Sutter Keely is one big goofy bundle of contradictions. He's kind-hearted and selfish, desperate for love and unable to accept it. We can't decide whether we want to give him a hug or slap on the face.
What's tragic about Sutter is that he doesn't know which one he wants.
For He's a Jolly Good Fellow
For all his crazy drunken antics and over-the-top behavior, Sutter Keely really is, deep down, a good guy. From the very first chapter, when he helps little Walter find his way home, to the end of the book, when he's given up all hope for himself, he's always trying to help others to be happy.
Let's just take a look at a list of all the people Sutter helps, shall we?
- 6-year-old Walter, a perfect stranger: "This is a pretty busy intersection. How about I give you a ride to wherever you're going so some big rig doesn't barrel down and flatten you like a squirrel"(1.10). Sutter goes out of his way to drive this kid all around the neighborhood till he finds the right house. He knows Cassidy will be mad at him for being late, but he does it anyway.
- Ricky, his best friend. Sutter is determined to find him a girlfriend – and he does, even though it ends up costing him the friendship. And why? "I'm very grateful for the one I have, and I want nothing more than for my best buddy to have the same thing" (5.27). (While he's at it, he helps Tara work through her emotions about her stepdad, too.)
- Some kid named Kenny, who he used mow the lawn, just because he felt sorry for him, with his awful family.
- And then there's the whole Cassidy and Marcus situation: "My heart's bleeding for the dude, but I'm also doing this for Cassidy. If she needs another boyfriend right now, she could do a lot worse than Marcus West" (43.27). He still has feelings for Cassidy, but he helps Marcus figure out how to make her happier. Plus, he tells Cassidy they can just be good friends—just to make things easier for her.
- And then, there's Aimee. At first he just wants to help her become more confident: "Moral support. This girl needs it. She lets her family run all over her" (19.27). When it turns out that his "help" is just fouling up her life, he decides the best way to help her is to let her go.
- Even when things seem darkest for Sutter, he's still trying to bring happiness to others: "By the time the last Jimmy Buffett song plays, everyone's having a blast. The gloom of the Hawaiian Breeze has lifted" (66.23). See? He does for the drunks in the bar what no one seems to be able to do for him.
Someone nominate this guy for sainthood, right? It seems like the whole book is about how selflessly Sutter tries to help people: messes up his relationship with Cassidy to help some kid; messes up his relationship with Ricky to get the guy a girlfriend; sacrifices his relationship with Aimee to help her realizes his dreams … these aren't the actions of a self-centered jerk, are they?
It's All About Me
Sutter's heart might be in the right place, but that doesn't make up for his boneheadedly selfish, thoughtless actions. He burns up his brother-in-law's expensive suit, and doesn't seem to understand why everyone's so mad at him. His response: "Now if you think Kevin cares whether I'm burning up, then you have no idea what he's like. No, all he can think about is putting out the fire on his precious suit by beating it with a pillow" (14.23).
Okay, we're sure that whole incident rattled him. Still, getting mad that Kevin didn't worry enough about his safety? Wrong response, Sutts.
That's not the only evidence of his selfishness, either. He abandons Aimee several times at parties, and never does go with her on her paper route again, even though he promises he will: "I sincerely did intend to get up at three a.m. and drive to her house with a big thermos of instant coffee. Apparently, I never did actually set the alarm, though" (33.6).
Intentions are nice; actions are even nicer. Sutter may feel bad about his errant ways, but not bad enough to, say, set his alarm.
Me, Myself, and I
So what's up with this split personality? For one, if he were always a total jerk, or always super conscientious, we wouldn't have a book: in spite of all the exterior action, The Spectacular Now is more of a psychological novel than anything else. It dives deep into Sutter's psyche and gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And then—well, are you a model of consistent action? Do you always act like your best possible self? Of course not. Sutter's struggles should seem familiar: all of us do stupid things with good intentions; all of us sometimes mean well and mess up anyway. Sutter just has it worse than most of us.
Of course, maybe it's just the alcohol's fault. When Sutter drinks, he forgets his promises and acts selfishly and irresponsibly. How much of Sutter's behavior should be blamed on nothing other than Sutter himself, and how much is drunken stupidity?
Honestly, we're not sure it matters. Drunk drivers still go to jail for killing people, even if they didn't mean to and don't remember a thing. Sure, alcohol makes him act thoughtlessly. But Sutter's a smart guy – he knows exactly how alcohol affects him. And he chooses to drink anyway.
Unless it's not a choice. Unless it's alcoholism.
The Party Factor
We've established that alcohol impairs Sutter's judgment. Here's the thing: Sutter's always drinking, even when he's saving Walter or helping Ricky. It actually seems to be parties that determine whether Sutter acts selfishly or selflessly. So, how's this for some character analysis: parties bring out the worst in Sutter, while being one-on-one with someone, or even in a small group, brings out his best.
Think about it: more than anything else, Sutter wants to be loved. His dad deserted him, his mom's mean, and his girlfriends break up with him. So when he's alone with someone, he gets them to like him by doing nice things for them. The problem is, when he's in a group, he wants everyone there to like him. He has to be the center of attention, the life of the party, best friends with everyone there. He admits it, too: "Naturally, I feel the duty to inject a little zip into the proceedings. […] Now, you'd think everybody would get into the spirit and want to sing along but no" (37.28-33).
And if he's not the center of attention, he's miserable. Parties are only fun for him if he's basking in a constant stream of admiration. Now, some people go through a phase like this, but eventually grow out of it. Sutter doesn't. He actually installs himself into this phase permanently (the "now") when he gives up Aimee. And here's why: Sutter can't accept real love from her. "And then," he says, "there was that other thing she said, something about how I never believe anyone loves me" (65.2).
No one else seems to, so why should Aimee? So he resigns himself to his world of sad, unresolvable contradictions. Forever.