“The wagons were no more than embers armatured with the blackened shapes of hoop-iron and tires, the redhot axles quaking deep within the coals. The riders squatted at the fires and boiled water and drank coffee and roasted meat and lay down to sleep among the dead.” (p. 153)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.
The back of my copy of Blood Meridian says that it follows the fortunes of “The Kid”, a young man who runs away from Tennessee and ends up near the U.S./Mexico border looking for work, finding a bloody task set ahead of him indeed. The novel is based on real events that happened at the end of the 1840s, as bounties were placed on Indian scalps by Mexican authorities, and the Kid ends up throwing his lot in with John Joel Glanton, a mercenary Indian-killer. “Captain” Glanton travels with Judge Holden, a mysterious psychopath who is gigantic and hairless, and apparently a polymath. Over the course of about a year or so, the Kid, Glanton and the Judge kill Indians, Mexicans, basically anyone who gets in their way in order to reap scalps and treasure.
I’m finding it difficult to summarize Blood Meridian in any meaningful way, as it is almost entirely narrative-based: things keep happening, over and over again without giving you any time for reflection over the events that occurred. In this respect, it’s pretty much the spiritual opposite of something like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which features less in the way of plot and more thoughts and agonizing over whether or not to do anything (granted, a lot of the agonizing is over whether or not to kill someone, but still…).
McCarthy never uses quotation marks, which is okay for when one or two people are talking to each other, but when you get more than that it can get confusing. It does give the conversations the feel of being “pulled from myth” by not having them be constrained to a specific person and time, which I can get, but for someone who enjoys reading well-written conversations like myself it’s a little irritating. McCarthy has said he doesn’t like the little marks “cluttering up” the page.
In this respect though, I can see why Hollywood has taken a shine to Cormac McCarthy’s style, with No Country for Old Men working out especially well a couple of years ago. By eliminating any sort of interior monologues or philosophical meandering and having the book instead be the depiction of a series of events, the book ended up reading more like a record of historical occurrences than anything else. This would in turn be easier to adapt to film than, say, a less straightforward postmodern piece like At Swim-Two-Birds or Gravity’s Rainbow, no matter how cool I think both of those books would be as movies. Who cares about conversation if this is the case, as the story is more about what the people are doing, rather than what they think, or who they are.
I read a lot of historical accounts that felt like this when I worked at a museum in my third year of university; my task there was to learn more about the N.W.M.P. men who built the fort that eventually became my hometown. They dealt with all sorts of amazing, unbelievable stuff during and after the Great March West; not the least of which was the first execution in Alberta’s history, that of “Swift Runner”, a First Nations man who was convicted of killing and eating his family, which come to think of it is something that would not have been out of place at all in Blood Meridian. I’ve even read that like No Country, All the Pretty Horses and The Road, the book might be adapted into a film as well, which seems hard to believe, as it shares more DNA with something like Salo or Tokyo Gore Police than it does with most Western movies. The extreme violence is definitely one of the most important parts of the book, and to excise that from the narrative to ensure any rating other than an NC-17 would render the meaning of the whole exercise null and void.
I found it exhausting to read this book because it almost never took a break. Not only were there very few lulls in the narrative action, what little time not devoted to murdering people or riding around on horses was allocated to philosophical treatises from the demonic Judge, who felt a need to fill his fellow murderers in on his solipsistic philosophies of dominion over the earth around innumerable campfires. Blood Meridian taught me most that one of the things I like when reading for pleasure (which, rest assured, making my way through this list still has this in mind) is narrative efficiency, which it didn’t really feel the need to demonstrate.
As I noted above, the characters are alternatively murdering, raping and pillaging, riding around forbidding countryside, smoking meat or sleeping. The quote that started this piece is a fairly good indicator of how every day goes for the group, which has an odd tendency to fall asleep inside smoking relics of dead civilizations, or recently-murdered wagon trains. McCarthy also feels the need to inform you of every kind of grass, or shrub, or tree, or weed that the characters walk past, like we’re all scholars of the flora that populated the border between the U.S. and Mexico at this time. The book has a curious mix of absolute banality piqued with occasional bouts of over-the-top violence and Biblical-style proclamation. At times, it read like (and many people would probably get angry about this comparison) a very well-read person attempting to summarize what they did moment by moment in an open world video game like one of the earlier entries in the Grand Theft Auto series, before they started getting good at developing characters.
“The man stole a car. He drove the car past garbage cans overflowing with effluvia and newspaper; the last printed words ever produced by a dying civilization that no longer had any need for them. He ran over some people as he progressed towards his objective, the Ammu-Nation store. At the store, he bought more bullets for his guns, then killed the man behind the till, which was difficult as he too was well-versed in the craft of murder. Wounded, the man staggered back to his car, then stole the ambulance that arrived to pick up the store clerk’s carcass.”
That sort of thing. I guess the point I’m attempting to get across here is that, yes, Blood Meridian is a good book, but it was entirely not for me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it at some points. After <SPOILER ALERT> Glanton gets killed by the Yuma tribe and the Kid goes on the run with the expriest Tobin, I was really enthralled with his attempts to stay one step ahead of the Judge, who has at this point stripped naked (again) and is leading the idiot boy the party picked up along the way on a leash like a dog. The Judge was a fantastic character, a kind of Doc Savage of evil, well-versed in every science known to man. His hobby of finding historical artifacts and sketching them in his little book was interesting, as he destroyed the original after the sketch was complete. In the cosmology that the Judge is attempting to create, nothing now living exists without his permission, and everything that came before must be catalogued, sketched, and then excised from human memory. And if his erudition would occasionally mark him as maybe not being pure evil, he goes and say … scalps a baby, or buys two puppies and them throws them in a river for his friends to shoot at.
There were a few other characters who stood out as well. Glanton, mentioned above, becomes more and more insane as the narrative progresses. I also like Toadvine, potentially McCarthy’s attempt at a comic relief character, who has the letters H T F burned into his face, along with having had his ears docked off (potentially the inspiration for the similarly-afflicted Raven from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash?). But the story really belongs to the party as a sort of living pestilence on the land, for the most part, a retinue that could be included as part of the train behind the Horseman Death. Small villages are for the most part wiped from the face of the earth as a matter of course, as no matter what the race of the people there, their scalps’ll bring money. When the group reaches a larger settlement, the destruction they cause is a little more gradual, starting with infesting a cantina or something, and always ending with more deaths.
There’re some images from Blood Meridian that I know will haunt me for a while: the Kid sleeping near a burning bush, surrounded by the other predatory animals of the forest; the expriest Tobin attempting to attack the Judge with a cross made of lashed-together oxen bones; and whatever it was that happens in the “jakes” at the story’s end. I don’t think it’s as simple as most commentators, who believe that the Judge either kills the grown-up Kid, or potentially just rapes him, I feel like something more mythic occurs. If the Judge is an avatar of absolute evil, and the Kid was the one person who kept even the slightest bit of good locked away inside him, maybe what happens is some sort of transference of holy power? The Judge certainly seems pleased with himself afterwards, maybe he leached out the last bit of anything approaching good from the world, and is content now to dance among the ashes. Interpretation is fun!
“He had with him that selfsame rifle you see with him now, all mounted in german silver and the name that he’d give it set with silver wire under the checkpiece in latin: Et In Arcadia Ego. A reference to the lethal in it. Common enough for a man to name his gun. I’ve heard Sweetlips and Hark From The Tombs and every sort of lady’s name. His is the first and only I ever seen with an inscription from the classics.” (p. 125)
Who would I recommend this book to? People who thought that The Wild Bunch and Deadwood were entirely too tame.
Total pages read since January 1st: 9605 pp.
Total books on the Time 100 list read since January 1st (not including ones read before 2011): 25
Next up on the Resolution Project: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)