Cormac McCarthy's 'Suttree' in the 21st Century

Suddenly there's a third, and a fourth, bar on the once-forlorn 400 block of Gay. Things are looking up for that problematic block; 20 years ago it seemed too big and woebegone to revive.

The bad news is that the 400 block's most unusual destination is closing this week. The extremely unusual print shop known as Yee-Haw—famous for its flagrantly droll posters and T-shirts, many of them made with 19th-century equipment—played a role in downtown's redevelopment over the last 15 years.

Back during the debates about what to do with Market Square, when some were proposing reorienting downtown mainly for tourists and suburban shoppers, theme-park style, the word "organic" kept popping up as an alternative. Organic described businesses that are attracted to downtown without artificial inducement. Yee-Haw, a beautiful weed sprouting on an otherwise desolate block, was the handiest example. Yee-Haw made its own way as an organic development, and, to some, suggested a model for what downtown Knoxville in the 21st century should look like.

I wish my friend Kevin Bradley well in California. We'll miss his clashing plaids and quart-jar kimchi. It's a lot more fun, I've been told, to be a Southerner when you're not in the actual South. I hope his Cas Walker riffs gain a whole new audience in Los Angeles.

Back on the 400 block, the gods are intervening, doing their best to be compensate for the loss. As Yee-Haw closes, two distinctive new bars are opening a few steps down the sidewalk on either side.

One's called the Sky Bar & Grill, a two-level place said to specialize in whiskey and vodka. The other, maybe Knoxville's first bar specializing in high-gravity beer, is called Suttree's.

Over the years, we've seen vague gestures toward naming something for the title character of Cormac McCarthy's 1979 Knoxville novel, the disaffected young man who turned his back on family and class to live in a leftover houseboat moored to a riverfront shantytown. A Suttree Park was provisionally approved for the slow-growing south-side development. This is the closest any homage has ever come to fruition.

"I just liked the name," says proprietor Matt Pacetti. "I loved the book, and it seemed appropriate." One of the most familiar staffers at Downtown Wine + Spirits next door, he'll be running the place with his wife, Anne Ford. It'll be a simple beer-oriented bar, he says, the only bar downtown that concentrates mainly on quality beer, especially the high-gravity (and high-alcohol) beer of the sort they sell at the liquor store next door. It's beer for sipping, not guzzling. (They'll offer "low-grav," too. Matt explains that low-grav beer is what you can buy at Kroger.)

Word has reportedly gotten back to the former Knoxvillian author who, at 78, is enjoying his non-retirement outside of Santa Fe. We're told he wishes them well.

Of course, in the novel, the beer of choice in every downtown dive is Red Top Ale, the Cincinnati beer to which many Knoxville men were loyal in the 1940s and '50s. Alas, that brewery went out of business long ago, and even Matt can't get it anymore. Harold's Deli used to display a can of it behind the counter. But high-gravity stuff seems like the sort of thing Suttree characters would appreciate. Despite its reputation as the funniest of McCarthy's novels, Suttree is kind of a high-gravity book.

Meanwhile, Random House's new edition of Suttree is out, and its cover doesn't sit well with some of the book's biggest fans. The 1979 book, considered by some to be Cormac McCarthy's darkly comic masterpiece, is the most densely Knoxvillian of all novels. Other novels have Knoxville settings, but Suttree is intimately about Knoxville, its sidewalks and alleys, shantytowns and jumbled architecture. We don't look to it for flattery. Suttree is a literary colonoscopy, an unblinking investigation of Knoxville's nether regions. More than three quarters of the novel is set in the downtown area, under bridges, on sidewalks, in bars. It's not a favorable picture, unless you're a reporter: McCarthy makes the old town sound as fascinating as Bangkok.

Different publishers around the world have struggled with that particular cover image. Suttree's previous U.S. cover shows the silhouette of a railroad bridge over a river. A Spanish version shows dead trees by a shore. An old Vintage paperback shows a surrealistic scene, a rowboat floating above the surface of a swampy river, with factories and bridges in the background. My favorite may be a French edition, a hyperrealistic photograph of two rough noir characters in black and white, like sleepy hit men in an old nouvelle vague film.

At first, this locally controversial new edition's cover art looks like an abstract design. But look closer. It's a wheat field. Flat land, golden grain, no trees or buildings in sight. Maybe, in the background, a twister a-brewin'.

A wheat field! Suttree includes lots of unusual and visually striking scenes: sleazy old hotels, grilled-cheese diners, subterranean sewers, a tavern boat, a bar with fishbowls for beer glasses, a voodoo queen's hutch, and, more than once, old Market Square. No wheat fields. There's a brief scene in a watermelon patch. It doesn't concern the title character. Granted, it's one scene folks do like to talk about. But watermelon patches don't look much like wheat fields.

If the artist had ever visited Knoxville, he might have gleaned that billowing wheat is a rarity here. It might also have profited him to read the book. But a lot of artists, I've found, don't much like to read, and that's a big part of why they went into art. Often they're perfectly nice people.

But as weird as it seems, it's too easy to imagine his thought processes. Knoxville, hmm. Tennessee, hmm. That old Tennessee country-comedy TV show, Hee-Haw, hmm. Wheat fields: Sa-Lute! There's our idea.