“Suttree could hear the wheels shucking along the rails and he could feel the ground shudder and he could hear the tone of the trucks shift at the crossing and the huffing breath of the boiler and the rattle and clank and wheelclick and couplingclacking and then the last long shunting on the downgrade drawing on toward the distance and the low moan bawling across the sleeping land and fading and the caboose clicking away to final silence.”
–From Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.
Sure, trains offer themselves quite obviously to the sonics of sentence coupling, especially to the post-Hemingway “and-this-and-that” sentence of masculine vogue in American letters, and sure, McCarthy’s bombastic sentence is maybe macho in the worst way, not only attempting to do such utter linguistic worship toward the huff of the train act that (surprise, surprise) the worship starts worshiping itself, what will all the showy grabbing from different diction shelves, the self-conscious onomatopoeia, the brand new compound words, and yeah, okay, I’ve read lots of better sentences that root and stab at human truth with pith and quiet courage, and there’s not a whole lot genuinely courageous about a sentence that aspires to little more than mimic (eww) what a train sounds like, even if it’s what a train really sounds like, sure, I mean really really sounds like, until you kind of want all trains replaced by this sentence, but still it’s just reality (eww), so why not do something with telepathy, why not make me know myself, Mr. Sentence, instead of make me remember how I grew up fifteen feet or so from rail ties and how I knew the different Union Pacific conductors in the night by the horn patterns they honked to alert their wives of their homecoming, and hey, while you’re at it Mr. Sentence, why not do something edgier than construct a perfect chronology ending so fussily and aptly on silence (silence! can it get any more trite than silence?)–hell, I can probably do all that myself, if you’re gonna be so awesome and shit and such a preener and braggart, goddamn Mr. Sentence, you goddamn sentence, maybe I’ll just write my own sentence: is what I thought when I first read this sentence, and I did, and it didn’t match up, oh God oh no, oh holy fuck it was no. where. near. as. mother. fucking. good.
Mike Young is the author of WE ARE ALL GOOD IF THEY TRY HARD ENOUGH.