Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Sucker" by Carson McCullers

Deal Me In Lite, Week 7: “Sucker” by Carson McCullers

This week my deck of cards finally decided to go south, with the presentation of the two of diamonds, and a selection from Growing Up in the South.

The two of diamonds corresponds to “Sucker” by Carson McCullers.  McCullers is one of the more famous “Southern” authors in the pantheon, but I put Southern in quotes because, as Wikipedia notes, she wrote all of her works after she left the South.  So whether or not her works are uniquely southern, or perhaps more universal, is a point that seems to be debatable.

Wikipedia also says of McCullers’ writing: “Her eccentric characters suffer from loneliness that is interpreted with deep empathy,” and I definitely found that to be true of her short story “Sucker.”  The story is narrated by a 16-year-old named Pete, who shares his home and his room with his 12-year-old cousin Richard, who is nicknamed Sucker because of his extreme gullibility.  Not only is Sucker gullible, but he looks up to Pete and wants nothing more than to be treated like his very own brother.  It strikes me that this is probably the sole source of Sucker’s gullibility – he obviously worships the ground Pete walks on, and would do anything for him.  However, Pete has no real feelings for Sucker in that way; rather, he more or less despises Sucker for his neediness.

However, the story is actually Pete’s attempt to sort out a complicated life lesson:

There is one thing I have learned, but it makes me feel guilty and is hard to figure out.  If a person admires you a lot you despise him and don’t care – and it is the person who doesn’t notice you that you are apt to admire.

In the same way that Sucker runs after Pete like a little lost puppy, Pete runs after a girl named Maybelle in his class, with whom he is smitten.  He gradually works up the nerve to ask her out and even succeeds in taking her places such as the movies.  As his relationship improves with Maybelle, his relationship also improves with Sucker, and he begins to feel like he could treat Sucker as his kid brother, which is of course Sucker’s fondest and deepest desire.  But the relationship with Maybelle soon sours and she tells him she never cared anything about him.  In like fashion, one day soon after the breakup with Maybelle, Pete decides he feels the same way about Sucker, and pushes him away in an incredibly cruel fashion which permanently alienates them.

This is the first thing by Carson McCullers I have ever read, to my knowledge, and I enjoyed the story.  I am eager to read more of her stuff.  She has a unique turn of phrase and a writing style that pulls the reader along.  One of my favorite sentences from this story that just leapt out from the page at me was this description of Sucker: “He didn’t have many boys in the neighborhood to buddy with and his face had the look of a kid who is watching a game and waiting to be asked to play.”  There are many other examples in the story that struck me as excellent examples of the “show, don’t tell” rule that aspiring writers are constantly reminded to follow.

All in all, a successful trip “south,” and I am looking forward to more!


  1. I've only read McCullers' famous novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which I thought was some truly first-class writing. I'd certainly like to explore her shorter work at some point. Pete's life lesson learned sadly seems to be a timeless and universal one, doesn't it?

    1. Yes, I think this is part of the power of the story, which is that the reader can immediately identify with most of the emotions Pete has, yet nothing is really ever explicitly brought out by McCullers -- she prefers to let the characterization do all the work.

  2. This story reminds me of the saying "I'd never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member". I don't know who originated it, but I heard it from Woody Allen.

    This story definitely makes me want to read more of her work. I also read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and remember really liking it. I've wanted to read her shorter work "The Ballad of the Sad Café", also.

    1. I feel the same way. I don't know how I missed reading McCullers all this time. Sigh -- so many books, so little time. :-)