Cons: Maybe too violent for some, unlikely to draw any female readers
The Bottom Line: The adventure in story and style is overwhelming. I'd love to get specific here but impossible to summarize 2700 words to 30.
Edited to correct embarrassing grammatical mistakes
Usually I ignore blurbs on the covers of novels that have been republished, but sometimes what appears there is so off the mark that I am pretty sure the person quoted didn’t read the same book I did, or was misquoted. Michael Herr says Blood Meridian is “a classic American novel of regeneration through violence.” Huh? Wha? American, yes; novel yes; violence, and-how!!; regeneration [crickets]. This little toe-hold analysis allows some entry into a review of a book who’s only real parallel is (ahem) the Bible, more specifically Joshua and Ezekiel and Daniel. (Due mainly to the idea of the biblical, Meridian has been compared to Moby Dick; this comparison does not work except in the coincidental).
I want to start out saying I recommend this novel (it isn’t for everyone—more on this in its place). Until I get into some of the analysis, the review is going to sound negative. This tone will be based on the fact that much of what happens in the novel runs so counter to our modern concepts niceness that praising the events outside of their context would make me sound like an unrepentant mass murderer. Also below the main review, I will quote often from the novel; if you like or are intrigued by the quotes, then read on; if they bore or anger you, then . . .
Like many novels in the early 1800’s, Blood Meridian’s chapter headings list a quick summary of events: “Childhood in Tennessee—Runs away—New Orleans” and so on. This trope is also similar to the way many Bibles are divided now, with salient pieces given headings: Justice of God’s ways—Equity of God’s dealings—Desolation of Jerusalem. This means, basically, that no matter the detail it seems I will cover, I am not spoiling what is, ultimately, an unspoilable plot. The general story is simple and pretty standard for the genre of westerns
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West is a western first no matter how rococo the details may get. In the early part of the 1830s a nameless boy simply called the kid leaves the eastern portions of Tennessee to go west. He goes without plan but shortly finds a private army willing to clothe and feed him as much as circumstances will allow. The circumstances are killing Indians in the untamable wastes of the desert from Texas down well into Mexico and across to southern California. Along with the Indians, the kid faces death and privation on the one hand and treasure and fleeting glory on the other. The events occur over nearly a decade, and once the kid is done adventuring, he points his horse east. The general outline of the story is pretty much your grandfather’s western.
The anciens, Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour used these naturalistic hardships to shape their characters in such a way that they could kill yet remain at least human if not heroic. In war, at least for the winning side, it is possible for the one who kills to return to his humanity.
But Blood Meridian all but says nutz to humanity and tosses humaneness aside the same way a marauder does the skull once attached to the scalp he pockets.
The kid’s peers are a largely interchangeable group of illiterate men that, by and large, know conscience to be a societal conceit that stands in the way of every scrotal thing they can imagine. They bring havoc on foe, but also on friend. They make “havoc” and “amok” verbs and they havoc and amok until they are no longer conscious.
Not every one of the “demons and lesser things*” is an unschooled hick. Captain White enlists the kid and seems able until he meets his end. His replacement, Glanton, leads the men carefully and does so with a quiet calm which is the one thing that passes for “goodness.” Then there is the Judge (Judge Holden). If there is one thing to spoil it is any specific description of this character (beyond his physical description, though, I’m not sure I would know how to characterize what he is or what he does without several hours and lots of rum for me and my audience). I’m still pondering this statement but I’m fairly confident I won’t change my mind: the Judge is the defining aspect; how you approach him is how you approach the story as a whole. (*This quote is from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, it is better than anything I could come up with in a reasonable time.)
No matter the character, each man is an extreme opportunist. He would rather be alone to collect the treasure but knows that would be suicidal, so he becomes an uneasy member of a group of fighters whose only commonality is the obsession with rewards gained by violence.
These men run through territory and blood for nearly a decade; however the story seems never to lose track of time, meaning the events run in such an orderly fashion, it seems as if there is never a lengthy break.
I need to cover a couple of bits of style general to McCarthy’s novels. As in all other novels, he does not use quote marks to indicate when someone is speaking. Context drives this and as frustrating as it may seem at first, it is easy enough to accommodate after a few pages. With all of the westerns the Spanish dialog is not translated. This is the same sort of minor inconvenience since context is usually enough to know what’s going on. However, if you need to know, I recommend freetranslation.
After such a “glowing” review, why do I recommend it? The style McCarthy uses is risky, but I believe successful. He doesn’t just cast a group of murderous thugs that swear and brag until they meet the end tradition and mores demand. The first third of the novel is a crass picaresque story—focusing largely on an impish, playful character with no real respect for public sentiments (though the version of this in Blood Meridian is far darker than the tone in Don Quxiote). Once the slaughters begin in earnest, the style shifts such that it becomes noticeably biblical in scope.
If you believe, as I do, that there are no new stories, then when we get something we consider “new” it typically means a different cast or a different style of narrative that deviate from the accepted norm. Blood Meridian deviates from both facets significantly; the reader does travel in somewhat familiar territory but with a stranger map and questionable guides.
Unfortunately this novel would likely not appeal to any woman. None of McCarthy’s novels embrace much of the feminine, but Meridian doesn’t recognize that there is such a thing, or if it did, the recognition would last only so long as it took for a marauder to find a club to smash her with. The language he uses can be more challenging than many would want for a casual read. For this, I just have to say that if, from time to time, you seek a challenge by reading something against character, then Meridian needs to be first among equals. Pick up a copy, turn to the middle and read a couple of pages. You should be able to tell immediately if it will be a slog rather than a qualified romp. Blood Meridian deserves the full measure of stars but with an explanation concerning the nature of the expected readers.
The review proper is over. What follows is a deeper analysis. I greatly appreciate any reader willing to continue reading and would love to receive comments.
The glib first. Blood Meridian is a sort of schizoid cousin of what Baudelaire created with Flowers of Evil (I prefer to translate Fleurs de mal as Flowers of Sickness, but I missed the editorial meeting handling translations). Flowers used the rancid or otherwise objectionable/rejectable to describe something sublime—or at least that’s the idea. Meridian takes the horrific, apocalyptic, and the common place and describes them in lofty language and something akin to epic metaphors. For most of us, the thought of writing about someone shooting a litter of otherwise healthy puppies would pause the pen. McCarthy handles it in a way that is compelling even if nauseating. Judge Holden takes puppies he just bought and tosses them into a creek. Another character decides to use the scrambling pups as target practice: “The dogs disappeared in the foam. They swept one and the next down a broad green race over sheets of polished rock into the pool below. He raised and cocked the pistol. In the clear waters of the pool willow leaves turned like jade dace. He cocked and fired the pistol and the other dog also blossomed and sank.”
It is hard to deny how well the words flow. “They swept one and the next down a broad green race” comes out of the common understanding of how English meter works. Now a little deeper. He uses the phrase “jade dace” to represent willow leaves—like a willow leaf, a dace is small and narrow. He could easily have said jade fish instead—were it a poem, fish and dace are one syllable and end in a sibilant, alone this odd word would just one of the rarer words McCarthy tends (to a point) to like. But dace rhymes with “race” which McCarthy uses instead of creek or brook which is an obvious example of the kind of literary tuning McCarthy is renowned for.
This is one specific case where McCarthy uses florid language in easy meter to describe the massacre of puppies. At once, this talent pulls at the part of the heart tuned to artful language while pouring bile into the stomach that would rather you read about happy things.
To be even more glib: killing puppies with beautiful language beats the shít out of saving puppies with clunky, artless words.
It has only been upon struggling for days to write this review/essay that I realize something I considered a failing turns out not to be. About halfway through the novel, the tone changes. It starts out as a profane and darker picaresque adventure. At the turn of a page, the style shifts from a coarse Henry Fielding to the tone, style, and sometimes scope of the Bible.
In the first couple of pages, for no real reason, the kid gets into an hours long fight with a codger. The kid passes out in deep mud then:
When he woke it was daylight and the rain had stopped and he was looking up into the face of a man with long hair who was completely covered in mud. The man was saying something to him. What? Said the kid. I said are you quits? Quits? Quits. Cause if you want some more of me you sure as hëll goin to get it. He looked at the sky. Very high, very small, a buzzard. He looked at the man. Is my neck broke? He said. The man looked out over the lot and spat and looked at the boy again. Can you not get up? I don’t know. I ain’t tried. I never meant to break your neck. No. I meant to kill ye.
After the kid is taken to the captain who enlists him is this exchange:
I got an old hull [saddle] on the mule but they aint much left of it. Aint a whole lot left of the mule. He said I was to get a horse and a rifle. Sergeant Trammel did? I never promised him no saddle, said the sergeant. We’ll get you a saddle. I did tell him we might find him some clothes, Captain. Right. We may be irregulars but we don’t want to look like bobtails do we? No sir. We aint got no more broke horses neither, said the sergeant. Well break one.
The first third of the novel contains these Huck Finn type scenes. It took my second time through Meridian to see this, but the kid is an extreme version of what Huck could become when he lit out for the territories at the end of his story.
In one town before the fighting turns irredeemable, a group of jugglers join the party. One begins a bit of fortune telling but when he sees the card Glanton picks, he and his fellow performers bolt as fast as they can. This incident, I think, is the marker for the change in tone and the unmasking of the group’s full motive. Two pages on, the beginning of the next chapter emphasizes this (though it seems a bit cliché):
“They paused without the cantina and pooled their coins and Toadvine pushed aside the dried cowhide that hung for a door and they entered a place where all was darkness and without definition.”
The remainder of the novel defines the darkness (cliché too I guess—sue me).
I had thought to do a thematic gloss of the novel vis the Bible, no direct parallels so much as narrowly focused thematics. I have since thought better of it. It is too weighty and lengthy a subject to handle and present in this venue. However, I cannot ignore it altogether.
Meridian is not an allegory, though at moments it reads like one. It is no morality play in the traditional sense; however I can see how someone might be able to argue that it is—this ambiguity is what keeps me reading not only this novel but nearly every other McCarthy novel.
It is a story containing biblical massacres, one after another. The landscapes are crucibles that separate the fundamental soul from the terrestrial noise. But the battles are without moral or at least social context let alone consequence. The fundamental soul in the crucible is not that of a prophet or pilgrim, but of the thug. The party is also an unmistakable pestilence to everyone and everywhere they touch. In my reckoning, Meridian is the notebook of a soldier, the raw data of war and murder as fact not metaphor.
Later a philosopher or ethicist would come across this notebook. This figure is the one who focuses the fear, augments the soul searching to include moments of conscience, and gives context and consequence to the brutality. Without the philosopher, as the worry demands, there would be little to stop us from becoming demons. But at least the demons here, horrific as they may be, are presented in such a way that once well begun, it is all but impossible to stop before the end.
Reading Blood Meridian, I felt like I was rediscovering what it must have been like to read Homer for the Greeks. The prose is so spare and raw -- and unwieldy (that is not a complaint, though some have complained about it in other reviews; if you want pretty prose don't read McCarthy) -- and has precisely what appeals in Homer: the feel that these men, almost gods in their inexplicable resoluteness combined with an uncanny ability to survive the harshest conditions, are nevertheless all too human. … more
Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN is an epic nightmare of a novel. Set in the 1850s on the Tex-Mex border, it is about a 14-year-old runaway--known only as "the kid"--who comes of age in a brutal culture. Joining up with a gang of Indian-killers, the kid learns to kill Apaches for bounty. Barely escaping with his life from a group bent on revenge, he takes up with a larger-than-life figure called Judge Holden, a truly vicious man who represents all that is evil in humanity. In the end, it's the kid vs. the judge: only one will survive. The kid's journey through a landscape fraught with violence and horror is a kind of satire of the traditional literary epic quest, and an allegory of the transformation of the American west as it became increasingly despoiled by blood, greed, and its own fake heroic grandeur. Considered by many to be McCarthy's masterpiece, BLOOD MERIDIAN reads like an American parable of Biblical proportions, a dire warning for the fate of man.