Cormac McCarthy's Knoxville: A Gritty Waterfront Tour Inspired by Suttree

Foreground: Southern Railway Bridge Middleground: Henley Street Bridge Background: Gay Street Bridge
Foreground: Southern Railway Bridge Middleground: Henley Street Bridge Background: Gay Street Bridge Wes Morgan
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Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree is arguably one of the best works of 20th-century American literature—it was even the late Roger Ebert's favorite novel. It's also one one of the most visceral and famous depictions of Knoxville, with a downtown restaurant and soon-to-be-completed waterfront park bearing its namesake.

Suttree is historical fiction that follows fisherman and title character Cornelius Suttree through the underbelly of 1950s Knoxville, offering a grungy, vulgar, and yet deeply human depiction of the outcasts and social pariahs who lived along the city's waterfront. During that era, renowned journalist John Gunther infamously dubbed Knoxville America's "ugliest city."

Since then, Knox has come a long way. Spurred in part by Gunther's harsh words, the city has launched major projects to transform this coal town into an outdoors and arts destination with increasing social and environmental consciousness. Among its biggest improvements are the beautification of the downtown waterfront, the primary setting for McCarthy's offbeat novel. Greenways and parks continue to pop up along the waterfront every year, but remnants of Suttree's Knoxville are still visible—and offer a fascinating way to appreciate the history of the city while exploring the outdoors.

With the help of a Suttree-inspired photographic guide by Wesley Morgan, a retired University of Tennessee professor and McCarthy enthusiast, we’ll tour the river by bike and by boat, rubbing up against the town's rougher edges with an eye open for what remains of McCarthy’s Knoxville.

Stop 1: Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center

Whether you plan to pedal or paddle, the Outdoor Knoxville Center should be your first stop. Centrally located with easy access to the greenway and the Tennessee River, the center makes outdoor recreation more accessible to everyone. Paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, hydro-bikes, and greenway bikes can be rented at the Billy Lush Board Shop located on the main floor; grab greenway and blueway maps, too. When you're ready, grab your boat or your bike and head down the short connector toward Volunteer Landing. At the fork, turn right to continue to Neyland Greenway. (Paddlers should leave a second car at Neyland Boat Ramp.)

Stop 2: Suttree's Place (Volunteer Landing)

Wes Morgan

You'll see Volunteer Landing ahead of you, approximately the same spot where Suttree 's title character docked his houseboat. If you're cycling, you'll just continue southwest on the Neyland Greenway. If you're paddling, you'll be putting in at Volunteer Landing Marina.

Note the green Gay Street Bridge as you pass under it. At the beginning of Suttree, the suicide whose body is found and grotesquely recovered with an iron hook jumped to his death from this bridge. Pretty gruesome, but that's McCarthy for you. Today, Gay Street Bridge can get you from the the main strip of downtown Knoxville to the heart of the Urban Wilderness in five minutes by car.

Stop 3: Aisle of Arches at Henley Street Bridge

Continue west by boat or bike and you’ll pass under the Henley Street Bridge. Look down the “ aisle of arches ,” to the southern end of the bridge, where the ragpicker in Suttree made his bed beneath the furthest concrete buttresses. A little further upstream, beyond the Gay Street Bridge, is the home of 8.26-acres Suttree Landing Park , which is expected to be finished by September 2016. Continue downriver, and after passing under the Southern Railway Bridge, be sure to turn around and take in the view of all three bridges. It's especially beautiful if you're paddling.

Stop 4: The Backwater (Goose Creek)

Wes Morgan

You'll continue south, passing Neyland Stadium and Thompson-Boling Arena on your right. Before you pass under the second railway bridge, look to the south shore. You can see a small estuary, and beyond that, the remnants of a bridge. This is Goose Creek. In the novel, Harrogate, Suttree's dim-witted but eternally fascinating comrade, fashions a turtleshell-shaped boat out of Ford truck hoods and paddles up old Goose Creek, passing under the bridge with “muddobber nests overhead and lizards in little suctioncup shoes sliding past his face.”

If you’re traveling by boat, it's not recommended to follow Harrogate's path very far up Goose Creek. It gets shallow fast, with, as McCarthy puts it, "rippled sludge that lay[s] thick on the backwater." Even with some recent cleanup efforts, the water here still matches up pretty well with McCarthy's description from the mid-20th century. Also on the south shore is the Scottish Pike community, an undeveloped huddle of shotgun houses that still seems frozen in the 1950s Knoxville that shaped McCarthy's narrative.

Stop 5: Takeout and Turnaround (Neyland Boat Ramp)

This is a little blip of a dock on the north shore, just past the second railway bridge. It will be the takeout for paddlers and a good turnaround spot for cyclists. If you traveled by water, stow your boat and drive downtown. Cyclists can either go all the way back to their car or head downtown on their bikes via the Second Creek Greenway or Walnut Street.

Stop 6: The Market House (Market Square)

Wes Morgan

The Market House, where, in McCarthy's words, "brick the color of dried blood rose turreted and cupolated and crazed," burned down in 1960, about a decade after the fictional events of Suttree unfold. Its destruction paved the way for the creation of present-day Market Square, which attracts musicians, local vendors, and tourists year round. If you go down the curving brick path to the left of Cafe 4 on Market Square, you'll see G. Byron Peck's mural of the old Market House.

The Final Stop: ** Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern**

The tour wouldn't be complete without a beer at Suttree's High Gravity Tavern . Grab a brew and relax; you've earned it. And don't worry about bar fights, drunken peddlers, or prostitutes: That sort of debauchery has been phased out over the years. Toast to your tour and newfound literary knowledge about Knoxville's history.

Craving more McCarthy haunts around Knoxville? Check out Searching for Suttree. (And another thanks to Dr. Morgan for the research and the retro pictures.) Another handy tool for your tour: The Google Maps route.

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