Book #7: Blood Meridian
- 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.
“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.”
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.
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.
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