Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book review: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian is not so much a story as an exposition on the nature of the Universe and mankind's role in it.  And, let me tell you, if Cormac McCarthy has it right, it ain't a pretty picture.  In true McCarthy fashion, the novel plumbs some very dark depths.

Set in 1850 in northern Mexico and what is now the southwestern United States, the novel chronicles the life of another of McCarthy's unnamed protagonists.  "The kid," we are told, "can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence." 

The kid leaves his home at 14 and makes his way to Texas where he is drawn into the savagery and violence that defined that region in that era.  (The novel is based on historical events.)  The kid is conscripted into a gang of scalp-hunters, led by a killer named John Glanton and a monstrous, charismatic, utterly depraved creature named Judge Holden.

The judge is an attractive figure, compelling in spite of his evil, in the mold of Milton's Satan or Melville's Ahab.  The judge is erudite, adept, knowledgeable and savage.  Tobin, an expriest that has fallen in with the Glanton Gang says this of the judge:  "Mayhaps he aint to your liking, fair enough.  But the man's a hand at anything.  I've never seen him turn to a task but what he didnt prove clever at it."

The judge displays expertise in archaeology, geology, chemistry, and language.  He's an accomplished musician and an elegant dancer.  He is also a cold-blooded remorseless killer and perhaps a pedophile.  In fact, the judge is, by far, the most distinctly drawn of the novel's characters.  The kid and almost all of the other characters are kept deliberately vague, slightly malevolent.  The solipsistic themes of the work are revealed by this; the judge is creator/destroyer of all.  "He says he will live forever."

The book is full of literary allusions:  Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, the Bible, King Lear. As with all his work, McCarthy's prose in Blood Meridian captivates.  His mastery of diction, vast vocabulary, and genius for lyricism; his sparse punctuation and narrative authority, his ear for vernacular dialog that rivals the work of Mark Twain or John Steinbeck --all of these elements make Blood Meridian a spell-binding read.

Consider this passage:
In the evening they came out upon a mesa that overlooked all the country to the north.  The sun to the west lay in a holocaust where there rose a steady column of small desert bats and to the north along the trembling perimeter of the world dust was blowing down the void like the smoke of distant armies.  The crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and herds of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor.
Pure poetry.

But no sooner does one become lulled by the beauty of such a passage than McCarthy appalls and horrifies with vivid portrayals of obscene violence.  For example, following close on the preceding passage, we are presented this:
...when the black stepped out of the darkness bearing the bowieknife in both hands like some instrument of ceremony Tobin started to rise.  The white man looked up drunkenly and the black stepped forward and with a single stroke swapt off his head.

Two thick ropes of dark blood and two slender rose like snakes from the stump of his neck and arched hissing into the fire.  The head rolled to the left and came to rest at the expriest's feet where it lay with eyes aghast.  Tobin jerked his foot away and rose and stepped back.  The fire steamed and blackened and a gray cloud of smoke rose and the columnar arches of blood slowly subsided until just the neck bubbled gently like a stew and then that too was stilled.  He was sat as before save headless, drenched in blood, the cigarillo still between his fingers, leaning toward the dark and smoking grotto in the flames where his life had gone.

There is so much to chew on with this book that it really requires multiple readings.  In fact, some of the writing is so dense that I had to read passages several times to comprehend them. But it will be a while before I steel my nerves for another read.  The book is chock full of ghastly, apocalyptic violence; so much so, actually, that the reader almost becomes inured to it, as no doubt, McCarthy intends.

Cormac McCarthy is a literary force.  Blood Meridian, which some have called his magnum opus, is a major literary work, startling in its ambition.  With this novel, McCarthy adds his name to the litany of Great American authors in the tradition of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Faulkner.


UnitFour said...

I have not read any of Cormac McArthy's works, though from what I understand he gravitates toward a bleak interpretation of humankind. At some point I lost my taste for nihilism and misanthropy - right about the time I watched "Requiem for a Dream" - and so I have not felt inclined to pick up McArthy. I'm surprised, though, at how many artists using different media share McArthy's revelation in pain and ugliness. For me, these kinds of stories no longer hit my sweet spot.

UnitFour said...

Maybe I will have to give this a shot after all.

BillNeedle said...

Vastly overrated pap. Keeps hitting the same nail between the stretches of purple prose. Guys like it cus the violence is oh so literary. Read Melville instead - more nails, bigger toolbox.

Peter said...

Pretentious and ultimately a boring read.

Yes, Cormac has a great vocabulary, but there is no plot, and the book it is filled with gratuitous violence and racism.

Cormac has lots of fun using the "n" word with no point other than to shock. He uses it as though he were writing as a 19th century racist which to me is inexcusable.

And honestly, some of his "profound" blatherings are meaningless when deconstructed.

All in all- just a lousy read.