on October 27, 2004
by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, is the most overwhelming novel I've read for years. I came late to it in two senses. It's almost 20 years since it was published in 1985, and it is late in my own reading life, because I'm 63. I read it on holiday. Not a comfortable choice, and certainly not the best thing to relax with on a sunlounger, while supping a drink with a hat on. But Blood Meridian is, at the risk of sounding pretentious, on a par with Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying' or Beckett's 'Waiting For Godot' or even that most astounding work of all, 'King Lear'. High claims, but give it a try.
You might well have to try it more than once, because it is very strong, and at times even rancid, meat. But a lot of people, after they've closed the book, might find they can't read another novel for a while.
I finished the book, and picked up another. But the pages were slipping by and all my head could think on was Blood Meridian. So I did something I very rarely do. I put the other novel down and turned back to Blood Meridian, and read it again. It's a hell of a book. And I'm not speaking particularly metaphorically. It tells us more about the human condition than most other respectable works we laud so much. Blood Meridian is original, disturbing, heretical, challenging, difficult, and awe inspiring. Just like King Lear.
Here endeth my rant.
on October 17, 2005
his was one of those things where I'd heard about the book, in bits and pieces, for years: namechecked by William Gibson in Virtual Light and by Garth Ennis in Preacher, yapped about by online friends, and requested every so often by customers at the bookstore where I once worked. You know how this kind of thing goes: after a while, all these name-droppings have a cumulative impact, flipping a little switch in your brain one day and sending you off in search of the item in question. So that's how I came to Blood Meridian - knowing the book by its notorious reputation alone and little else. Having finally finished it, I can say that its notoriety is richly deserved, but that's hardly the whole story.
The premise could be described for the ADD among you as Huckleberry Finn meets Natural Born Killers, which hardly sounds flattering, I'm sure, but bear with me. The story opens on the peregrinations of the Kid, a vicious, knife-fighting fourteen-year-old runaway from Tennessee who in 1848 drifts down the Mississippi first to New Orleans and thence to Texas, where he falls in with a rogue Army unit making a piratical raid into Mexico. After Apaches wipe out the unit in the Sonora desert, the Kid lands in a Mexican jail, where he meets and is recruited by a group of bounty hunters retained by the government to collect Indian scalps as retaliation for a string of Apache massacres in remote border villages.
Here is where the story really begins. The Kid is absorbed into the gang, a collection of opportunists, outlaws, drifters and psychopaths presided over by two domineering personalities: the nominal leader of the group, Ike Glanton, a mercenary ex-soldier with a nasty temper and a deep vein of sadism, and Glanton's advisor, the fat, hairless, urbane, and utterly mercurial Judge Holden. The gang finds an Indian tribe - not the marauders but a peaceful fishing village - and slaughters it utterly. But unable to catch the ever-elusive Apaches, the company elects to pursue easier prey; namely, the defenseless villages and mining camps littering the arid wastes of the Southwest. As their bounty hunt turns into a genocidal murder spree, the gang, and even Glanton, forget their simple mercenary aspirations and become increasingly captivated by the magnetism of the Judge, who tells them they are agents of a pitiless natural law, high priests sacrificing the undeserving to a blood-soaked pagan god.
The Kid, his ego subsumed by the group organism, essentially disappears from the book as Glanton and the Judge assume center stage. Occasional chapters deal with other members of the gang - an apostate priest, a runaway slave - but their individuality is eventually consumed too. The narrative becomes increasingly distant and godlike - rather than seeing their surroundings through the eyes of the gang, we see the gang from the point of view of, for instance, the wind passsing through their camp. They go beyond a place where most readers could follow, so like elusive elementary particles, we have to look for understanding in the marks left by their passage.
The book is a fantasia of luridly-described, Hammer-horror violence set against a landscape whose harsh geography is, like the wildernesses of the Bible or the open seas of Melvile, spiritual in nature as well as temporal, a place where men come to commune with higher or lower powers. In fact, as a quick glance at Amazon shows, it's nigh-on impossible to review this book without invoking Melville or the Bible. McCarthy's prose seems to have rumbled out of the hollow places of the earth itself; even his descriptions of innocuities like tumbleweeds and roadrunners can sound like passages from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Let me be clear: this book is not a "revisionist western." It is not an apologia. McCarthy is not tut-tutting and bewailing the fate of the proud, noble Indian; in point of fact, many of the Indians in this book are as messed-up and psychopathic as the whites. His vision is bigger than that. He's talking about the nature of violence - the little stain of destructive insanity in all of us that is not adequately explained by genetics or psychology or class theory. Original sin, if you like. The problem, as McCarthy sees it, is not that white people are bad. It is not even that civilization is bad - the natives, as McCarthy reminds us, had a civilization too. The problem is that people have evil inside of them at a fundamental level, and when they're cut loose from their moorings and isolated in an unforgiving environment, that mindless, all-consuming blackness is free to bubble up to the surface.
So yeah. The book is as dense and heavy-duty as it sounds - indeed, even at a slim 350 pages it's tough going. I had to take a couple of long breaks to cleanse my literary palate with lighter fare. But even so, I predict I will be coming back to Blood Meridian often in the future - like a pile of bloodsoaked treasure, there are ample rewards here for people willing to get their hands dirty, and like murder, it can only get easier with practice.
on April 12, 2002
I've read all of Cormac McCarthy's earlier books set in Tennessee, such as "The Orchard Keeper" and "The Outer Dark" and I've read his "Border Trilogy" which contained the wonderful, "All the Pretty Horses." Nothing, however, that this wonderful author has written can prepare the reader for the sheer brutality and the sheer lyricism of "Blood Meridian."
The Old West portrayed in "Blood Meridian" is not the Old West of Zane Grey or even of Larry McMurtry. Images of the most horrific abound in "Blood Meridian," (charred human bones, blood-soaked scalps, a tree hung with the bodies of dead infants), all rendered in McCarthy's gorgeously lyrical writing.
As far as I'm concerned, "Blood Meridian" is McCarthy's best book, by far. It doesn't have the "feel good" qualities sometimes found in "All the Pretty Horses" but I didn't expect it to. "Blood Meridian" is the book in which McCarthy makes crystal clear the one theme that runs through all of his writing: the undeniable presence of evil in the world. The fact that he writes about this evil in language so lyrical and so elaborately beautiful only intensifies the horror of it all. We feel as though we have left the real world behind and entered into some surreal place from which no escape is possible.
"Blood Meridian," which takes place in 1847, is loosely based on actual events and is the story of a fourteen boy, known only as "the Kid." Drifting through the American Southwest, the Kid joins a disparate and bloodthirsty band of Indian-hunters-for-hire led by a mysterious and learned man called, Judge Holden.
It is after the Kid joins Judge Holden and his band that McCarthy really hits his stride. Juxtaposed next to descriptions of the most horrific and grotesque are images of the most sublime beauty. Consider this description of a group of Indians, "...wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery...one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a blood stained weddingveil." That's prose most authors would kill for.
McCarthy, unlike most writers who portray horror, concentrates not on the horrific images themselves, but on his characters' reactions to them. I'm not at all surprised at this, for McCarthy is not a horror writer; he is a writer of literature of the very highest order.
Although many people would have expected McCarthy to keep his emphasis on the Kid, he chooses to concentrate on the character of Judge Holden instead. Anyone who has read this book knows it was a good choice for the Judge is the dominant personality in "Blood Meridian" and all the other characters in this book are defined only in relation to the Judge. It is also the Judge who exemplifies McCarthy's major themes and it is he (the Judge) who becomes a metaphorical and spiritual father to all of McCarthy's later characters.
This is not a typical "Western novel," not even a very, very good "Western novel." In this book, the line between the victims the perpetrators of evil is subtlely drawn...if it is drawn at all. McCarthy seems to be telling us that all men are villains, all men are perpetrators, all men are bloodthirsty...if only the reward is high enough. And for some, evil, itself is its own reward.
I am giving nothing away by saying that the ending of this book is a sophisticated and stylistic masterpiece involving both the Judge and the Kid. The last image we have of the Judge is one that epitomizes the sheer lunacy of the man. In a saloon where a trained bear dances on the stage, we see the Judge, "...naked, dancing...He says that he will never die." In a beautiful and enigmatic epilogue, however, McCarthy skillfully denies the Judge the last word in the novel.
This is a sophisticated and complex book, far more complex that it would appear on the surface or even after one reading. It is filled with the Faulknerian prose that has become a McCarthy trademark (though McCarthy employed it less in "The Border Trilogy"). These convoluted sentences, (in my opinion, far better than anything Faulkner ever wrote), can be difficult, since they contain within them the seed of all of McCarthy's writing.
This brilliant novel is more than just a book; it is an experience. It is an experience of horror, of beauty, of the insanity of man. Set in a time when man attempted to sanctify himself in the blood of other men, this is, without a doubt the rawest exposition of horror I have ever read, yet, at the same time, it is probably the most beautiful book I have ever read as well. It is something that simply defies description. Read it for yourself and see.
on November 20, 2001
I recently saw Harold Bloom, the famous literary scholar from Yale, on a television show where he stated that Blood Meridian was the greatest work of any contemporary American author. I agree. First, you have the prose style, which is so controlled and crafted and at the same time flows so naturally that it must have taken years to develop. It reminded me of the bible: hypnotic, enigmatic, ancient and at the same time, familiar. I kept thinking of the ocean when I was reading it because of the vastness of the landscape he describes. It seems as if the characters are on a journey, but they're not, unless they're circling further and further down into hell.
I think the familiarity of the novel comes from it's relation to violence from a Christian standpoint. There's no doubt that McCarthy intends to have us react to this book from a moral perspective and yet at the same time be fascinated with it's violence. The setting, the wild wicked west, is a part of the American psyche that still takes forms today in our action films and tv shows that feed our hunger for blood and murder. By taking us back to our roots, stripping away the restraints of our Judeo-Christian values, MCCarthy steeps the story of death and evil in biblical prose and washes it with blood so that we see our dark selves reflected in all our ugliness.
I compare this work to the works of the great Russian novelists ,Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who always went for the big questions, What is life?, Who is God?, What is morality? and the American Moby Dick which encapsulated a universe. When you read books like these a lot of what appears on the bestseller lists seems so meaningless.
This is a book you simply stand in awe of if you're a writer or ever thought of being one.
on March 4, 2001
BLOOD MERIDIAN is the story of "The Kid", born in Tennessee in 1833, who decamps from the home of his drunken widower father and heads south. Illiterate and, at 14, already containing within him a taste for mindless violence,The Kid begins a journey reminiscent of Dante's descent into hell. This journey begins with a flatboat ride on the Mississippi -shades of Huck Finn - shades of the Styx river where Phlegyas ferries souls into a swamp and forces them overboard into the fifth circle of hell of the WRATHFUL. On the flatboat The Kid is shot in the back and the front and survives. His journey takes him to New Orleans, Texas and Mexico. He is a soldier, then a bountyhunting marauder led by one Glanton. Wolves, dogs, bats inhabit the McCarthy landscape but the greatest horror of all, is man. There seems no limit to the savagery men are capable of and there are many scenes to attest to that: " The way narrowed through rocks and by and by they came to a bush that was hung with dead babies. They stopped side by side, reeling in the heat. These small victims, seven, eight of them, had holes punched in their underjaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stubs of a mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky." (p57) The shock of this is helped by the contrast of the innocuous "by and by" with "dead babies". One has to read it over because it seems unbelievable. One major theme of BLOOD MERIDIAN may be that "moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favour of the weak" (p250) and that man's purpose on earth is eventually to have domain over every living thing on it - man as wrathful destroyer. Towering over the novel is the figure of "the judge" - God or Devil - who in the end is still towering over all, who is dancing, dancing, and who says he will never die. A Western, and not a horror story, but a Western like none I have ever read. BLOOD MERIDIAN is filled with powerful and vivid images -" far to the south beyond the black volcanic hills lay a lone albino ridge, sand or gypsum, like the black of some pale seabeast surfaced among the dark archipelego" (p259) Because of this, it may be helpful to describe its "mis en scene" with reference to the cinema. An iconic Western film that represents a mythical West is SHANE with its noble hero, simple but decent homesteaders and postcard setting. UNFORGIVEN by Clint Eastwood is an alternative and revisionist view of that West where savagery and cruelty and stupidity prevail among the people. EL TOPO adds to the savagery with surreal Biblical references. BLOOD MERIDIAN reminds one in part of EL TOPO out of UNFORGIVEN except that its savagery and power goes way beyond either. We are in the realm of imaginative literature of a high order. McCarthy's style is self consciously literary from the opening words " See the child." The Biblical poetic style is reinforced with an ironic reference on the opening page to the philosophy of poet William Wordsworth - the child is father of the man - where in Wordsworth the "natural" man was innocent and pure uncorrupted by urban development in the form of the Industrial Revolution. McCarthy turns this on its head where the "natural child" who could not read or write was like a savage beast. McCarthy's point might be that man NEEDS education, urban life, what we call "civilisation" to become truly human. What then are McCarthy's progenitors? The Bible. Swift. Dante. Neither uplifting nor enlightening, BLOOD MERIDIAN is an unrelenting descent into the darkest side of man. A fitting work to find its place in the 20th century, the century which gave full rein to the destructive possibilities of humans.
on November 29, 2005
Reading Cormac McCarthy at his best isn't really entertainment or pleasure or any other description one would normally apply to a novel, it is more like an experience. Like a dream or a hallucination, it becomes part of your subconscious; it resides in you. Unlike other novels, even very good ones, it is not something that you can simply pick up and set down at your leisure, it is something that takes control of you: it moves you, it alters you in some way, it makes your mind reel. Blood Meridian is McCarthy at his best.
The story is about a character known only as the kid. It takes place on the North American continent and begins in 1849, when the kid is sixteen years old, and the United States of America not much older. He runs away from his barren Tennessee home, and fights his way to New Orleans and then to Texas where he hooks up with a gang of Yankee marauders. Before they have a chance to maraud anything, they are slaughtered by the Comanches. The kid somehow escapes, and eventually joins a band of scalp-hunters. The bulk of the novel is comprised of his adventure with these brutal men, who make their living by killing and scalping Apache Indians in northern Mexico.
In the hands of a less-skilled author, the subject matter alone would make this novel hugely compelling, but McCarthy's skill is such that you feel like you're part of it. His style is the spare, observant style similar to Hemingway: you see, you feel, you smell, and you hear, but beyond that, you are an observer: nothing more.
But McCarthy doesn't simply lead the proverbial horse to the proverbial water, oh no. His descriptive power, almost poetic in its eloquence, is such that you are shoved into the water, kicked into the water, almost drowned in the water. The men are marching, on horseback, single-file, along the side of a mountain. To their right is sheer rock, to their left, a sheer drop: " . . . they lost one of the mules. It went skittering off down the canyon wall with the contents of the panniers exploding soundlessly in the hot dry air and it fell through sunlight and through shade, turning in that lonely void until it fell from sight into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever in the mind of any living thing that was." Note that this description--though of a relatively minor event--is so finely, carefully, even poignantly observed, it becomes truly, emotionally wrenching. There are examples of this kind of thing on practically every page.
The Comanche attack on the kid's company early in the novel is so vividly and horrifically portrayed it is beyond the stuff of nightmare, with, "the horseman's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from hell . . ." There's a lot more, before and after, and it goes on for pages. Prepare to feel your heart pound and your hands tingle, and while you're at it, throw away everything you ever thought you knew about cowboys and Indians. It turns out you don't know a thing.
Interestingly, the scalp-hunter story is based on truth. Their leader really was a fellow named Glanton, they really were paid by the Mexicans to kill Apaches, they really did become killers of anything with black hair that moved, and they really were ambushed by Yuma Indians and butchered. All is recounted here.
The dehumanizing effect of this on the men, though, is all McCarthy, and as his is wont, he takes it a little too far. For there is another character--a purely fictional character-- who accompanies the men on their rampages and who is called the Judge. Through him, McCarthy gives himself the opportunity to philosophize rather baldly on the beastly, warlike nature of man and other Important Themes. This kind of thing put a dent in Pretty Horses, sank The Crossing, and is completely unnecessary: we get it.
Here, though, it is only a minor irritant. This is a splendid, hugely imaginative, gripping novel. Do not miss it.
on February 14, 2000
Other reviewers admonish to adapt Blood Meridian to film. This simply could not, and should not be adapted because this book's characters drool blood , and the violence here could not be aptly and fairly depicted on screen. If readers are not satisfied with the imagery ,and therefore crave to actually see this brutality on a screen before them, then McCarthy's vision of man as beast indeed can be verified. Blood Meridian is a partly historical account of the 19th-century westward movement and destruction of America's native people in America and Mexico by the bloodthirsty and goldthirsty and nihilistic Glanton Gang. The depiction of killing has scarcely been so graphic, and yet so alluring: you find yourself reading the horrifying scenes over and over again for their sublime description and almost dreamlike imagery. You have never seen nor imagined true Comanche Indian garb, and here it is. You have never read of a more evil character, and here you may, in Judge Holden. You have never read a novel whose main protagonist you almost forget exists, because of the book's other enticing components. And you have never imagined a sky this blood red, but remember: it was. Blood Meridian is McCarthy's masterpiece, and truly sets him apart as the late 20th Century's master of apocalyptic prose.
on September 29, 2000
I was directed to Blood Meridian quite by accident, and opened the novel with no idea of its contents. What I found was an unforgiving and towering vision of human cruelty. Cormac McCarthy's text is thoroughly unsentimental, laying out the harsh landscape and times of the 1850's U.S./Mexican border wars with a cascading series of unfogettable images. At no time does the book allow the reader into the minds and hearts of its characters- we are forced to live as they do: mystified and terrorized by the scale of unending destruction and carnage the novel describes.
But the book is much more a than historical novel. Blood Meridian is the story of an innocence lost- an innocence not of single character in the book (none there would admit to naivete), but lost by the whole of mankind. In the character of Judge Holden, Cormac McCarthy gives us the final outcome of man's thirst for knowledge and experience: the elegant sadist. All things are known unto him, and (once known) may not exist without his consent. The judge gathers the facts of his world coolly and precisely- but he does not store them to create. He gathers them simply to show the ownership and stewardship of his world, of himself and all creation. As all things are known, so are they destroyed- as lightly and as simply as their weight and measure has been taken. His knowledge is the deepest knowledge of all: the hollowness of his own heart. In this way he is the horrible (and logical) product of Adam's first taste of the Tree of Knowledge.
The language of this novel is a delight, both exacting and all encompassing, and the details of its descriptions are shared with a carnal glee. The amazing work of McCarthy's text is that it calls to be devoured, and eaten whole. It's no accident that the reader feels a partipant in the predatory cycles of the world of novel- and it is only after he has eaten that he realizes what it is he is digesting.
on October 21, 2007
This book feels like Federico Fellini (or maybe Wes Craven) directing a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western - enigmatic figures wandering a strange, brutal landscape and spilling blood with impunity. Given this reference point, let me frame my thoughts as follows:
The Good - McCarthy writes as though he rode with these marauders for years. His attention to detail (e.g., obscure names of saddle parts, the chinking sounds of horses on the trail, the misery of desert thirst) makes for a vivid reading experience. Combined with the biblical tone of the text, you feel like you are part of an ancient, epic tale produced by an eyewitness.
The Bad - McCarthy is almost too damn good at describing landscapes, using obscure terminology that frustrates more than it enlightens: "They rode through regions of particolored stone upthrust in jagged kerfs and shelves of traprock reared in faults and anticlines curved back upon themselves and broken off likes stumps of great stone treeboles..." What the heck? If you want me to visualize the landscape, I'm going to need a few familiar terms. It took a dictionary, geology text, and Google to get me through many passages in this book. Still, you have to marvel at McCarthy's command of the language.
The Ugly - The Judge is a genuinely disturbing villain; the character made me think of Brando in Apocalypse Now (or Kurtz in Heart of Darkness) - big, weird, violent and chillingly unpredictable. However, the feller just talks too dang much! The second half of the book has far too many rambling soliloquies in which the Judge expounds on his Nietzschian world view. I have already watched him smash babies' heads on rocks; speechifying on the beauty of violence and subjugation is hardly necessary. The speeches just detract from the creepy intrigue of the character.
So ultimately I'm ambivalent about this book. It is more like a long, unsettling poem than a novel. If you want a difficult but linguistically dazzling description of the wild west, you'll love it. If you want a cowboy story, keep your distance. Cue the Enrico Morricone.
on May 25, 1999
While this book contains some of the most powerful writing of the 20th century, the book isn't for everyone. I've steered several of my 'frail' friends away from it, not everyone should be exposed to some of the scenes in here. But for those with the nerve to read it, this is as good as it gets. One of my 2 favorite books of all time (the other being 'Blood Sport' by Robert F. Jones). I won't try to add much to the details and descriptions other reviewers have listed here, but I will point you to the source material. Look for 'My Confession:Memoirs of a Rogue' by Samuel Chamberlain. Until I read 'My Confession', I didn't think there could be anything like 'Blood Meridian' anywhere in literature. There's no comparing the writing, McCarthy is simply the master in top form when he wrote Blood Meridian. On the other hand, Chamberlain lived thru the actual events described in both books, and adds some true to life details that fans of McCarthy's work may want to sift thru. I was shocked to find that The Judge is not a fictional character. In fact, McCarthy didn't take many liberties describing him. How could such a beast have escaped the scrutiny of history? Where did he go, what became of him? Is he still out there, drawing artifacts and then tossing both the drawing and artifact into the flames, dancing the fandango or playing the violin, roasting innocent passersby over a small fire?