Blood Meridian

blood meridianI was astonished to learn recently that there are people who think Cormac McCarthy is an extremely realistic author, someone whose novels are “marked by intense natural observation.” While I suppose you could make an argument that the whole atmosphere of his novels comes out of the Naturalist tradition (meaning that the environment produces the characters naturally, the way the Galápagos islands produce finches), I can’t say that any of his novels I’ve read strike me as realistic — or rather, as real. They are as exotic, as impossible, as farfelu, as the mountains of the moon.

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West is the fictionalized story of the (real-life) John Joel Glanton gang, which terrorized northern Mexico in 1849. This gang dealt in the thriving market for Indian scalps, first for money, but later out of compulsion and a sheer drive for violence. They killed not only the Apaches they were sent to kill, but peace-loving agricultural tribes, whole villages of Mexican civilians, and even Mexican soldiers. McCarthy’s grimly blood-soaked vision mostly follows “the kid,” a fifteen-year-old sharpshooter who joins Glanton’s gang by chance and has his own predilection for violence.

The other presence in the book — and I say “presence” rather than “character” deliberately — is the Judge.

The expriest turned and looked at the kid. And that was the judge the first ever I saw him. Aye. He’s a thing to study.

The kid looked at Tobin. What’s he a judge of? he said.

What’s he a judge of?

What’s he a judge of.

Tobin glanced off across the fire. Ah lad, he said. Hush now. The man will hear ye. He’s ears like a fox.

The Judge is a creature barely human, or perhaps not human at all, larger than life-size, hairless all over his body, who roams McCarthy’s vicious and barren landscape as a sort of embodiment of violence and war. (The hairlessness — besides being simply eerie — reminded me of the myths that suggest that werewolves in their human form are hairless, because all the hair is on the inside; an inside-out man.) Educated and sophisticated, but also brutal almost beyond imagining, he orates only to incite and studies only to destroy: one of his hobbies throughout the book is to find and sketch beautiful artifacts from previous ancient civilizations — Anasazi, Spanish, Yuma — and then quietly eradicate them, “expunge them from the mind of man,” so that eventually nothing will exist but the Judge himself.

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

Over time, the kid’s personality and opinions form themselves against the Judge’s, as a riverbank blindly forms itself against the power of the river.

The prose in Blood Meridian is unlike almost anything I’ve ever read. McCarthy likes to use recondite vocabulary (I always learn something new, reading his books), and there’s an almost Biblical ring to his texts — I hardly need say that we are talking about the particularly grotesque bits of the Old Testament here, need I? You could choose from almost any page a piece of description like this one:

They did not noon nor did they siesta and the cotton eye of the moon squatted at broad day in the throat of the mountains to the east and they were still riding when it overtook them at its midnight meridian sketching on the plain below a blue cameo of such dread pilgrims clanking north.

A cameo of dread pilgrims. In jasperware, no doubt. Or this, about a troupe of tarot-readers:

Someone snatched the old woman’s blindfold from her and she and the juggler were clouted away and when the company turned in to sleep and the low fire was roaring in the blast like a thing alive these four yet crouched at the edge of the firelight among their strange chattels and watched how the ragged flames fled down the wind as if sucked by some maelstrom out there in the void, some vortex in that waste apposite to which man’s transit and his reckonings alike lay abrogate. As if beyond will or fate he and his beasts and his trappings moved both in card and in substance under consignment to some third and other destiny.

This kind of prose, as you can see, is not realism. It’s not even close observation of nature. It is some sort of visionary staggering into Fate, and it’s extraordinary; the style is almost trance-inducing.

This second quotation mentions, incidentally, the only woman in the entire book, except for girls who get raped in passing by the Glanton gang. I’ve read McCarthy’s prose described as “masculine,” but insofar as that term means anything when applied to prose (not much in my opinion) it appears to mean that he concerns himself with violence and has only male characters in his books. It’s been a very, very long time since I read a book that had only male characters. Even Fight Club had a woman in it.

This is the fifth book I’ve read by McCarthy, and by far the most violent and the grimmest, even surpassing The Road. I can see, though, where people get the idea that it is his masterpiece. A strange and unholy light illuminates its landscape, and its meditations on human nature and violence are compelling. If this interests you at all, I believe on balance I’d recommend it.

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20 Responses to Blood Meridian

  1. Is this one grimmer than Child of God? I found that book a little – ha ha – a little hard to take. It is the only McCarthy I have read. It created a nervous reluctance to pick up another. Ha ha. Yikes. It has plenty of female characters, all too many. One of them is even alive for a few pages.

    As for what you wrote, it is clear enough that there is more “realism” in Little, Big than in Blood Meridian.

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t read Child of God, but after a quick check of its plot, I can see what you mean. I don’t believe this book is grimmer than that, no.

      I don’t know if you read the interview I linked to, Tom, but McCarthy says in it that he finds authors like Proust and Henry James “strange” and “not really literature” because they don’t deal with matters of life and death. I wonder what he is reading?

    • Based on style, McCarthy reads Faulkner, lots of Faulkner, again and again.

      Oh, that’s also what the NYT article says. Well, then, it is so.

      • Jenny says:

        Oh — what I meant was, I wonder what James and Proust he is reading, to think they are not concerned with life and death?

  2. I absolutely love McCarthy. The Road was an incredibly emotional experience for me.

    • Jenny says:

      His prose is certainly powerful and unusual. I enjoyed The Road as well — very different from his other books.

  3. Stefanie says:

    I’ve only ever read a All the Pretty Horses. It was good but I did not love it. Too much violence for my taste and it seems many of his books are even more violent so I stay clear. You make a really interesting argument about realism that I greatly enjoyed reading!

    • Jenny says:

      I read his Border Trilogy years ago now (maybe as many as 15 years ago) and thought it was very good. Almost sweet, compared to this book or The Road!

  4. Elle says:

    Do you know of the Yale Open Course lecture on this book? Delivered by Amy Hungerford–it’s incredibly illuminating. Comes in two parts, and

    Tom, I wouldn’t have recommended starting with Child of God! It’s incredibly dark even for McCarthy. The Border Trilogy (beginning with the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Pretty Horses) was where I started, and branched out from there. Don’t blame you for being pretty repulsed…

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know that lecture — thank you for the link. Amy Hungerford ought to be a very good source for information on that topic!

  5. russell1200 says:

    In No Country For Old men he seems to take Epic/Mythic style figures, and then put them into the very grim setting to which they actually belong. That story does have one major female character, but I don’t recall that gets her much of a pass in how things turn out for her.

    The Road is a father-son story set in a grim warning of a future. Again the use of setting to make a very familiar story into a very different sort of tale.

    Both stories, in different ways, address the dichotomy between future expectations, and future reality.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve read The Road, which I found a bleak meditation on what it takes to remain a decent human being in the face of relentless indecency. I’m interested in reading No Country for Old Men; I’m a sucker for retellings of myth.

  6. Rory says:

    Child of God makes me shudder a little, still. Blood Meridian is one of my all time favorites.

  7. I tried to read Blood Meridian a few years ago, because it was featured in the book “Beowulf on the Beach.” I got to the tree of dead babies and threw the book across the room. But I have been a fan of this blog for a long time (particularly of your 19th century choices, as you know), so I have purchased a new copy of it and have placed it in my TBR short pile, maybe following my need to re-read Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes to get ready for this summer’s Dickens Universe. I also admire the eclectic tastes of “Amateur Reader,” who has already commented above. So I’ll do my best to get through it. I didn’t care for “All the Pretty Horses” when it came out, and I suffered through “The Road.” I’m told that “Blood Meridian is McCarthy’s “masterpiece.” That may turn out to be damning with faint praise, but I will give it a go.

    • Jenny says:

      Christopher, I totally absolve you from reading this book. If you’ve already read two books by McCarthy and haven’t liked them, he just may not be for you. That’s not a value judgment (as by this time I’m sure you know.) It’s a way of making sure that the precious time you have to spend reading on this earth is time you enjoy. Return the book! Read something you’ll like!

      I’m planning to read Hard Times in the next couple of weeks, by the way. :)

    • I have had doubts about the premise of that Beowulf on the Beach book. They have just been strongly reinforced.

      • Jenny says:

        Well, sure. The guy who wrote that book is the same guy who spent not one, but two books compiling the “naughty bits” (?) of literature so you wouldn’t have to read the books in context to find them for yourself. State of mind, man, state of mind.

        However, that doesn’t tell you that Blood Meridian is a bad book. (It isn’t.) He also recommends The Iliad in Beowulf on the Beach. Even a stopped clock &c.

      • I am not sure what a “beach book” is, but Blood Meridian ain’t one. Not so sure about The Iliad, either, but at least much of it takes place on a beach.

        Two books of naughty bits – a literary con man.

  8. Christy says:

    I liked The Road – read it a number of years ago. I have had Blood Meridian on my to-read list for a while because I had heard it was his best, but after reading your review, I went and took it off the list. I think I must not have known what it was about, or was more game to try it years ago, but knowing my reading tastes now, it’s not a book for me. Thanks!

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