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.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five takes its place alongside Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as one of the truly compelling (and oftentimes satirical) commentaries on the horrors of World War II.  I have been intending to read Vonnegut’s classic work for a good bit of my life now and regret that it took me this long to do so (actually, my Kindle read it to me on a trip to Memphis and back).

The book follows the story of a young World War II soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who, like Vonnegut himself (who appears in his own novel), survived the hellish firebombing of Dresden by American and British forces in 1945.  As a prisoner of war assigned by the Germans to a construction detail in the city of Dresden, Vonnegut and other American soldiers survived the firebombing while holed up in an underground German slaughterhouse (#5).

Vonnegut’s approach to explaining and describing the horrors of Dresden through the experiences of Billy Pilgrim is masterful.  The book has rightly taken its place as a modern classic.

Pilgrim, Vonnegut tells us, has become “unstuck in time.”  It’s the late 1960’s and Pilgrim, now a widower in his 40’s, begins to tell people, much to the chagrine of his embarrassed daughter, that he was once kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.  So the story is essentially Pilgrim bouncing from one point of time to another, including the war, his childhood and his abduction by the Tralfamadorians.

As the tale progresses, Pilgrim reveals a mind that has resigned itself to a kind of fatalism concerning the fallenness of humanity, though he seems to want to hold on to free will as a principle.  He has fascinating conversations with the Tralfamadorians concerning free will, concerning the nature of time, concerning the elusiveness of peace and concerning life itself.  He shows an amazing and often humorous sense of detachment and disinterest in the events of the war, to the great irritation of the other American soldiers and the general amusement of his captors.

Vonnegut uses the character of Billy Pilgrim in profoundly effective ways to offer observations and hints concerning his own resignation to the maddening absurdity of war and the vicious cycles in which humanity finds itself.  Though an agnostic/atheist/humanist (depending on which of Vonnegut’s statements you read), he makes frequent and (apparently) positive references to Jesus, most interestingly when he mentions that the Tralfamadorians are more interested in studying Charles Darwin (who, Vonnegut tells us, saw dead bodies as an inevitable reality of existence) than Jesus Christ.  In another instance, Pilgrim chooses to read a science fiction book about a man who decides to go back in time 2,000 years to the events of the crucifixion to see if Jesus really died.  Pilgrim is depicted as a Christian, though he possibly loses his faith.  It is hard to tell.

Again, the book’s designation as a modern classic is well deserved.  Slaughterhouse Five is a thought-provoking discussion of human nature, life, death (every death scene in the book is tellingly followed by the refrain, “So it goes.”), sin, virtue, war, society and human nature.  It is a helpful, interesting and, in many ways, saddening glimpse into one agnostic’s efforts to make sense of the depravity of man.