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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Book Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are large holes in my reading experience — works by acclaimed authors I ought perhaps to have read by now, novels which have created genres, shaped cultures and incited passions, pro and con. There are writers I have tried to read – really, I have – but whose styles made me want to engage in self-flagellation as the lesser of two tortures: William Faulkner, John Updike, Gabriel García Márquez, Virginia Woolf; others whose classics I promise to tackle someday, when I’m smarter and less distracted: James Joyce, Nikolai Gogol, Mary Doria Russell, Herman Melville.

Then there are those celebrated writers who choose subjects or settings which don’t much interest me. With some significant exceptions, I’ve never been keen on books set in the Deep South or in America’s West or in a dystopian near future. So, I’ve always passed on Cormac McCarthy.

Certainly, The Road was never going to be my cuppa. Grim, post-apocalyptic and hopeless are not for this reader who prizes sinking into a good story above all. But when I read reviews as passionate as Nandakishore Varma’s or as insightful as Jay ‘s, who puts McCarthy on the same high rung as two of my favorite authors – Tim Winton and Colm Tóibín – I know I am missing something great.

Why I started with The Road and why I read it during a painful, angry, bleak period in my life really don’t matter in the end. Because by the end of this book – which I soaked up, transfixed, in a day – I was a reader and writer transformed.

To read The Road is to experience a writer working as a poet, creating a narrative in which every word has weight and meaning and every sentence has a rhythm, in which the omission of punctuation and manipulation of words create something recognizable but unfamiliar; techniques that work in concert to create the mood, tone and color of each scene:

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

When you read this paragraph aloud, you breathe along with the man. You take in what he sees and smells, the horror dawning as the weak light of the flame reveals a Holocaust.

Be warned, for three hundred pages of a living nightmare will shatter your soul. But the brutality is balanced by a tender and beautiful relationship between the man and his son. McCarthy’s story, absent of all sentimentality and sheared of all hope, still allows us to believe in mercy and dignity.

The reader never learns why the world was nearly destroyed or by whom or what. The plot is as bare as the blasted out forests and abandoned cities that the man and his son trudge past on their way south, to the ocean. We never learn what they hope to find there, at the water’s edge, at the end of their world. The past and the future are not relevant to The Road. Only the present journey matters, and it serves as a warning to a world in grave danger of losing its way.

I don’t know that I could read The Road again. But I will return to passages, to be reminded of the power of word choice and placement, the poetry of well-crafted prose. And although I know this novel stands apart from others in McCarthy’s œuvre, I look forward to exploring more of his world.

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