The excitement over blogs is officially over ladies and gentleman. They are no longer new or sexy to the book industry. I just snuck out of a panel called, oddly, “Blog 2.0”. The idea, I suppose, was to suggest that we are beyond the initial enthusiasm for blogs in the publishing world, but the atmosphere was remedial (and uncomfortably warm, but that might just be the bookish corduroy blazer I’m wearing.) The panel included blog and new media heavyweights like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette, Kos of Daily Kos, and Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, but they were plodding the same old ground: Use blogs to promote books; blogs aren’t scary, they’re a part of the media landscape; blogging is so easy, anyone can do it. Though the “2.0” moniker suggested new insights in the merging of new media and publishing, the panel was decidedly “1.0”, and the audience in the half-filled room wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Still, some of the comments made were worth sharing. Michael Cader suggested that blogs promote “individual voices over institutional voices,” whether the blog lives at Blogspot or the New York Times. Kos decried the notion that books by bloggers have anything more than a tenuous connection to the blog medium. Blogs are not meant to be books, but blogs are a great way to find new voices with built-in audiences. All in all, though, there wasn’t a sense that any new ground is being broken in the marriage of publishing and blogging.
Like the borough that hosted it, this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival managed to unite seemingly disparate phenomena with a ragtag, homespun charm. Part reading series, part book fair, part publishing-industry confab, part literacy campaign, the second annual BBF had something for nearly everyone, and thus drew thousands to downtown Brooklyn. The literati may have looked askance at the radical pamphleteers; the publishers may have looked down on the self-published; the poets and the fiction writers may, for all I know, have faced off like Sharks and Jets behind the Starbucks… but on a mellow Sunday, under a crisp fall sky, no one came to blows.This plurality of purposes and preferences is, in your correspondent’s opinion, the great strength of the BBF (and, if I haven’t made it clear, of Brooklyn itself). Events like this provide an important opportunity for readers to meet the producers of the books they read, and vice versa. Moreover, they encourage aesthetic cross-pollination and discovery. Whereas one walks away from BookExpo America wondering what the point of publishing all those books can possibly be, one strolls the crowded flagstones of Cadman Plaza surrounded by people who love to read. It’s refreshing to see kids outnumbering the adults at the Children’s Pavilion, to see bedraggled tourists lounging on the steps of Borough Hall to listen to poetry, and in particular to see presses that aim for an African-American audience treated as full members of the publishing community. (I’m no expert, as one reader of last year’s BBF dispatch pointed out, but at BEA, too many presses publishing primarily black authors were cast into the nether regions of the Javits Center.) As Jason Shure of Housing Works said, in his introduction of George Saunders, Lynne Tillman, and Joshua Ferris, the Brooklyn literary boom offers a local counterweight to the various macroeconomic trends that threaten the culture of the book.Again notable at the BBF this year was the emphasis on independent businesses. Local stalwarts BookCourt and Housing Works Used Book Cafe sold books by featured readers, and presses like Akashic (whose own Johnny Temple helped organize the fiction readings), Soft Skull, Ugly Ducking, and Calamari showcased the breadth and depth of American independent publishing. The friendly folks from A Public Space, Tin House, and the wonderful Nextbook showcased the best of both print and web periodicals. Minneapolis made a strong showing, with Milkweed, Coffee House, and Graywolf all operating booths. Works from across the world were offered in translation from Archipelago Books, Europa Editions, and Host Publications, to name a few. And at least a couple of literary magazines, Five Points and The Chattahoochee Review, made the trek up from the South… which points to the BBF’s ambition to get on the national map.Still, with its emphasis on the general reader, the BBF may not become a must-attend event for publishers. (Notable no-shows this year included NYRB and McSweeney’s, though Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng gave a talk related to What is the What.) There’s not much to do at the BBF besides buy or sell a few books, meet some cool people, and catch a reading or two in the too cozy confines of Borough Hall. None of which will make the morning papers. But there’s a dignity in that. I’m happy to take the Brooklyn Book Festival just as it is.
Wednesday night I went to the Barnes and Noble at Union Square to catch a speech by a jack of all trades. The former Daily Show correspondent turned anchor is now everywhere promoting a book – and running for president. Yes, you guessed right, the almighty Mr. Stephen Colbert.Unfortunately for me, Mr. Colbert was AWOL when I had to leave to go to another meetingafter waiting for 20 minutes. Fortunately for all progressive conservatives a video of his speech can be found here.“It turns out it takes more than 30 minutes a night to fix everything that’s destroying America and that’s where this book comes in,” Mr. Colbert said about his debut work, I Am America (And So Can You!). “This book is truth – my truth,” he said, “I deliver my truth hot and hard, fast and furious.”Mr. Colbert, who announced a possible run for president on The Daily Show on October 16th, declared on The Colbert Report on October 16th that he is indeed running for president – in South Carolina. “After 15 minutes of soul searching I have heard the call,” he said, “I am doing it.”Like his predecessor, Jon Stewart, who in 2004 published the wildly successful America (The Book), Mr. Colbert is excelling in packaging his persona, mock seriousness and witty criticism for a supposedly apolitical generation that allegedly gets its news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.Comedy Central’s two shows carved such a niche that Messrs. Stewart and Colbert went on to host the Academy awards and – to the apolitical youth’s surprise and amusement – the White House Press Corps Dinner, respectively. “Stewart-Colbert ’08” bumper stickers followed.There is no surprise in Mr. Colbert’s presidential aspirations – nor in his thriving business ventures. But both his seriousness and a jokester nation’s ability to send him straight to the Oval Office – on the heels of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan, you would be an idiot to deny the possibility – make this “joke run” different from its historical antecedents.The difference lies not only in the press’ serious wonder at and contemplation of Mr. Colbert’s run – as they should – but also in the hype and noise the candidate generated since his announcement, surely beating former Tennessee Senator and Law & Order star Fred Thompson.Consider this, how many candidates could persuade The New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd to cede her space to a candidate? None – except for Mr. Colbert. And how many “mock-candidates” have appeared on Tim Russert’s Meet The Press? You guess right, again – none, except, well, Mr. Colbert.Like all presidential aspirants, Mr. Colbert too explains his stance on issues and outlines his strengths in his book. I Am America should inform all voters in the upcoming primaries, as well as make each reader a better, more patriotic American. And, it should be an easy read; the author proudly announced that he dictated the whole book over Columbus Day weekend. He also added, “Like a lot of other dictators, there’s one man whose opinion I value above all others’ – mine.” Sound familiar?
We met at a writer’s conference at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. At sixty-six, Patrick O’Connor had a roving eye and a drinking problem. A self-professed Trotskyite and anti-Stalinist from the old radical ‘30s left wing of the Democrat party, he was Ayn Rand’s editor at New American Library in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
We quickly discovered we had something in common: our aversion to Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
I was an insecure young professor of philosophy at a conservative evangelical college, with a troubled marriage and two kids. Cedarville College was four miles from Antioch, but so distant ideologically from the famously radical Antioch that it might as well have been four light years.
I was prepared to dislike Patrick O’Connor intensely, based upon his association with a writer I considered odious. But he knocked me off balance with his first words. I later learned he was quite practiced at this.
We met in the quad during a cigarette break. Patrick O’Connor nursed a black coffee in a white ceramic mug he’d walked off with from the college cafeteria. I had a deep tan from mowing five acres of grass every week that summer, and lazing with my kids at the pool. A small man with a round face, he had a sly smile and a direct manner. We regarded each other from opposite ends of a picnic table.
Hey kid, have your good looks gotten in the way of you being taken seriously as a writer?
I deflected his question. Feeling misplaced in both a marriage and a job led to fantasies about women, art, and salvation that would later land me in world of trouble; I had already taken one of the women writers at the conference for a late night spin in my convertible, and had plans to see her that night. Somehow I had arrived at two non-original ideas: that I needed to write fiction, not philosophy, and that my personal aesthetic should be, “I write to get the girl.” I was a hollowed out writing conference cliché, and I was sure Patrick O’Connor saw right through me.
Was I a frivolous person, impersonating a serious one? Talking to her favorite editor, I was certain that Ayn Rand did not see herself this way.
On April 15, 2011, almost twenty years after my encounter with Patrick O’Connor, and almost 30 years after Ayn Rand’s death in 1982, Atlas Shrugged opened in theaters around the country. The movie is based on Rand’s bestselling dystopian novel of the same name, a literary vehicle expressing her trademark worldview: the morality of rational self-interest, or, Objectivism. The film was financed by a wealthy devotee of Ayn Rand’s work, and marketed aggressively to the Tea Party demographic by FreedomWorks, one of the prime movers in the Tea Party movement, which engaged in a massive campaign to encourage audience attendance, and to push the film into as many theaters as possible. The opening line of Atlas Shrugged — “Who is John Galt?” — has appeared on signs at Tea Party protests across America. Glenn Beck praises Atlas Shrugged regularly, and hosted a panel discussion dedicated to asking if Rand’s fiction is finally becoming reality. Once a shadowy cult presence in the margins of American life, Ayn Rand is now one of the central intellectual and cultural inspirations for the base of the Republican Party.
Ayn Rand’s books provided that moral justification for my evangelical Christian students. Atlas Shrugged, in particular. They were drawn to the fierce youthful idealism of The Fountainhead, which they found, quote, empowering. I found both novels to be insufferable. Rand was a third rate novelist of turgid prose who saw no reason to pen a sentence without making a speech.
Here is a sample sentence from Atlas Shrugged:
That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.
As a stylist, she could be dreadful, her prose in service to her philosophy:
It meant nothing to him any longer, only a faint tinge of sadness — and somewhere within him, a drop of pain moving briefly and vanishing, like a raindrop on the glass of a window, its course in the shape of a question.
A drop of rain pain in the shape of a question: “Who is John Galt.” That’s some raindrop.
I don’t remember what I said to deflect Patrick O’Connor’s question — something short and inane. I was already deeply conflicted about my appearance, and felt frequently that my life was a fraud, a series of performances at home and at work. Teaching was a kind of performance art. Although I had chosen a substantive discipline, social and political philosophy, I often wondered whether this was to mask my insecurities. I felt myself to be frivolous and vain. Writing a book on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida had done nothing to dissuade me from this view, as Derrida himself was regarded as a lightweight, a “deconstructionist” more in vogue with language and literature departments than with “serious” philosophy departments in academe.
I steered the conversation to safer topics: Antioch, and Ayn Rand’s books. Antioch was a hotbed of student radicalism and curricular innovation. Two years later, four miles southeast, my “Christian” college would try to fire me for publishing a book on feminism, yet here I was in conversation with the editor of an indomitable woman from Russia, herself among the first women to be admitted to university after the Russian Revolution — an atheist and fierce critic of religion — who was nevertheless the guiding light of some of my evangelical Christian students.
The performative contradictions in that last sentence continue to astonish me.
By the time I met Patrick O’Connor, I was itching for a fight about Ayn Rand. Two students were making my life hellish in class. Both were Econ students, promoting Rand as an apostle of free market capitalism and suspicious of my muddle-headed liberalism which harped about the growing chasm in Reagan’s America between the rich and the poor and the need for distributive justice. John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness? Forget it, Rawls was a wuss. Additionally, they were having difficulty with the concept of Jesus of Nazareth having compassion for the poor, like, say, Mother Teresa. Never mind that Jesus was a Jewish Mediterranean peasant, probably illiterate, with a biting critique of the rich and possessed of peasant humor — “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven” — my students weren’t buying it. It was not “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do) for these students, it was more like, “What would John Galt think.” I didn’t give a tinker’s damn about what John Galt thought. Holly and Mark were becoming royal pains and I wanted to kick Patrick O’Connor in the ass.
So when he told me that he was a Trotskyite, a Communist, and from the democratic wing of the Democratic party, I knew he was as misplaced with Rand as I was at my college.
I asked him directly: What was she like to work with? How had he managed to be that woman’s editor all those years?
Do you want to know why Ayn Rand’s books sell so well? he countered.
Because she writes the best children’s literature in America, O’Connor said. The Fountainhead is practically a rite of passage for alienated youth. She writes these epic, Wagnerian things. Where the sex takes place on the very highest plane and it speaks to the kids’ highest aspirations, their youthful idealism. It’s all YA stuff.
In that case, I argued, people should grow out of her, like a phase, they should get over her ideas when they become adults.
This is America, he said. There aren’t many ideas. Ayn Rand had a few simple ones which she believed in fiercely and promoted relentlessly.
But surely you don’t agree with her philosophy? The whole Objectivism thing from Atlas Shrugged?
Of course not! But we never talked politics. I knew better.
I wanted to know just how well Ayn Rand sold, really.
She paid the bills. The lights, the gas, the heating bills, the Christmas bonuses. Here’s the thing you gotta know about publishing, kid. The publishing industry itself is basically left, but true publishers publish what they think will sell. There is very little publishing “from belief” and that’s the way it has always been. We’ll publish anything that we know will sell, and everyone — no matter what they may think of her personally — everyone, every one, admires her sales.
I asked about the “didactic nature” of her prose and he laughed.
Didactic, hell, it’s worse than that. She writes to convert!
I thought of my evangelical Christian students. They liked the idea of conversion. They’d like to convert all of godless Russia to Christianity. China, too. And of course, they wanted to “win America for Christ.” The irony of this: these good Christian kids admired an evangelical atheist who believed in conversion. My head swam.
What about Rand’s reputation for being “difficult?”
I did everything she said.
What’s everything? (I had three books in the pipeline. Naively, and un-Rand-like, I said yes to everything Macmillan and Prentice Hall told me.)
Ayn Rand wanted approval of copy, advertising, art, you name it, O’Connor said. Publishers almost never give in to these kinds of demands, but we did. Because of her sales. I told the bosses, look, it’s her bat and ball.
You can get schooled at Twitter if you have the right friends. The other day someone tweeted that Facebook is the people you went to school with, and Twitter the people you wish you went to school with.
So. the other day, Maud Newton tweeted: “Irony of Atlas Shrugged, movie about great people laid low by mediocre jealous people, is that it is wholly mediocre.”
It’s been years since I spoke with Patrick O’Connor. And I’ve had time to think about Rand, about her legacy, about the way she never really went out of fashion among what John Scalzi calls the “nerd revenge porn” crowd. And I agree with O’Connor that Rand wrote children’s literature. The problem is that a lot of these people have grown up, put on colorful colonial uniforms, and are trying to shrink the nation’s budget to the size where it can be dragged into the bathroom and drowned in the bathtub. A libertarian whose ideas are as wacky as Rand’s (who in fact is named Rand) is now a United States senator in Kentucky. Former Fed Chairman and economist Alan Greenspan is a devotee of Ayn Rand. And a guy whom no one had heard of until recently, congressman Paul Ryan, (R-WI) Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has been making the GOP case for massive budget cuts that will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable among us, using principles derived from Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” of Objectivism, and requiring his staff to read her work.
Paul Ryan proposes a budget plan would cap non-security discretionary spending at $360 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and freezing it for five years. That’s equal to 2006 spending levels. Over the next decade that means cuts to education, job training, and social services of 25 percent below levels needed to maintain current services. These reductions come on top of the $38.5 billion already cut from this year’s budget.
Two-thirds of the long term budget cuts that Ryan proposes are directed at middle class and low-income people, as well as the poorest of the poor at home and abroad. At the same time, he proposes tax cuts up to 30 percent for the nation’s wealthiest corporations.
Paul Ryan and his followers have solidified the connection between Ayn Rand, the Tea Party, and the Grand Old Party, with nary an outcry from the “religious right,” Karl Rove’s “base” that put George W. Bush in power. No one that I am aware of in the religious right has called attention to the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah in the Bible:
Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you?
Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message translation
In lecture tours around America, Ayn Rand defended “the virtue of selfishness.” She had a long term love affair with Nathaniel Brandon, a young psychologist, who later established the Nathaniel Brandon Institute to promote Rand’s philosophy. Though it was reported that she did so with her husband’s full knowledge, it is generally acknowledged that Frank O’Connor (no relation to Patrick) found the experience to be “difficult.”
I don’t know if Patrick O’Connor got himself laid in Yellow Springs, Ohio. But the affair with the writer I met at that Antioch conference created deep pain in my family, and in hers, and led to the breakup of both marriages. In time, I came to understand the wisdom of that saying, “All love affairs are special cases, and yet at the same time each is the same case” — but in my case, it was too late.
I understand the selfishness part of Objectivism. It’s the virtue part that causes me difficulty.
On the day that Atlas Shrugged opened in theatres, someone tweeted, “Republicanism is crumbling of its own avarice, lust for power, excesses, and hypocrisy. It could not be otherwise when their entire “philosophy” is based upon the works of a sociopath.”
Patrick O’Connor did not think that Ayn Rand was a sociopath—to him she was just a loveable little old Jewish lady from Leningrad– although apparently his bosses at New American Library thought otherwise.
“She can’t be Jewish, she’s a fascist!” he reported them saying.
O’Connor challenged their hypocrisy: You’ve been living off this woman for years. She’s been paying all your bills.
The philosopher Jurgen Habermas spoke often of the “legitimation crisis” that plagues late capitalism, as core communication functions in society become disabled or “colonized” by money and power. I’ve often wondered whether Patrick O’Connor believed that publishers decrying Ayn Rand as a fascist while enjoying the benefits of her labor should undergo a legitimation crisis or shut up.
Here are Ayn Rand’s own words, in Atlas Shrugged.
Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become tools of other men. Blood, whips, guns—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other.
My encounter with Patrick O’Connor went to the heart of my struggles in those days: Was I a serious person? Was I really a pretty boy, flighty, without substance? Or someone serious enough to write, to take myself seriously as a writer? Ayn Rand took herself seriously and produced dreck—really dangerous stuff. She was a true believer. I no longer knew what I believed. I was carried away by the next breeze, toward the next woman, self absorbed and a wisp of the wind—but she stood as firmly planted as an oak. Rand was like Reagan: wrong but strong. She has endured, despite turgid prose and half baked ideas that were laughed out of the academy by people like me.
The year before I met Patrick O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill published a novel called Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which featured a thinly disguised Rand character, Anna Granite, and her philosophy of “Definitism.” Like the character Justine in her novel, Gaitskill had actually interviewed followers of Ayn Rand. I asked Mary Gaitskill: what is it about Ayn Rand, and why is she still here? What inspired her to write about Ayn Rand? Gaitskill wrote back:
I was inspired in part by realizing how important Ayn Rand’s ideas still were, and how deep they got into the American psyche. I thought then (and I’ve been proved right) that she was much more influential than she was given credit for. I didn’t have to be that smart to conclude this, I knew that Alan Greenspan had been an early devotee, and that William Buckley had taken her very seriously and that Atlas Shrugged was (according to one poll) one of the five top best-sellers in the history of the world, up there with the Bible. I found this astonishing. Still do.
Gaitskill went on to say:
Rand appears to be so crazy, and yet she really does speak for an aspect of America, really for an aspect of human experience. She treats big ideas in a way the common person can understand them; that is one legitimate reason for her popularity. Something I noticed about the followers, the “cultists” that I met–they tended to be nice people yearning for bigger meaning in their lives. Most of them were not especially selfish. It’s worth noting that most of them were also NOT people who knew Rand or were part of the early group. Those people, the few I met, struck me as both crazy and unpleasant. But the lower-level followers, no. They were in their own way idealists.
Patrick O’Connor believed that Ayn Rand sold because she knew who she was, she knew what she wanted, and because she spoke to people’s common dreams– the dreams of well meaning, idealistic people who want something more. I wasn’t dreaming of anything that day at Antioch, except maybe Rilke’s earnest childlike plea: Change your life. I knew that I needed to change my life, but didn’t know how. I couldn’t guide anyone reliably, anywhere, except in circles.
Saul Alinsky used to say, when you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.
Meanwhile, The Economist has reported several sharp spikes in sales of Atlas Shrugged since 2007. According to the Ayn Rand Institute, sales of the novel hit an all-time annual record that year, then reached a new record in 2008. USA Today reports that Atlas Shrugged made its debut on the USA Today Best Selling Books List on January 22, 2009, two days after President Obama’s inauguration. On April 20, Atlas Shrugged, first published in 1957, hit number 65 on the list, propelled by the new movie. Released in 299 theatres, the movie made $1.7 million in its first week.
As Patrick O’Connor insisted to me in 1992, she sells.
Do you remember this joke that was circulating in the 1980s: While deconstructionists were taking over English departments, Republicans were taking over the country.
I never found that joke to be funny.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn.
Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well.
Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart.
The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by – prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound.
Is that a crossbow?
I’ve heard it called that.
How many crosses have you killed with it?
It’s killed more meat than you could bear.
Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee.
Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.”
Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so.
Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story — a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.”
Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage.
To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved.
Photo courtesy of the author.