Book Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They passed through a highland meadow carpeted with wildflowers, acres of golden groundsel and zinnia and deep purple gentian and wild vines of blue morninglory and a vast plain of varied small blooms reaching onward like a gingham print to the farthest serried rimlands blue with haze and the adamantine ranges rising of out nothing like the backs of seabeasts in a Devonian dawn.

I read this and I marvel. How does one writer, equipped with the same words, the same semantic possibilities as any, know to string these particular words together in just this way, paragraph after paragraph, page after page? My copy of Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 classic Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West is mauled by dog-eared pages and inked underlines as I seek to capture and remember his revelatory images of the borderlands of the Southwest and the astonishing employ of English that feels primordial under his pen.

Once again, Cormac McCarthy tears me apart, digs at the darkest corners of despair and depravity in my mind, poking and prodding with a sharp stick as I wince and try to turn away. Yet unlike The Road, a black and white dystopian nightmare which offers redemption through the steadfast love of its principal characters, Blood Meridian is merciless Technicolor nihilism. Each character explores the vast possibilities of evil as McCarthy pulls the reader through the reeking entrails of history.

They found the lost scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung gray and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they’d been roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes. Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down their chests.

Blood Meridian is based on historical accounts of the Glanton Gang, a band of mercenaries that roamed the Texas-Mexico borderland in the mid-19th century, trading scalps for gold. Their initial objective was the pursuit of hostile Indian warriors who reigned by terror throughout the Borderlands. Eventually the crew of ex-soldiers, escaped slaves, convicts, marginalized immigrants, disenfranchised Indians and plain old thugs extended their quest for carnage to peaceful, agrarian Mexicans and Native Americans on both sides of the still-disputed border.

To read three hundred and fifty pages of unrelenting brutality, I have to give myself up to the prose, which is beautiful and original beyond compare, and to what I think the author sought to accomplish with his symphony of violence. I believe McCarthy offers the absolute opposite of the glorification of violence – he depicts horror to force the acknowledgment of it. His stories are blood-curdling pleas to recognize that we – as a nation, as a measure of humanity – are built on the back of history’s corpses. He decries the chest-thumping patriotism that is endemic to nations which claim moral superiority, generally by citing some sort of divine right. Scholar Sara Spurgeon in a critical essay of Blood Meridian (“The Sacred Hunter and the Eucharist of the Wilderness: Mythic Reconstructions in Blood Meridian”) declares the novel a “a sort of antimyth of the West.” There are no good guys in McCarthy’s depiction of the American West: there are only amoral murderers and the victims of their bloodlust. “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.” Cunning words, spoken by a character who is the book’s Satan incarnate, its maniacal resident philosopher.

The danger of a book like this is that the reader must detach to make it through the gore. In comparison to The Road, where humility and love are present on every page and you have a sense the writer is suffering and weeping with you, the substance of Blood Meridian risks being subsumed by its intense and unrelenting style.

But without question Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West is yet another McCarthy entry in the canon of Great North American Literature.

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

    1. Joseph, thank you and I’m ever so glad you stopped in- what a beautiful blog you write! I so look forward to following your quest. Have you read any other McCarthy? I’m slowly working my way through- I need time and space between each.
      Kindest regards, Julie

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      1. No…just Blood Meridian so far. I’ve seen No Country, and I have The Road and Sutree on TBR….but many reads queued up before them. You have a nice site too. I’ll watch for your novel.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi Julie,
    You are right I am trying to experiment but dont know for sure what makes for a compelling story, the attributes and the techniques…let us see how far I reach, as all along I have only been into non-fiction only – this changed just a year back!
    Could you pls recommend some good ones from Chandler as suggested – I’d like to try.
    Thanks!
    Ketan.

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  2. Hi Julie,

    I attempted reading Blood Meridian twice and before each attempt I tried to gather some reviews on this book as I had some equally compelling ones available to read at the same time (thought I would go for the catcher in the rye first, a hero of our time…).
    I think while the prose of Blood Meridian is intellectual (though intense and complex worded sometimes) I also believe that the most powerful styles of storytelling are often so simple (choice of words, style etc.) that you would pass through them as easily as breathing! absorb them entirely and once done you would feel as if it all happened either to you or in front of you!

    Thanks for your review.
    Ketan.

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    1. Hi Ketan,

      Thank you so much for your comments. I’ll admit to being overwhelmed at times by McCarthy’s relentlessly brutal imagery – I lost the story for the trees, as it were. I love that you are exploring and defining for yourself what makes a great story.
      Have you read any Raymond Chandler? For me, he epitomizes the ability to tell the most complete and compelling story in the fewest words. Astonishing.

      Thank you for stopping in. Door is open any time!

      Julie

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  3. I think McCarthy is a stunning writer and this is an absolutely superb review, of a book I wasn’t sure about, but the way you describe not just its content, but the way to navigate it as a reader who doesn’t wish to absorb the violence is so considered and spot on, I can’t even find the words to tell you how in awe I am of it, this is just the best review and the most convincing of any I have read of this book for someone like me.

    Well done Julie, you have such a gift for words, I hope you are making good progress on your own writing.

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    1. Thank you, Claire. Such a challenging review to write – feeling so out of my league with regards to theme. What an astonishing writer. I’ll need a break before I can take on another McCarthy, but I look forward to the challenge – when I ready!

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  4. Boy! Just reading those passages makes me want to read it again, for the third time. For me, The Crossing has special meaning; it captured in its incredible descriptions a Mexico that still faintly existed when I lived there. But I think Blood Meridian is his finest book, comparable to Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness in its frightening ability to draw you into its horror. Only four stars? With writing like that?

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    1. Tom, the writing is what kept me going. I have a hard time with books where either the story does not connect or I have little (in this case no) empathy for any character. The Road – the only other McCarthy I’ve read – was a 5-star and beyond read for me because the story and the characters affected me so deeply – it was a very intimate, personal narrative. Blood Meridian felt more like a tone poem to me – stunning in imagery, but I felt at a stiff arm’s length to the story. Other reader friends have lauded Suttree as his best- have you read this?

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      1. Sutree is also wonderful. It is less dark and violent, though there is some of both. More comedic flourishes, too. To me it is more “southern” than “western,” if that makes any sense. Closer to Flannery O’Conner’s kind of writing and damaged characters than the spare style and bleak worldview McCarthy has moved toward.

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