I recently read Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, a charity shop find and a novel that I was not aware of before seeing it there on the shelf. I suppose it has been eclipsed rather by Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men and The Road. To my mind it is a bit of a hidden gem, more personal and comedic than much of his other work, without quite so much of the biblical philosophising and unsettling violence that characterises some of his other novels. Reading the novel was also eye-opening for a fan of Tom Waits: McCarthy’s influence on the singer-songwriter is clear. If you were feeling less charitable, you might say that Waits’ inimitable hobo-blues stage persona could have been lifted wholesale from the pages detailing Cornelius Suttree’s spartan existence on a dilapidated Knoxville houseboat.
The novel is full of booze-hounds, perennially producing bottles of hooch from somewhere about their person and exhorting the protagonist to ‘take a good long drink’. And McCarthy’s observations of drunks and drunkenness are some of the best I’ve read. Two very popular hangovers in fiction are those found in Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. The hangovers described in Suttree are every bit as compelling. At one point, the hero wakes up in a vacant lot in scorching late morning heat, miles from his home, penniless, covered in dried vomit and blood, with no idea how he came to be there.
Of course, Tom Waits’ songs also feature a lot of drinking and drunkenness. On occasion this is poetic, as in the jazzy melancholy of Heart of Saturday Night. Elsewhere it’s barn-storming and bombastic, as in the raucous yelling of Filipino BoxSpring Hog, which features perhaps the greatest opening line of any drinking song ever written. For all his visions of drinkers baying like dogs, dancing with other people’s wives or falling out of windows with confetti in their hair, I prefer Waits’ elegantly simple statement of that moment in an evening when a drinker realises he’s had far too much: ‘I’m full of bourbon. I can’t stand up.’
Drinkers and drunks in Hemingway and Fitzgerald are usually misguided but ultimately noble, and this sympathetic portrayal is perhaps the result of these two men being committed boozers themselves. But McCarthy’s book captures the true venality of the drunk, and the cravenness and squalor of alcoholism, somehow managing to do so with no loss of sympathy. The scenes of drinking ring true because, like an actual bender, they take on their own momentum and their ultimate direction remains unclear, often until the following scene, in which the drinker wakes in horror in the back of a wrecked car in a scrap yard and must go about searching for a beer to slake his mortal thirst.