Review: Blood Meridian a.k.a. !@#$%^!!

blood-meridian_coverCormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is on enough “best of” lists that I’ve been curious about it for years. Violence is McCarthy’s preferred subject and he writes it with brutal, lyrical language that’s often described as biblical. His stories are stomach-churning and frequently depressing since they aim to capture the worst inevitabilities of human nature. It’s taken me a decade to get through The Road, No Country for Old Men, Outer Dark, and Blood Meridian. While Blood Meridian may be held as a high point in American lit; it’s the weakest McCarthy I’ve read.

The Plot

The kid, an unnamed runaway, rides into Nacogdoches in 1849. There, he meets Judge Holden and gets in a number of fights before leaving town. After word gets out about what he did to a barman, he’s recruited for Captain White’s army “to whip up on the Mexicans.” (29) This army is short-lived and the kid later falls in with Glanton’s gang (which has historical roots). Though the gang’s official goal is to kill and scalp Apaches, they branch out to kill most everyone they meet. Judge Holden re-enters the story and becomes more mythic, grandiose, and violent with each sequence. There’s no character development, no commentary, and the only breaks from routine are little revelations about the judge’s character: He’s a linguist, a philosopher, a chemist, and a frequent nudist who doesn’t seem to age.

The Questionably Great

Really beautiful sentences. I know I mocked this in my review of The Little Stranger, but Blood Meridian is chock full o’ beautiful sentences. The downside is that many of the best sentences cover recurring elements—the landscape, pseudo-philosophical babble—and they run together because they’re repetitive. It’s also hard to distinguish between the characters because they all have the same voice (except the judge) and no one cares where they’re going so long as they get to shoot and scalp a lot of people along the way and half of them don’t have an opinion on the shooting and scalping. The judge isn’t the best character; he’s the only character. As far as everyone else is concerned, this is the book: “Oh, the landscape; look at the sun’s position in the sky. Load the gun. Bang. Bang. Get shot. Horse gear is neat. Load the gun to shoot. Bang. Bang. Oh, the landscape is covered in blood now.” Which is rubbish, of course, but not the way McCarthy writes it.

It’s more difficult than I thought to say this book reaches greatness on behalf of some fancy phrasing. At the end of the day, Blood Meridian isn’t anything that most people will want to read. Heck, it’s not anything that I want to read again. The book falls into an abyss. Maybe this wasn’t the best time to read a book that is all “us vs. them” when there’s no reason given for the “vs.” other than nationality/race. At times, even this falls away and not even indefensible racism is held as a reason. Nothing comes of anything in this book—no, that’s not right: Violence comes of violence again and again. Yet no one has a thought or reaction to this. Nothing is gained, felt, or learned. No one takes joy and no one feels guilt. It’s just one long slog of barren landscapes, horses, guns, and depraved acts. Is the utter meaninglessness supposed to drive the reader mad? Other McCarthy books don’t have this problem: In Outer Dark and No Country, the seemingly-unstoppable and unreasonable violence that stalks the protagonists follows a logic—it’s meant as a brutal comeuppance, no one is clean, and no one can get away. But here?

You know what, shove it. This book blows. I hate it. Even the pretty sentences are messed up and I read the whole stupid thing and didn’t even get a proper ending. And WHO SITS IN AN OUTHOUSE NAKED OUTHOUSES ARE DISGUSTING. !@#$%^&!

Why Outer Dark, No Country For Old Men, and The Road Are All Better

Because they are. They are. The end of Outer Dark is also heinous, but at least the characters have thoughts and motives beyond “I’m hungry” and “Screw these people.”

In the case of the judge, what is the point of creating the landscape/routine/image of a hyper-real tinderbox in which resources are scarce and people are desperate, only to deposit an overpowered (possibly ageless) creature to really stir the violence? Like these people couldn’t do it themselves? Why must the violence be so exaggerated that it’s the one thing not bound by reality? Perhaps this is why The Road is the stronger book: The horror in The Road is that regular people have been made monstrous through fear and desperation. Its hellish world is already here, it’s just waiting for a disaster to bring it out. No judge is required.

Oh, and should you read Blood Meridian, the people who tap out because of the violence aren’t just being squeamish. It’s bad. How bad? Well, once you read a tremendously long sentence all about spearing, clubbing, scalping, disemboweling, mutilating, and sodomizing (which could probably get this post flagged), you get a description of the aftermath:

And now the horses of the dead came pounding out of the smoke and dust and circled with flapping leather and wild manes and eyes whited with fear like the eyes of the blind and some were feathered with arrows and some lanced through and stumbling and vomiting blood as they wheeled across the killing ground and clattered from sight again. Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming. (54)

Sidenote: Is any other author allowed to use “and” 16 times in two sentences or is McCarthy truly allowed to do whatever he wants? He also hates quotation marks, apostrophes, and hyphens. Oh! I thought of something nice to say: I love how his prose is intensely layered with fab $20 words that are rare in life and lit. The disparity between what he writes and the vocab/education-level of his characters creates a unique texture.

Overall: I don’t know.

Translation: Read at your own risk.

Review: The Road

the_road_coverIf you tend toward a survivalist outlook and dream of the day you can build a bunker stocked with MREs, guns, and ammo… do not read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is in the top five most terrifying books I’ve read and afterwards, though this isn’t the point of the book, I found myself pricing long term food storage. The Road opens after an unknown disaster has burned everything and left the air full of ash. A man is traveling on the road with his son, heading south to where it might still be warm. Though it’s a dark and horrifying read, it’s the most sentimental of McCarthy’s works. The driving force is the man’s love for his son. This is able to parallel, and at times surpass, the depressing world around them.

This will sound insincere and hyperbolic, but The Road is the closest thing I’ve seen to a technically “perfect” novel and it’s certainly head and shoulders above McCarthy’s other works. McCarthy’s books feature uniquely horrific depictions of brutality. Unlike other authors, he does not glorify violence, jazz it up for sex appeal, or temper it with humor. In The Road, there is finally something to offset his characteristic cruelty: the love between father and son. This results in a story better balanced than his others.

Now, in the previous paragraph I used the word “perfect”. I’m of the opinion that nothing written is perfect or even truly finished. There’s always some edit, some minor tweak, a poorly chosen phrase… something. But The Road hits its mark. There are no wasted words. Each description creates a deeper mood; each conversation builds the father/son connection. And, for once, McCarthy’s cast is small enough that his inability to use quotation marks doesn’t create confusion.

Adding another layer is that every now and then, there is a conversation that does not identify the respective speakers. These are interesting because you can read each line as said by either character and the conversation still works.

And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
Okay. (10-11)

The boy is asking “What would you do if I died”, it would be out of character for the man to ask since he isn’t one for dreary hypotheticals and prefers to keep the boy calm and safe. However, if the man were asking this question, the conversation would remain the same. The boy is the man’s only reason to push further south; and the man is the boy’s only protection. They cannot exist without the other.

Though this book is spectacular, it’s also spectacularly depressing. There is one scene that is so intense, and so terrifying, it makes me feel sick to think about. (If you’ve read the book, you can probably guess which.) Though I strongly recommend this book, it wouldn’t be quite right to recommend it without mentioning that you might want to line up something cheery to do when you’ve finished.

As an example, this is their conversation when hiding from a group of strangers who are looking for them:

He could hear them in the road talking. Voice of a woman. Then he heard them in the dry leaves. He took the boy’s hand and pushed the revolver into it. Take it, he whispered. Take it. The boy was terrified. He put his arm around him and held him. His body so thin. Dont be afraid, he said. If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. […] Do you understand?
I think so.
No. Do you understand?
Say yes I do Papa.
Yes I do Papa.
He looked down at him. All he saw was terror. He took the gun from him. No you dont, he said.
I dont know what to do, Papa. I dont know what to do. Where will you be?
It’s okay.
I dont know what to do.
Shh. I’m right here. I wont leave you.
You promise.
Yes. I promise. I was going to run. To try and lead them from away. But I cant leave you.

Even if you took out the people chasing them and replaced them with invincible zombies, you could not make this scene more frightening. I’d love to be able to write this way, but I suspect there’s a high emotional cost to keeping your mind in such a miserable place for however long it takes to write a book like this.

Overall: 4.999… I can’t give a 5. Ha. I’ve written for too many teachers who preached against perfect scores for writing assignments; it must have rubbed off. How about I say the fraction was deducted on account of the ending feeling a little tacked on?

Translation: Read it. Don’t bother with the movie. The movie is lacking in execution, even though Viggo Mortensen is amazing as the man.