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Book #7: Blood Meridian

Quick Facts

  • Most of Blood Meridian is based on My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which is Samuel Chamberlain’s personal account of his experiences with the John Joel Glanton gang in 1849 and 1850.
  • While Blood Meridian is known as Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, he has also written other popular books, including The Road, No Country For Old Men, and All The Pretty Horses—all three of which were turned into feature films.
  • Though McCarthy is known for his reclusiveness, he granted Oprah an interview in 2007 when The Road was selected as part of her book club.
  • Actor/Director James Franco told EW that he will begin on a film version of the novel in 2012. He shot a test scene that starred Mark Pelligrino (Jacob from Lost) as The Judge.
  • In a New York Times survey conducted in 2006, Blood Meridian was chosen by writers and critics as the second most important work of American fiction in the last 25 years.

Opening Line

“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.”

My Thoughts

At some point in his life, I imagine Cormac McCarthy sitting down, a coke and a bag of popcorn in hand, watching a John Wayne western and saying, “Wow. That sucks. Let me show them how it’s done.”

With Blood Meridian, that’s exactly what he did. In a matter of 335 pages, he painted an unrivaled picture of the west. Harold Bloom, one of the premier names in American Literature, called the book the “ultimate” western. Not “ultimate” as in “the best,” but as in the last. In other words, no one else needs to try–even you, Clint Eastwood.

This isn’t a book you should read on your lunch break. I learned that the hard way. The novel, which is widely considered to be Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, is also considered as one of the most violent novels in American literature. That’s not hype, and that’s not exaggeration on my part.

It’s really that violent, uncomfortably violent at times—so much so that Bloom admits to having put the book down the first time he read it. And, I’ll admit, I felt the same way.

But this isn’t the usual Hollywood-style self-gratifying violence for violence’s sake. Mccarthy didn’t “take it up a notch” for shock value or book sales. He painted a picture of an ugly wild west, one you don’t see in John Wayne films. But, from all accounts, it’s historically accurate.

Will Mark Pelligrino from Lost portray The Judge in the upcoming Blood Meridian film? (See Quick Facts above)

So let’s start with that. In a nutshell, Blood Meridian follows John Joel Glanton and his band of misfits, who have been hired by the Mexican government to kill Apaches (they are paid for each Apache they scalp) as they terrorize the sparse Mexican countryside—murdering, raping, robbing, and pillaging along the way.

Within Glanton’s merry gang of Indian-killers, two characters stand out. “The Judge” is a hulking and enigmatic, possibly supernatural, character with no body hair, who kills puppies and children. His moral repulsiveness is balanced by his charismatic nature and his extensive knowledge of absolutely everything—paleontology, archaeology, linguistics, law, drawing, geology, philosophy. He’s brutal, but he’s smart, extremely smart. The other main character is simply known as “the kid”—a sharp-shooting teenage runaway from Tennessee who meets up with Glanton’s gang.

There is nothing redemptive about Blood Meridian. When I say that, I simply mean that there’s no happy ending, no sun breaking through the dark clouds. The book starts with bad men doing bad things, and it ends with bad men doing worse things.

Every character in the book is a nasty, reprehensible person…it’s just a matter of degree. Glanton progressively gets more evil as the novel progresses. The kid, who seems morally ambiguous at times, eventually leaves the group on the run from The Judge. While The Judge simply is what he is (excuse the cliché) and is best described by Harold Bloom as “the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature.”

The Judge is one of the few protagonists I’ve ever found myself sincerely “cheering” against, hoping he would die an ugly death. American Literature has had its fair share of negative protagonists, but has there ever been one as vile and nasty as The Judge? I would think not. I was sincerely hoping an Indian would finish him off at some point, but that never happened.

McCarthy’s style is unique. He’s not fond of punctuation, evident by his minimal use of commas and avoidance of apostrophes and quotation marks altogether. In his lone television interview with Oprah in 2007, he said there is no reason to “blot the page up with weird little marks,” referring to quotation marks. His lack of punctuation takes a while to get used to, but I was able to get used to it, much like I eventually got the hang of the nadsat language in Clockwork Orange.

The other aspect of McCarthy’s style, at least in Blood Meridian, was the stark descriptions of the land. There are pages and pages of descriptions of the Mexican west. For instance:

In the afternoon he rode through the McKenzie crossing of the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and he and the horse walked side by side down the twilight toward the town where in the long red dusk and in the darkness the random aggregate of the lamps formed slowly a false shore of hospice cradled on the low plain before them. They passed enormous ricks of bones, colossal dikes composed of horned skulls and the crescent ribs like old ivory bows heaped in the aftermath of some legendary battle, great levees of them curving away over the plain into the night.

Paragraphs like these occur over and over throughout the novel, really setting the scene. The long, almost poetic, paragraphs and (at times) repetitious nature of these paragraphs can lull you to sleep until you are awakened by a scene of intense violence that comes out of nowhere. But the paragraphs serve a purpose. I really got the sense of the openness and sparseness of the landscape.

So all of the above is a nice summary and overview and all that, but what do I really think of the book? I don’t know. To be honest, the violence tripped me up at first—and, really, it still does. But, having read through the entire novel now, I have to say that Blood Meridian is the type of book that leaves a lasting impression.

The drama of the last 100 pages or so was genius, and I loved the anticlimactic ending. [SPOILER ALERT!] Glanton gets mowed down in a surprise attack by the Yumas. That was nice to see. The kid and the priest go on the run from The Judge. And the novel culminates, years later, with a final encounter between the kid and The Judge—with an somewhat ambiguous Sopranos-style ending, long before The Sopranos made it cool, of course. It appears as if the judge murders the kid.[SPOILER ALERT END]

It’s a dense and heavy read that takes a little time to digest. I am still not sure I truly “get it.” But when I read that final page, I sat back and all I could simply say is “Wow.”

Of the seven books I’ve read so far, this is the one that will stick with me for awhile. That alone tells you the power of Blood Meridian. Whether you love it or hate it, the book will hang around in your head, or maybe that’s just The Judge haunting you in your nightmares. Creepy guy, that Judge.

I’ll end this with a quote from Steven Shaviro’s article, “A Reading of Blood Meridian.” This is serious praise.

In the entire range of American literature, only Moby-Dick bears comparison to Blood Meridian. Both are epic in scope, cosmically resonant, obsessed with open space and with language, exploring vast uncharted distances with a fanatically patient minuteness. Both manifest a sublime visionary power that is matched only by still more ferocious irony. Both savagely explode the American dream of manifest destiny, of racial domination and endless imperial expansion. But if anything, McCarthy writes with a yet more terrible clarity than does Melville.

Other Stuff

The Meaning: So what’s Blood Meridian about? The inevitability of war? Imperialism? The brutal nature of man? Survival of the fittest? Was it simply just a story? You tell me, because I’m still trying to figure it all out. Could someone finally score an interview with Cormac and ask him? Oprah’s interview was lame, seriously lame.

Highlights: McCarthy’s portrayal of The Judge is riveting. I’ve never loathed a central character so much. That speaks to McCarthy’s talent.

Lowlights: I don’t know what to put here. Even the stuff I don’t particularly like, I understand. The violence was purposeful. The long descriptions of the landscape were purposeful. Nothing about this novel was particularly lame. However, I do regret reading so much of this book while eating lunch. Ugh.

Memorable Line: “It makes no difference what men think of war,” said the judge. “War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be….War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”

Final Thoughts: Have I mentioned that Blood Meridian is violent? If you can get over that, you’re in for a good read. The book certainly isn’t for everyone. I’m not even sure if it was for me. At times, I wanted to throw the book down. And, at other times, I couldn’t put it down at all. I totally understand the high praise McCarthy received for the novel. It’s a fascinating, accurate portrayal of a brutal world that most of us can’t fathom.

Up Next: I, Claudius by Robert Graves

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60 Comments Post a comment
  1. Eddie #

    Robrt, You do such a great job with these recaps… you have pulled me in on this one… I have downloaded it to my IPad to read.

    Like

    January 28, 2011
  2. Tre #

    McCarthy is a awesome writer. I read The Road but not this one. Looks like a great book.

    Like

    January 28, 2011
  3. I disagree that the Judge murders the kid, given the nature of some of his other nefarious acts, and the reaction of the men who open the stall door. I think he’s sating hungers other than murder.

    Like

    February 4, 2011
    • Interesting thought. That’s what I love about the ending. It’s pretty open for interpretation.

      Like

      February 4, 2011
  4. Mischa #

    I cannot even fathom seeing this novel in movie form, it would be gut-wrenching and god-awful to view. I saw the movie The Road (having not read the book), and can say that it gave me nightmares, so realistically was it drawn. Bleak, bleak, bleak would sum up his works. Though violence is a fact of life throughout history, do we need to be constantly reminded of it?

    Like

    February 4, 2011
    • Yeah, I don’t know how they are going to do this without an NC-17 rating for violence, but I guess they’ll figure out a way. Definitely bleak.

      Like

      February 4, 2011
  5. I finally got around to watching “All the Pretty Horses” the other day. Looks like I’ll have to read Blood Meridian as well as watch the upcoming film. I love the Mexican countryside and the movie did not disappoint in that regard, nor I’m sure, will the new one.

    Like

    February 4, 2011
  6. It’s a good read. Don’t expect it to be a pick me up, though. Pretty heavy and dark.

    Like

    February 4, 2011
  7. jimgilmore2010 #

    I enjoyed reading your critique. And thanks for the information on the movie. That’s exciting.

    I like this book a lot. In my judgement it is far superior to The Road and No Country for Old Men. It’s strange–even the most gruesome passages are beautiful. ???

    –Jim

    http://jimgilmore2010.wordpress.com/

    Like

    February 4, 2011
    • Yeah, it’s a disturbing but somehow beautiful book. Really weird.

      Like

      February 5, 2011
  8. Great review. It reminded of how much I liked McCarthy’s style. I think I need to re-read Blood Meridian very soon. Thank you.

    Like

    February 5, 2011
  9. I just discovered your site, and I really enjoy it. This sounds like a fascinating book. I’ll add it to my personal reading list.

    Like

    February 5, 2011
  10. wow, I am going to go get this book on my iPad right now. LOL. You write great reviews and I have been scouring the net for something like this. Thanks!!

    Like

    February 7, 2011
  11. One compelling aspect seems to be the continuity between the brutal landscape and it’s inhabitants. The actions of the Glanton gang as well as the various Indian tribes and dwellers seem as harsh as the unrelenting sun, cold and wind.

    Growing up in Arizona one gains a sense of the Sonoran harshness that is never quite captured in movies or books. Seems like McCarthy got it right. It is a thirsty book, both for blood and water.

    5 stars for sure.

    Like

    April 30, 2011
    • “It is a thirsty book.” Very true. My visual imagery of that book’s setting is nothing but dry sand and dirt in a barren landscape.

      Like

      May 6, 2011
  12. Dominick Sabalos #

    I just finished reading Blood Meridian earlier today. It was good – I was mostly indifferent til one specific line about 200 pages in, and then suddenly it caught fire and kept me riveted to the end.

    One thing I noticed was that the violence, while very strong, didn’t really shock or disturb me, which probably says all kinds of uninteresting things about my upbringing and society and so on. But later I noticed that there was something peculiar about the violence – it is never ‘narrative’ violence. It’s never used to punctuate a plot point or signify a character trait, it’s just there around the story, everpresent. And that was kind of disturbing in its own way.

    Like

    August 29, 2011
  13. Robert – I have about fifty pages remaining of BM, and I am finding it hard to process and digest. And that’s not a bad thing. The Road felt different. Utterly bleak, grey, but enthralling. BM is more of a novel to endure, and more than once, I considered abandoning it to the bottom of the book pile. Which leads me to the violence. A lot has been written about the nature of its elemental force. Is it gratuitous or is it realistic? I wonder if those are the best questions to ask. The violence fuels the characters, the story. You could consider them mileposts on a long, bloody journey. What I though may have been gratuitous (unnecessary) was the constant description of the landscape, never once romantically depicted. I could pontificate about that element, but I will end it here. Thanks for providing a terrific platform.

    Like

    March 18, 2012
  14. I’m reading ‘The Crossing’ at the moment and have loved the first half, he’s quite the realist, so its pretty tough out there with McCarthy but I just love what he does with words and he’s a writer I read and reread passages continuously. ‘All the Pretty Horses’ was fantastic and I enjoyed ‘No Country for Old Men’ as well. I haven’t actually heard much about this one, as I kind of just stumbled across McCarthy in the library (an English library in France so fortunate that it has a nice mix of US as well as UK literature) and being educated in NZ I see now the choices given were a little more UK-centric.

    Like

    June 18, 2012
  15. I like Bloom’s comment on this being the “ultimate” western. I agree. Almost certainly a more accurate portrayal of the Wild West, that Hollywood or most authors have given us. Grim to say the least. But I agree with you Robert…a good read…riveting at times. Before reading your entry, I chose the same quotation from the Judge to enter on my own blog. “…as well ask men what they think of stone.” It reminds me of something Harrison Starr said to Kurt Vonnegut about anti-war books. “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”

    I enjoyed your review. Your loathing of the judge made me feel just a bit guilty (just a bit), for something I said in my own review. I said he is ALMOST likeable at times. Mind, I detest him, but his insight on humanity (and any other subject), was fascinating, and I’ll stand by ALMOST.

    Like

    February 11, 2014
  16. Kevin Sterner #

    I think Judge Holden is actually Cormac McCarthy, or rather, his avatar. Consider: in the context of the book–any book–the author is able to kill with impunity. Any tragedy that befalls any character is purely the author’s doing. He has supernatural powers: he can make anything happen, anything at all. McCarthy gives his game away in the scene where the Judge is writing in his notebook, sketching an old Spanish artifact in exquisite detail, then destroying it. To be in the Judge’s book is the only existence it is allowed to have. You might argue that while Judge Holden is a monster, Cormac McCarthy is not. I (and I believe McCarthy) would argue that within the context of Blood Meridian, he is.

    Like

    March 21, 2014
  17. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    101 Books has excellent review of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Blood Meridian is considered by many to be both the best and most violent western ever written. Some are even willing to put Blood Meridian into the same category as Moby-Dick. Check out 101 Books discussion of McCarthy’s classic (or one of his classics).

    Like

    September 15, 2014

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