Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

***Spoiler Alert:  While I have tried not to give away key developments in the book, there are one or two spoilers in this review.***


Blood-meridianCormac McCarthy, the undisputed heir of Faulkner, won the Pulitzer Prize for Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West.  It is not hard to see why.  The book is jarring, disturbing, stunning, and provocative in the ways that great literature should be.

The book tells of the (non-fictional) mid-19th century Glanton Gang:  a group of Americans under the leadership of soldier John Joel Glanton who were hired by concerned Mexicans to hunt down and destroy violent bands of Apaches.  Glanton and his posse descended into a kind of crazed bloodlust and debauchery in the process that led them to kill and scalp not only Apaches but also peaceful Indians, Mexicans, and, basically, whomever got in their way.

This is perfect grist for the mill of Cormac McCarthy who, perhaps more than any other writer, has made the careful and prophetic exploration of human weakness and evil the core of his literary corpus for many years now.  In his hands, the story of Glanton and his posse becomes a hellish and nightmarish debacle of human avarice and ignominy.  Glanton is depicted as ruthless and nearly demonic, but he does not hold a candle to the Judge, who, in the story, is a massive, hairless, brilliant, philosophizing, amoral, vicious, cunning tyrant.  The only character on which the reader can possibly attempt to attach any sympathy is the Kid, though he too has hands stained with blood.  The point at which we attempt to attach sympathy to him is in his revulsion at the Judge and his understated awareness that the Judge is “crazy.”

McCarthy is a master at pointing out the nihilistic hubris of man detached from God and meaning and transcendence.  The Judge is a kind of walking metaphor for human self-deification and, specifically, violence (at least as I saw him).  I was reminded of the words of the South Carolina mass murderer Peewee Gaskins who said that when he killed people he became God in that instance, having the power of life and death.

In terms of his writing, McCarthy takes things to a whole new level here.  My goodness:  his descriptions of landscapes, atmospheres, and topography are stunning and utterly evocative.  His vocabulary can soar to dizzying heights or hit you in the guts with understated ferocity.  I.e.:

When they entered Glanton’s chamber he lurched upright and glared wildly about him. The small clay room he occupied was entirely filled with a brass bed he’d appropriated from some migrating family and he sat in it like a debauched feudal baron while his weapons hung in a rich array from the finials. Caballo en Pelo mounted into the actual bed with him and stood there while one of the attending tribunal handed him at his right side a common axe the hickory helve of which was carved with pagan motifs and tasseled with the feathers of predatory birds. Glanton spat.

Hack away you mean red n—–, he said, and the old man raised the axe and split the head of John Joel Glanton to the thrapple.

Man.  Just man!

Is Blood Meridian for everybody?  I think not.  It is very violent and very dark.  But I daresay that those who know what McCarthy is attempting to do, and those who would like to consider a brilliant depiction of a little-known and tragic incident in American history, will find this book memorable and unsettling and though-provoking.

What an astounding, brutal, masterful book.

Cormac McCarthy’s Screenplay, The Counselor

For what it’s worth, I consider Cormac McCarthy to be the world’s greatest living author.  I do not say that lightly.  I truly mean it.  I am not a fan of all of his works, but I am of most.  All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road stand out as exemplary reasons why I would say such a thing.  McCarthy deals consistently with the big issues (life, death, meaning, love, morality, and God), and he does so in a way that evidences a keen mind and, I have long suspected, a Christian mind.  His writing is frequently too beautiful for words, and there are times when it soars.  When McCarthy is good, he is better than anybody.  He is not Faulkner, but he is in that kind of company.

This is what made reading The Counselor so very difficult.  It is a screenplay, but screenplays can still be vehicles of great writing.  Instead, what I see in The Counselor is a work as off-putting as his novel, Child of God, without the great writing of the latter.

In short, The Counselor struck this reader as a tawdry, unnecessarily explicit, shabby replica of No Country for Old Men.  Honestly, the two stories are very similar:  a man gets caught up in a drug deal believing he can control it and believing that the money is worth the risk, without understanding the inky blackness and amorality of the souls of those who live in the nihilistic underbelly of the world, leading to the inevitable demise of the person and all that they hold dear.  The basic points of the stories are the same:  there is a viciousness in the world that takes one’s breath away, and it can challenge the sanity and break the hearts of those who want to live in this fallen world with anything like a semblance of meaning, virtue, beauty, and transcendence.  It is an important lesson, and one McCarthy is especially adept at telling.  Regrettably, the moral gets lost in the nearly pornographic language and the overstressed explicitness, profanity, and gutter talk.

Look.  McCarthy isn’t writing for LifeWay.  I get that and I’m thankful for it.  He is not for the prudish, to be sure.  However, this was just too much, and I do not flinch from saying that sometimes it’s possible for a great writer to get so close to the darkness he is writing about that that darkness manifests itself even in the writing.  Moreso, the writing was bad and shallow.  I known, I know:  it’s a screenplay.  I get the limitations that come with the medium.  Regardless, it feels like he was trying to write a screenplay, if that makes sense.  One hopes this will be the end of this kind of experiment for McCarthy.

The Counselor is a disappointing read.

It is regrettable…especially for the world’s greatest living writer.

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses

If any writer can be truly said to have taken up where Faulkner let off, it would be Cormac McCarthy.  All the Pretty Horses is but one example of why this is so.  Simply put, this is a phenomenal novel.  That does not mean it is always pleasant.  Often times its power comes in its bleakness and its shocking brutality, and this is because neither of those two attributes are arbitrary or gratuitous.

This is the story of John Grady Cole, his cousin Rawlins, and the young drifter, Blevins, who takes up with them and who inadvertently involves them in the great conflict that rests at the center of the story.  There is a love story here as well, also wrapped in tragedy.  Above all else, in my opinion, the story is about the human search for transcendence and the war that the brutalities of life wage against that search and hope.

Now, that is my opinion.  It is based not only on my own reading of this novel but also on my reading of McCarthy in general.  I believe that the tension between the seeming purposelessness of life and the human awareness of some transcendent truth or reality beyond this theatre of the absurd is one of McCarthy’s great explorations and contributions.

All the Pretty Horses fairly teems with this tension.  One can feel the struggle in the repeated conversations between John Grady and Rawlins over issues of transcendence.  Consider, for instance, their conversation about judgment.

You think there’ll be a day when the sun won’t rise?

Yeah, said John Grady.  Judgment day.

When you think that’ll be?

Whenever He decides to hold it.

Judgment day, said Rawlins.  You believe in all that?

I don’t know.  Yeah, I reckon.  You?

Rawlins put the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and lit it and flipped away the match.  I dont know.  Maybe.

I knowed you was a infidel, said Blevins.

Or consider their discussion on the possibility of Heaven.

You ever think about dyin?

Yeah.  Some.  You?

Yeah.  Some.  You think there’s a heaven?

Yeah.  Don’t you?

I don’t know.  Yeah.  Maybe.  You think you can believe in heaven if you dont believe in hell?

I guess you can believe what you want to.

Rawlins nodded.  You think about all the stuff that can happen to you, he said.  There aint no end to it.

You fixin to get religion on us?

No.  Just sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off if I did.

Or consider their conversations on the possibility of providence.

You think God looks out for people? said Rawlins.

Yeah.  I guess He does.  You?

Yeah.  I do.  Way the world is.  Somebody can wake up and sneeze somewhere in Arkansas or some d— place and before you’re done there’s wars and ruination and all hell.  You dont know what’s goin to happen.  I’d say He’s just about got to.  I dont believe we’d make it a day otherwise.

John Grady nodded.

Or consider their conversation about prayer.

You ever pray?  said Rawlins.

Yeah.  Sometimes.  I guess I got kindly out of the habit.

Rawlins was quite for a long time.  Then he said:  What’s the worst think you ever done?

I dont know.  I guess if I done anything real bad I’d rather not tell it.  Why?

I dont know.  I was in the hospital cut I got to thinkin: I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t supposed to be hrere.  You ever think like that?

Yeah.  Sometimes.

The topic of God comes up even between John Grady and the kidnapped captain.

The captain nodded at the wound in his leg, still bleeding.  The whole trouserleg dark with blood.

You going to die, he said.

We’ll let God decide about that.  Let’s go.

Are you no afraid of God?

I got no reason to be afraid of God.  I’ve even got a bone or two to pick with Him.

You should be afraid of God, the captain said.  You are not the officer of the law.  You dont have no authority.

Perhaps most poignant of all is the brief but telling comment made by an old man to John Grady as John Grady is making his way back to Texas.  In the scene, the two are watching a young and newly-married bride and groom emerge from the church building.

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.

There you have it:  “the truths of life” (i.e., the reality of evil, the struggle for survival), God (i.e., the great transcendent reality Who is there if seemingly distant at times), and “or else they’d have no heart to start at all” (i.e., the struggle to reconcile these two realities).  I believe McCarthy’s novel The Road is about the exact same thing.  So is No Country for Old Men.

McCarthy is a breath-takingly good writer.  Truly.  And All the Pretty Horses is a serious and important novel.  It is what a great book should be.  It tells a great story in a masterful way struggling with fundamental issues of existence along the way.

Read it.