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From Saturday, 5 April through Sunday, 4 May, I read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West (NY: Vintage Books [a division of Random House, Inc.], 1985; 2010; ed.: Kindle edition; 349 pps.).

cover to Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy -- 25th anniversary ed


Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian; or, The Evening Redness in the West is a dour revisionist western, written in semi-biblical prose, based on the exploits of the Glanton Gang of scalphunters who terrorized Texas, Mexico, and Arizona in 1849 and 1850. Owing to McCarthy's complete and utter indifference to character development, characterization, plot, grammatical conventions (there's nary a quotation mark to be seen here, and far fewer apostrophes than standard English would otherwise require), and English's rules concerning the capitalization of proper nouns ("Mexican" is capitalized, but "Spanish" and "Indian" are not; etc.); his ostentatiously obscure vocabulary, heavy with geological terms; his reluctance to identify who is speaking; his belaboring of motifs of darkness and his continual likening of men to apes; all of these characteristics combine to make Blood Meridian a dreary, wearying slog, notwithstanding McCarthy's flair for describing violence and occasional, vaguely-stirring flights of prose. (This would be true even if you, Dear Reader, did not have the problems with your Kindle while reading it that Your Correspondent did.)

The main character, such as he is, is never identified by any other name than "The Kid"; he is 14 years old when the story opens, and perhaps 15 when he joins the Glanton Gang on their expedition into Mexico to collect Apache scalps for the bounties offered by the local governments, after the group he was previously in, led by a Captain White (who had a half-assed plot to further undermine the Mexican government and incorporate as much of the country into the U.S. as possible; Chapter III: "Sought out to join an army -- Interview with Captain White -- His views -- The camp -- Trades his mule -- A cantina in the Laredtio -- A Mennonite -- Companion killed"), is largely wiped out by a group of bizarrely-attired Comanche. However, Glanton and his not-so-merry band of rogues are not exactly scrupulous about murdering and/or scalping only actively hostile Apaches; in order to maximize their fiduciary gain, they also murder and scalp friendly Indians, Mexicans, and even the occasional American they encounter. Eventually their bloodthirsty double-dealing, as well as their drunken destruction of the little towns they repair to for R&R in between their bouts of officially sanctioned rapine, catches up with them, and the Mexican authorities attempt to capture or kill them.

Egging on the mayhem is the odd, ultimately more-than-human figure of Judge Holden, who is described as being unusually large, both in height and in girth, exceptionally strong (at one point he fires a howitzer while holding it, much as the character Rambo fired an M60 in the movie version of First Blood while holding it; Rambo's action is the more believable one), extensively, even incredibly learned, and bald as an egg, down to lacking even eyelashes (he is also frequently nude). While there is a tenuous case to be made for Holden's historicity, it's reasonably clear -- as clear as McCarthy makes anything here, at any rate -- by the book's end that he is a supernatural entity (and, therefore, Blood Meridian may be considered to be an exceptionally grimy example of magic realism); it's telling that Holden, who is far and away the most intelligent figure in Blood Meridian, uses his intellect in the service of nihilism, urging the Glanton gang on to ever baser acts of depravity and violence. (I would argue that the character of Holden here represents man's basest proclivities -- his nihilistic tendencies -- far more than he serves as an apologist for war, as some critics have held.) While McCarthy gives Holden a bravura -- and mordantly funny -- introduction in the first chapter, Holden soon wore out his welcome with this reader when it became evident just what his game is.

This points to my main frustration with Blood Meridian: it starts out promisingly enough (indeed, I bought it based on reading the first chapter on Amazon's site); but McCarthy soon eschews anything like a more conventional narrative, character development, showing glimpses of even one character's interior life, or even exploring just how common White's imperialist attitudes towards Mexico were (or, more interestingly to my mind, exploring just how much tacit approval the U.S. government gave to White and groups like his) in favor of a jeremiad against the entire furshlugginer human race. I consider myself a misanthrope who is deeply skeptical of humanity's pretensions of goodness in general; but McCarthy's screed here is so bilious and blinkered that I found myself disengaged from the skeletal story even more than he probably intended his readers to be. Anyone hoping for a more literary treatment of, say, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, had best move along; I doubt that "Bloody Sam" himself would've touched Blood Meridian with a barge pole. If any character here, even "The Kid," can be said to have an actual personality or interior life, it has as much to do with the reader's wishful thinking as it does with McCarthy's writing. Ultimately, Blood Meridian comes off as a highfalutin version of The Turner Diaries, with the dubious distinction of McCarthy's apparently not thinking that anybody is worth the powder to blow him to hell, as opposed to Turner's author's fervent belief in white supremacy. (McCarthy makes some effort to show that it's not only the white characters who are murderously misanthropic, as when he has White, in his recruitment spiel to The Kid, tell him that the Apaches are so contemptuous of Mexicans, they "won't even shoot them...They kill them with rocks" [Chapter III; location 529 of 5067 in the Kindle edition].)

To paraphrase Lennon-McCartney, "If you want to write for people with minds that hate / Don't be surprised if you're shown the gate."


*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.


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