Huge, Violent, and Biblical: Blood Meridian

blood-meridian-novelHaving only read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road prior to this book, I was not expecting what I got. Where The Road is notable for its sparse language, so cut-down it’s almost hard to read at times, Blood Meridian is full of flowing, poetic, even over-blown prose. For your pleasure, here are three examples I picked out at random:

“They rode in a narrow enfilade along a trail strewn with the dry round turds of goats and they rode with their faces averted form the rock wall and the bakeoven air which it rebated, the slant black shapes of the mounted men stenciled across the stone with a definition austere and implacable like shapes capable of violating their covenant with the flesh that authored them and continuing autonomous across the naked rock without reference to sun or man or god.” (145)

“The riders pushed between them [a train of mules] and the rock and methodically rode them from the escarpment, the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites and all its forms grouping below and racing in the stone arroyos like the imbreachment of some ultimate alchemic work decocted from out the secret dark of the earth’s heart, the fleeing stag of the ancients fugitive on the mountainside and bright and quick in the dry path of the storm channels and shaping out the sockets in the rock and hurrying from ledge to ledge down the slop shimmering and deft as eels” (203-04)

“The judge smiled. He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay. Even the cretin acted in good faith according to his parts. For it was required of no man to give more than he possessed nor was any man’s share compared to another’s. Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common and one did not. Can you tell me who that one was?” (319)

There you have it. Three samples that give you a taste of what Blood Meridian is. It is a novel with an epic scope: a troop of low-lifes, bandits, and thieves are hired by the Mexican government to hunt down and scalp Apaches. The novel is based on actual events, some of which are so ludicrous (like the second quoted piece above) as to beggar belief. While the first two excerpts show some exceptionally long sentences, the third gives a better representation of McCarthy’s style. This is a world unto itself and, once entered, it is hard to leave. At the same time, Blood Meridian is incredibly violent, like ultra-violence (a la A Clockwork Orange) violent. If you have seen the Coen brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, then take that as a starting point and multiply it by 10. The borderlands in the 1850s were no fun place and McCarthy has no qualms showing the frontier life to be far from what Hollywood or romantic authors portrayed it. There’s also a strong strain of the Bible throughout, not just in the judge’s speeches (the third excerpt is one) but also in the events themselves. The novel continually comes back to the question of morals and humanity’s purpose. The protagonist, the kid, is a young teenager when he joins up with the judge and Glanton’s gang. He is quickly initiated into a world of bloodshed and violence. At times, McCarthy’s novel borders on the pornographic with all of its violence, but this is part and parcel of the world he crafts (I’m not justifying this violence, I don’t want to get into that). Blood Meridian is what it is. In terms of American literature, it is a pretty important moment in terms of American exceptionalism and the frontier mythology, but I’m not sure this makes it essential reading.

If you can stomach the violence, Blood Meridian is worth the read, but be warned if you cannot.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. 1985. New York: Vintage Editions, 1997. Print.

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