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“They was a-fighting and a-fighting. Just right out yonder, rolling in the gutter. And the little one, he snatched that ole butcher knife out from under his shirt and went to jabbing with it, just a-jabbing away around the other’ns neck. And the two of them, they rolled this way and that. Blood everywhere. Then come the law and hauled the both of ’em off. Never did hear if the big one lived or died.”
Walter is putting the finishing touches on an unsolicited account of a stabbing (apparently one of many) that took place directly in front of his barbershop on Central Avenue in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. This particular incident occurred some sixty years ago. “Saturday nights. Back then, they was like the Wild West.” Walter sighs nostalgically, seated there in his ancient barber chair whittling a small wooden owl.
It’s 1997. I’m a musician and find myself in Knoxville as the opening act for legendary Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. David and I had been exploring the seedy old downtown area around Gay Street when we came upon Walter’s train wreck of misguided commerce: part barbershop, part thrift store, and, due to the presence of dozens of crudely carved wooden owls of all shape and size that populate the forward area of the shop, part folk-art emporium. The rear of the rundown storefront is crowded with shelves of what appear to be utterly worthless junk.
It’s just Walter and me now. Poor David fled the premises a few moments into our visit after being accused by Walter of conspiring to commit petty theft. Upon entering the shop, in his inimitably quirky fashion, David politely asked the old man if he minded us looking around the back area where “all those cool piles of stuff” lay. Walter scowled slightly then calmly suggested we get the hell out of his establishment, announcing we had a shifty, shoplifting look about us. David Byrne, unaccustomed to such rough handling, thereupon nervously excused himself.
After a round of friendly jawing, Walter has grudgingly allowed me to browse. The forward aisles are crowded with cheap, outdated clothing, ’70s fashion rejects — many items with the original tags still on them. Everything’s covered in a coat of thick dust. Further back among the jumbled shelves of gee-gaws an old Hohner chromatic harmonica catches my eye. I hold it up. “How much for this, sir?” I ask.
Slumping a little further in his barber chair, pocketknife in hand as he continues to whittle, Walter regards me dimly. “What is it? A harmonica? That ain’t for sale,” he says flatly, then recommences whittling. “Now this other day,” he intones, and there he goes, launching into another gruesome story.
This pattern repeats itself a dozen or more times over the next half-hour. Nothing, it turns out, is for sale. As I meander from aisle to aisle, Walter offers up a steady stream of dreamy, horrifying monologues recounting cataclysms transpired thereabouts. Stabbings, shootings, bar fights, kidnappings, patricide — scandals and heartbreak of every imaginable variety. He’s a compendium of true crime stories and has just now finished up that tale about the small man with the butcher knife under his shirt.
Through it all Walter slowly, methodically whittles. He was whittling when we first peered in the shop window, whittling as he succeeded in running David Byrne off, whittling during his various monologues, whittling in the spaces in-between. By all appearances whittling is an autonomic activity for him, like breathing or digestion. “You whittle all these owls yourself?” I ask, just trying to make friendly conversation. Walter sighs. He did. He whittles to pass the time, he says, complaining that business is slow lately. Last ten, fifteen years.
We introduce ourselves at this point. When he hears the White in my name his head cocks slightly to the side and says, “White? Oh yes, quite a few Whites hereabouts. You any kin to that Farrel White? Married that Harwell girl? He come downtown that Saturday afternoon with his little daughter, gonna buy her an Easter dress…. ” Walter drifts away into his next reminiscence.
In my left coat pocket is a dog-eared copy of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, which happens to be set here in Knoxville way back in the ’50s. I’m not much of a planner, so to some extent or another (depending on your take on the mechanics of serendipity) it’s sheer coincidence that it ended up in my suitcase as I packed for this tour. Likewise I’m no great bibliophile, certainly not one of those types who might find it exhilarating to locate and use, say, the exact toilet that Jack Kerouac took a shit in while writing On the Road. That said, I’m happy it ended up with me here in Knoxville, as the city itself is practically a character in the novel. Gay and Central Streets, where Walter’s barbershop is, are mentioned frequently, so it’s interesting to be in the physical locale where the action takes place. I’m about halfway through Suttree this time around. I’ve read it front to back many times, usually when events in my life have gone spiraling out of control and that black cloud of depression that’s dogged me off and on for much of my adult years descends.
“And that poor soul, he died right there, leaning agin’ that light post just out yonder. His little girl by his side. Spoke not a word, did she. Cried not a tear. You any kin to that Farrel White?”
I tell Walter I’m not from Knoxville.
“Well, Knoxville. It’s a good town for leaving, some say. I never left. Suits me fine.”
The tenor of Walter’s tales is so eerily reminiscent of Suttree’s general tone that I can’t help but wave the novel in his direction, asking if he’s ever read it. Walter beckons me over, takes the book with shaking, liver spotted claws, studies the cover through his bifocals with some puzzlement, then replies, “Suttree? Well, look at that. I’ll be. Did Suttree write a book?”
Walter seems to have misunderstood my question. This is reasonable. He’s somewhere in that eighty- to ninety-year-old range, one foot firmly planted in the world beyond. “Old Sut,” he murmurs to himself inexplicably as he returns to whittling. Likely it’s a mild touch of dementia. The joys of becoming unmoored.
“No, Walter,” I say. “This is a novel by a famous author. It’s set here in Knoxville. The main character is called Suttree, but he’s not a real person.”
Walter puzzles over this, slouched down there in his barber chair as he reaches for a stob of white pine from a large plastic bucket next to the cash register. “No? Not real? I believe you’re mistaken, son. Suttree, he sat in this very chair, right here. Many a day. Can’t cut a man’s hair if he ain’t real. It don’t work thataway.” With that he sets to carving another owl.
I’m rendered momentarily speechless by the old man’s claim.
Walter notices my silence. He gouges a chunk out of the latest owl then adds, “Old Sut. Paid me with a catfish one time, he did. Big old thing.” Walter gestures widely with his hands to show the length of the fish. “About yea long. Used to run his trot lines down on the river.”
Trot lines. The two words hover in the air. The world momentarily hums and glows. Trot lines — it’s an obscure fishing term, one I’ve heard referenced nowhere other than McCarthy’s novel. Trot lines. Is Walter exhibiting some kind of second sight here, or could his claim somehow be true?
“You’re telling me you knew a fisherman here in Knoxville named Suttree? Cornelius Suttree.”
“Cornelius? Oh, my. Is that right? Cornelius. Hmmmph. Well, they all called him Suttree, or Sut. Course I knew his head better’n I knew him. Natural part on the left. Brush cut. Lived in a houseboat down to the river. Kept to himself. Folks said he was troubled and I guess he was. But he wasn’t never no trouble to me.”
Walter returns to whittling as I silently process this information. Whittle whittle whittle. Scrape scrape scrape. Just last night I read the passage where Suttree gets his hair cut. Could it have been here? Apparently so. Somehow I’ve stumbled into the pages of my favorite novel. It’s like standing in line at the supermarket and discovering the customer ahead of you is, say, Holden Caulfield or Billy Pilgrim or Yossarian. I stare at the doorway. Suttree walked through that door. I study Walter, stoically whittling away. Suttree sat in that chair — hell, got his hair cut in it. By him — that cantankerous old man. To understand the significance of this revelation you’ll need to hear one of my stories instead of another of Walter’s.
* * *
Back to 1994. I was a ruined husk of a human being. My troubles had begun three months before with a badly broken heart, which fate and circumstance parlayed into a conflagration of insomnia, clinical depression, and a raging, untreated infection in my intestines that I would some years later learn was a sometimes fatal condition called peritonitis. I hadn’t slept in weeks. I had no appetite and suffered mysterious, sometimes crippling pains in my gut. I was unwilling to go to the doctor because I had no health insurance and I feared they might put me in some hospital and I’d be bankrupted for life. I guessed there were social services available for people in my situation, but I just didn’t have the wherewithal to run the bureaucratic gauntlet. To make matters worse I was a minimum wage worker who was more than twenty grand in debt. Creditors, having given up any hope of my ever paying my bills, had taken to calling my unsuspecting relatives, harassing them for money. The shame. I lived hand-to-mouth, driving a cab to cover my most immediate bills. Food, lodging.
That was bad enough. But it got worse.
I was increasingly beset by distressing occult signifiers. Every day seemed like a further plunge into some delusional spiral. When my luminously beautiful but deeply troubled girlfriend disappeared without a trace some months back, I frantically searched and searched, but could make no sense of what had become of her. Her apartment appeared abandoned, though the phone line remained connected. I left message after message. No reply. Soon after she vanished, for several days in a row, I found severed chicken feet on my doormat. Black magic of some kind. Then apparitions began to appear on my walls at night — the faces of saints, devils. One day a New York Times crossword puzzle delivered a worrisome message to me about her. The next day there was another. Her name, occasionally in anagram form, sometimes sequentially concise, would appear as answers to clues alongside words like “vanished” and “dissolved.” The crossword messages were infuriatingly abstruse — no real information was communicated — so what was the point, and who, or what, was sending the messages? I felt as though I was losing my mind.
Then a couple months later, I was passing a newsstand and thought I spotted a full-page color photo of her on the cover of the New York Post. Hallucinations occur in extreme cases of sleep deprivation, I knew that much, so was this real? I stopped and stared at her image, then bought the paper. Just to be sure I said to the vendor, “She’s quite a pretty lady, isn’t she?” He winked at me and agreed, “Quite a looker.” He replied.
I read the accompanying article, recounting the story of a small-time, completely unknown theater actress who’d been cast in the starring role of a Disney blockbuster. It was one of those heartwarming rags-to-riches tales. The next day she was on the front page of another paper. Then it was People magazine — they’d named her one of the fifty most beautiful people in the world. After that, wherever I went, whatever I did, I was assaulted by images of her. The Post article reported that she’d recently gotten married. Must have been pretty damn recent, because a scant few months back she claimed to love me and only me.
I had trouble leaving my apartment because her image was everywhere. I couldn’t turn on the TV because she was there too. I began fantasizing more and more about suicide. It appeared to be the only viable way to extricate myself from this mess. Mental health professionals refer to this as “suicidal ideation” — obsessive thoughts of killing yourself without yet taking substantive action. It’s the first phase in the suicidal arc. And although I spent long hours working out the details in various theoretical death models, apparently I wasn’t ready for phase two yet, because whenever I tried to bring myself to organize the materials to implement one of my plans, I simply couldn’t go through with it. What stopped me was an awareness of the disastrous effects my suicide would have on my family, my friends. The people who love me. Who I love. My sister would never recover. My best friend. My mom.
Then an ingenious plan came to me. It was the height of the crack epidemic, right? Cab drivers were getting murdered weekly, right? So it was simple — I don’t kill myself; I let someone do it for me. I would cruise blighted neighborhoods, seeking out hooded, degenerate criminal types, thugs that other drivers wouldn’t pick up in broad daylight with a police escort, much less alone and well after midnight. I would welcome them into my cab and away we’d go, arrowing into the devastated urban war zones of the outer boroughs — Bed Stuy, East New York, Kingsbridge, Starette City. Eventually one of them would shoot me, and I’d be free. That was the plan.
Three nights later I wasn’t sure if I’d found the right ones, but as I ferried two Hispanic gangbangers to Hunts Point in the Bronx and was greeted by the sickening sweet smell of crack being smoked in the back seat, I felt that my chances for success were pretty good. We arrived at a shadowy destination. Long tense moments. Whispers swirling in the stale interior air of the cab. Then the doors flew open and they fled without paying me. No shots fired. Damn.
When I got robbed the year before the detective told me the Plexiglas partition is worthless. The first shot would shatter the glass barrier; the second would pass through unimpeded. If what he said was true, I wouldn’t hear the second shot, because I’d be dead. Just pop, then silence, peace. A robbery gone bad — that would be an acceptable death, right?
A few nights later I had high hopes when I picked up three particularly dangerous looking drug dealers. We rode in silence again, but they not only paid the fare but threw in a sizable tip — gold teeth shining as they sidled off into the projects. Death continued to elude me.
While death eluded me, it didn’t elude my friend Clayton. When the phone rang that morning I’d hoped for a moment it might be my vanished girlfriend. But it wasn’t. It was a fellow cab driver I vaguely knew from my fleet. He broke the news to me — Clayton killed himself yesterday.
The first time Clayton attempted suicide was a few months back. He shot up ten bags of heroin then called his girlfriend to say a tearful goodbye — Clayton always had a flair for the dramatic. She notified the cops, who within moments were charging up three flights of stairs in his Hells Kitchen slum.
“Open up!” they demanded.
Pop-pop-pop, was Clayton’s reply.
Bad idea, Clayton. You don’t shoot at New York’s Finest, even if it was with a starter pistol and you were just firing blanks in the air behind a locked door. The pistol reports sent the cops scattering, shouting oh shit, frantically calling for reinforcements. A SWAT team arrived and rappelled through Clayton’s third-floor window, sending shattered glass everywhere like in some souped-up action movie. Clayton would surely have been delighted by the fiasco — Tenth Avenue, the Lincoln Tunnel, and much of midtown on the West Side shut down for upwards of an hour, and all because of him — but by then he was unconscious and close to death. Somehow the paramedics revived him with a massive dose of Naloxone.
Clayton was locked up for a few days in Bellevue’s mental ward. When he was let out, he headed over to Times Square, took an elevator to the forty-fourth floor of the Marriot Marquis hotel, and executed an elegant swan dive off the balcony railing. Just a week before Christmas. The atrium dining area where he landed was jammed with holiday revelers. He was decapitated, but thankfully no one else was hurt.
A few hours after I got the Clayton news, I was wandering the streets in a daze, crying, simultaneously heartbroken by his death and jealous of his accomplishment. On Second Avenue I passed a woman that I vaguely knew, a secretary in a nearby office. I used to make excuses to pass by there so I could gaze at her simple, uncomplicated beauty. We’d talk from time to time. Small talk. This went on for a few weeks until she realized I was sweet on her, then she got all frosty and distant. Now here she was, strolling along with a clean-cut college boy. They were laughing easily, happy sparks flying between them. She caught sight of me, disheveled, staggering along in tears. She averted her eyes. We passed without a word.
The afternoon was a fever dream. I was briefly in a movie theater, a bar, Penn Station, a novelty shop, a Korean grocery. I stumbled along aimlessly, crying, knowing I had to keep my feet — hell, my entire physical being — moving or some unknown horror would descend. Eventually I found myself in a bookstore on St. Marks Place staring at an artfully arranged wall of au courant novels, none of which I knew thing one about. Camille Paglia? Salman Rushdie? Martin Amis? I wasn’t a big reader. The cover of one book at eye level seemed strangely appealing, so I opened it up.
The first line was an embrace:
Immediately thereafter a suicide was described in lurid, luminous detail. A plunge from a tall bridge resulting in drowning (one of the methods, in fact, I had considered), rescuers dragging the river bottom, the corpse rising, a grappling hook firmly imbedded in the dead man’s cheek. That could have been me. I followed the small markings on the page, those things called words, and found with each word some deep fundamental contact being made, some thread being offered for me to cling to. I was faintly aware of a surging emanation coming from a lost place within me, the lifting and rising of an immense, nameless burden. I’m not sure how long I stood there reading. Long time. Eventually the clerk took me by the elbow and discreetly suggested that I either buy the book or put it back. So I bought the book. It was called Suttree.
As I walked home I continued reading. I paid no attention to the images of my ex-girlfriend as I passed newsstand after newsstand. I felt like Moses walking along the floor of the Red Sea. Once inside my tiny studio apartment I continued reading. Sixteen hours later I hit page 471, then immediately started the novel over again.
The second time through I was more attuned to the nuances of the narrative, the dazzling descriptions of Knoxville’s underbelly, the hypnotic cadences of Southern dialect caught so faithfully by the author, the arc of these troubled, ever so familiar characters. Outsiders like Clayton, like me. If the first pass through was a headlong dive into a beguiling frontier, the second was a comforting, illuminative retreat to a safe haven. I found shelter in those words as the tempest raged all about. I was safe there, ensconced in a treatise on surrogate existential misery.
As I inhaled one page after another I felt long seized-up knots in my brain shift, then ease slightly. Eventually I drifted off into a light slumber for almost two hours — my first sleep of any duration in many days. I woke up feeling traces of lucidity creeping into my mind. It was time for work, so I headed over to the taxi fleet where Clayton and I first met. The nightshift drivers had all gathered, waiting for dayshift cabs to return. Everyone was torn up by the news. The old-timers showed their moxie, bravely recounting hilarious details of Clayton’s legendary exploits. He’d been a professional card counter in Vegas, a wheel man for a mob boss in Boston, a boxer, a comedian, an up-and-coming playwright in the New York theater scene.
I knew crazy stories about Clayton, too. Lots of them. But circumstances had rendered me aphonic, so I kept my own counsel, sitting off to the side, eavesdropping on their storytelling, wondering what words, if any, they’d say about me when they got the news of my passing. The dispatcher called my name and handed me keys and a trip sheet, and away I went, setting out on another fourteen-hour shift. As I twisted and wove through the urban labyrinth of New York City, fragments of Suttree’s journey echoed through my mind, and again I felt the phantom arms at work, lifting, pulling me upwards. In a very palpable way his story felt like an amplified, glittering transposed version of my own sorry tale. Later, as the streets emptied out, for fleeting moments New York became Knoxville, a place both real and imaginary. Each time this sensation hit me, I forgot the broad array of infirmities besieging me and felt momentarily blissful and weightless. As the night wound down I was surprised to feel no great impulse to cruise the war zones, to search out accomplices to my own murder. That seemed like yesterday’s story.
Around two in the morning a hipster girl in the back seat leaned forward and said, “Driver, someone has left something here, and I think it’s intended for you.” An odd remark. At the next stoplight I turned to ask what it was, and she handed me five tightly packed baggies of weed. At least a hundred-dollars’ worth of the stuff.
I asked why she didn’t keep it for herself. She smiled slowly. “They’re not intended for me. I know because I’m a drug addict. I just joined Narcotics Anonymous. I guess this is some kind of test from God. I intend to pass it. Please, take them. Maybe think of it as an early Christmas present.” Her pleading, shaking voice conveyed her desperation. I studied the small, pillow-shaped packets. Since they were not “intended” for her and this had been arranged by higher powers, should I have inferred that God sent me this weed? Strange tidings from the good man upstairs; gold, frankincense, myrrh… weed.
She settled back in her seat and sighed. “Wow, I can’t believe I just did that,” she muttered. There was a moment of silence, then she began to sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I joined in. Communion of lost souls. We shared a laugh (my first in months), arrived at her destination, and away she went, disappearing into the night.
An hour later I turned in the cab and headed back to my dismal studio apartment on Sixth Street, picking up a pack of rolling papers along the way. I broke open a baggie and attempted to roll my first joint in twenty-plus years, feeling decidedly criminal as I did so. “It’s okay,” I reminded myself. “It’s a Christmas gift from God.” I settled in, fired up, and managed to hold in several hits as I dove back into Suttree. As the words danced before my eyes I felt a pleasant buzz engulf my tortured psyche. It was good weed. Twenty minutes later I was overtaken by a profound weariness and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. I woke up six astonishing hours later. Sleep. The blessing of sleep. The novel was splayed open on my chest.
I rolled another joint, fired it up, and continued on, devouring several chapters before I drifted off to sleep again. I woke several hours later feeling a strange sensation in my gut — hunger. For the first time in weeks I was actually hungry. I ate, smoked, read, and slept. This cycle repeated itself for several days until the baggies were empty, the food gone, and my circadian rhythms showing signs of some return to normality. During that period I read the novel front to back five times.
Along the way, Suttree’s saga carried me down, down, down to the bottom of a heightened surrogate reality, a nadir where the rarest jewels of clarity are found. The fourth time through the novel I arrived at a state of barometric equipoise, a balancing between my mental state and Suttree’s. Then, as he descended again, I began to rise. There was a hypnotic poetry to his fall — his life disintegrated, then the fragments disintegrated, then those fragments followed suit ad infinitum. The suicide at the beginning was the key, the first domino of mortality to fall in a chain reaction of mostly self-induced demises, both active and passive. Eventually it became clear that many of the characters in this story were simply twisted echoes of Suttree himself. This winnowing of false reflections was the lesson of the novel, of Suttree’s trial. The chaff of self was consumed as he threw himself into the conflagration of time, fate, and circumstance. Ultimately what survived was the true kernel of Suttree, and simply by that surviving, Suttree became a transcendent figure.
It occurred to me during that fifth pass through the novel that if Suttree could transcend, perhaps I could, too.
When you’re drowning, you can’t be picky about life preservers. You cling to whatever is nearby that floats. In my reckoning, Suttree floated, and so I clung to him. The book became my bible, the character my surrogate Christ. Over the following months as I dug my way out of that deep psychological hole, Suttree bore my cross. From time to time I had my doubts — it worried me that my life preserver was something so ephemeral as a fictional being. Deep in my heart I wished Suttree were real, for in being real, the threads that my phantom arms found and clung to there at the bottom would have become all the more validated and empowered.
* * *
So now, here in Knoxville, Tennessee, in Walter’s barbershop, I have a clearer understanding of why that novel reached me, why it called out to me from that wall of fancy books. It did so because it was endowed with the power of the real.
There’s a term I learned in college. Simulacrum — the substituting of the signs of the real for the real, the generation of a model of reality with no actual origin in reality. So much of art these days is simulacrum. The vast majority. References to references of other references. A hollow shell that represents a hollow shell. Standing in Walter’s barbershop, squarely where Suttree once stood, once spoke, once existed, I’m reminded of the power that art can possess when the real is fearlessly honored, explored, then magnified. That shit can save your life.
It’s past three-thirty. Walter, it’s clear, wants me to visit forever, but I need to head back to the venue as it’s getting close to sound-check time. I make noises about having to go, but every time I put my hand on the doorknob and try to leave, Walter beckons me back with a question, then another long story. It’s a game of some sort. A lonely old man’s game. At a certain point he asks, “So what line of work are you in, Jim?” Whittle whittle whittle.
A musician, I tell him.
This piques his interest. “A musician? Are you on the radio?”
“A little bit. Not much so far,” I say.
“Well, keep at it. My old partner Ike, his two boys, they played songs on the guitars and would sing, with that harmonizing — you know? Many a day the two of them, they’d run around here in the shop singing and banging on them guitars. Playing along with the radio. Got so good at it they got on the radio quite a bit themselves. How about that? Called themselves The Everly Brothers. You ever hear of them boys?”
And away we go.
Jim White’s résumé is too irreconcilably erratic to briefly describe — before David Byrne signed him to a record deal on Luaka Bop, White worked as a model in Milan, a professional surfer, a construction worker, and he drove a cab in New York City for a decade. On Luaka Bop and independently, he has released several albums, including No Such Place and Where It Hits You. He served as the guide and narrator for the BBC documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which is loosely based on his first album and his writings about life in the South. He lives in Athens, Georgia.
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