Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Before dark they encountered laboring up the western slope of the mountain a conducta of one hundred and twenty-two mules bearing flasks of quicksilver for the mines... The others of the company hardly turned to advise themselves of what had occurred. They fell from their mounts and lay in the trail or slid from the escarpment and vanished. The drivers below got their animals turned and were attempting to flee back down the trail and the laden packmules were beginning to clamber white-eyed at the sheer wall of the bluff like enormous rats. The riders pushed between them 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 burst 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 slope shimmering and deft as eels. (194-195)

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985) is one of those books that it seems everyone on earth has read but me -- and I love reading! And Cormac McCarthy! And violence! So I made the executive decision to move it up to the top of my pile. And although this is the most densely violent and biblically overwhelming book I have ever read, I don't regret one word.

In the mid-19th century, a 14-year-old kid (known as "the kid") leaves his unhappy home in Kentucky and heads west. After a series of violent and drunken exchanges, he finds himself joining a gang of Indian hunters led by an ex-soldier named John Joel Glanton* and a freaky, well-educated, gigantic, hairless man named Judge Holden (who is possibly the best ambiguous villain in all of literature). Apart from sections at the beginning and ending of the book where we closely follow the kid, much of the novel gives us the experiences of the collective group of men and their fight against Indians, Mexicans, white people, each other, and more than anything else, nature.

The communal near-death slog across the harsh landscape of Northern Mexico and the (now) Southwestern United States is broken up with visceral explosions of violence against groups of Indians (lots of warriors, but also women, children, and old folks), who they scalp when they can; and groups of Mexicans (many of whom welcome them as heroes for killing the Indians that have been terrorizing their villages but soon learn that the gang are not the most well-mannered guests), and who they also scalp because other Mexicans pay them for every scalp they bring in and a Mexican scalp must look enough like an Indian scalp to get them paid.

Between the thirst-filled journeying and the blood-filled fighting, there is room for some philosophy, a small amount of extremely dry humor, and a whole boat-load of amazing descriptions of the Western landscape that make me want to put my English major hat on and start doing some linguistic studies.

This book probably isn't for everyone -- the violence can be off-putting and the style and language, alternating between seemingly straightforward descriptions and breathless spirals of clauses and vocabulary, is dense and tough to crack. For readers with a tough stomach and a little patience, though, the payoffs are amazing. Definitely one of the best things I've ever read.

*Archives note: I once did some research for a patron trying to find a mention of Glanton in historical records we have for an early Presbyterian church in San Antonio. The theory was that the pastor of the church spoke out against Glanton and his gang from the pulpit and had his house shot at in retaliation before the gang was run out of town. My research was sadly inconclusive -- I found several versions of that story, but none that mentioned Glanton.

**Personal note: This is 100% a book of dudes, and I think this is what happens to some men when there aren't any women around. You can see a slightly less intense version of the same behavior in Fraternity Houses and certain military actions.

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