Three weeks ago I was deciding whether to make the effort to read something by Charles Bowden. After several easy-to-read crime novels, I was looking to challenge myself a bit. I got thirty pages into Blues for Cannibals and returned it to the library. I was not put off by the difficulty of the prose so much as by the harshness of the content. The writing was angry and violent, and I didn’t feel like either right then.
My attempt at Bowden, however, reminded me that I have at least a dozen excellent books in my personal library that I’ve started and never finished. Number One on that particular stack of books is Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. Every few years I take the book on. I get about eighty, ninety pages in, then quit.
For me, reading Suttree is different from reading other books. It takes me thirty pages to understand the cadence. I have to not care that McCarthy never uses quotation marks, and I have to realize I don’t need to know which character in the book is speaking to follow the gist of a conversation. However, as soon as I get in rhythm with the prose, I don’t feel the need to read any further. It is like following the dialogue in a Shakespearian play after years of not watching one. I need all of Act I to enter Macbeth’s Scotland or Othello’s Venice, but as soon as I get there, I feel I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.
More than any other book, I read Suttree solely for the quality of the writing. I don’t care much about the characters or the plot, so once I’ve had a sufficient dose of exceptionally good writing, I stop. I stop, but I also leave the book on my bedside table. My intent always is to take a break for a few days, read something easier, then pick up the book where I left off. Except I never do. When I finally get around to reading the book again, enough time has passed that I start over again from the beginning. I know the protagonist lives on a rundown houseboat, I know he is estranged from his wealthy family, and I know he has spent time in prison. I don’t know why he lives on a boat, why he dislikes his family, or why he’s done time. I should want to know, but maybe because I spend more time analyzing the writing than following the storyline, I don’t.
Still why would I stop reading a book with writing that knocks my socks off? Why isn’t Suttree among the handful of books that are so good I’ve regretted reaching the end? Part of it is because the book is difficult, and it wears me out. Part of it is because I don’t have to finish the book to get what I want from it. Maybe part of it is that the writing is so far beyond anything I can do that it disheartens the writer in me. A Cormac McCarthy sentence would never contain the words “knocks my socks off.” I don’t remember him ever using a cliché, even when one of his characters might have reasonably used one. Instead he writes with similes that are entirely original, yet are perfect for whatever he is describing. For example, while Suttree is out on a drunk, the men’s room in a dive bar contains “an opaque smoketarred lightbulb that looked like an eggplant screwed into the ceiling.” Just a few pages earlier a table of gay guys in that same bar had demonstrated their disgust at a comment made by one of Suttree’s companions, and “with the unison of the movement those pale and slender limbs mimed dancing egrets in the gloom.” My favorite simile is when Suttree disturbed a line of turtles by rowing his boat too near to them as they sunned. “Little painted turtles tilted from a log one by one like counted coins into the water.” Anyone who has ever paddled past a line of turtles on a log knows that that is exactly what it is like. In comparison, last week in a blog I wrote, “Most of my lawn already is brown and dormant.” That actually isn’t a bad sentence. It’s clean and concise, but it is no “eggplant screwed into the ceiling.”
As I write this week’s blog, I must have read further into Suttree than I’ve ever gone before; the pages are fresh and no longer have dog ears or coffee stains. You might think the undamaged pages would urge me on, but they haven’t. Last night I picked up CJ Box’s latest Joe Pickett novel, and I’ll get through it in about a day and a half. I have told myself I will go back to Suttree this time. My plan is to read it in ten-page increments. That is a lousy way to read a novel, but the conventional way, up until now, has not worked.