huddle, said Suttree.
Closed. Building's still there, but it shut down over 20 year ago.
How about Comer's Poolhall then.
It's gone. Torn down. Site of the new history-museum addition.
How about the Roxy.
Gone. It closed after they threw out the dancers. Then Eddie Harvey bought it and moved it up north. It's now a medical-supply store near Fountain City.
Smoky Mountain Market?
Closed just last month. Sorry, old chum.
Guess I don't need to ask about the Corner then.
It was closed for years. But now it's open again.
Let's go there.
They walked past construction. Fecal pennants. Harold's was still there. Cars parked by demented stuntmen at maniacal backward angles. He walked into Regas. Darker than it used to be. He put a quarter on the counter and asked for a grilled cheese. The bartender suggested that he wait for a table.
Hell, said Suttree. I thought this was Regas.
Told you things had changed, said J-Bone.
He walked past the stone metropolis of the dead, past the aberrant flatiron corner patched together of angles unknown to geometry, out North Central, which had not changed as much, on to the Corner. He sat at the bar.
Give me a redtop, said Suttree.
Call me Suttree. A redtop.
I don't smoke. And don't ever call me Bud again.
I'm Cosmo. You been here before?
Yes, said Suttree. Long time ago.
Did you know Con.
Known a few cons, said Suttree. Con who.
Con Hunley, said Cosmo. He poured a beer. Maybe he was before your time.
Maybe so, said Suttree. He drank, and prepared to tell J-Bone where he'd been for the last 50 years.
Three people walked in. Friendly man with blond hair, dark-eyed enchantress, bejowled whitehaired man just behind. Suttree heard one say, Where is he.
Watch out, Sut, said J-Bone. They're running for mayor. They want your endorsement. Suttree nodded and stood up like he was going to the bathroom, and slipped out into the alley. He yanked off his urban-design charrette nametag and into the darkening streets, the vectors of nowhere, he ran. Among the citizens of the febrile city, feral civitans, intoxicated graveldredgers, malign trilobites, bipolar Assyrians, bolshevik mandrills, cousins of Magog.
He ran until he stopped running. He smiled with a perverse and disordered pride. Laughter descended upon him like an electric plague contracted from some ill-starred goat. He breathed deep, home at last.
Knoxville, he said. Old Knoxville town.
March 27, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 13
© 2003 Metro Pulse