Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West


Lest anyone think it's getting to be all Susan McClary all the time around here, with her "feminist" this and "alternative" that, I present you with my most recent read: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, otherwise known as "the most grotesquely violent novel I have ever read." That's right: this book is way more violent than Part 4 of Bolaño's 2666, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Ironically, I had taken issue with Bolaño's chosen point of view: we are only privy to the evidence of "The Crimes," rather than witnessing them first-hand. Anybody picking up Blood Meridian can certainly rest easy in that regard: most of the legion atrocities committed in this book are related in brutal, bullet-by-bullet detail - although, to call them "crimes" would be to ignore the fundamental moral vacuum that dwells at the heart of McCarthy's border country. Blood Meridian takes the romanticized, sepia-toned mythos of the Wild West, the legends about men escaping restrictive over-civilization and achieving a freedom to live in rough but rewarding brotherhood, and systematically destroys it in an avalanche of casual scalpings, gurgling pools of blood, and trees full of murdered babies hung by their jaws. Its bounty-hunting characters, far from the charismatic outlaws of folk legend, are blood-blackened butchers, completely lacking in the notion of any higher virtue than to survive as long as possible at the expense of anyone and everyone else. The times, far from being simpler, are fraught with war, exposure, and bare desperation. Almost every time I picked the book up, I encountered multiple passages that inspired me to make revolted noises out loud - and then, much to his chagrin, to share said passages with David as he tried to concentrate on something else. One night, as we walked the dog and I recounted the part about the man dragging himself through the desert after having the soles of his feet cut off, David asked, reasonably enough: " it good?" and I found, a little to my surprise, that I unhesitatingly answered "Yes."

What redeems this morass of gore-soaked treachery? It's easy to praise the beauty of McCarthy's writing, which most often struck me as breathtaking and only occasionally crossed the line into overwrought. Passages like the following, unfolding in a rumbling, biblically-inflected cadence that reminded me of Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, went a long way to keeping me reading whenever I was tempted to stop:

The sun rose on a column already ragged these six days out. Among their clothes there was small agreement and among their hats less. The little painted horses stepped shifty and truculent and a vicious snarl of flies fought constantly in the bed of the gamewagon. The dust the party raised was quickly dispersed and lost in the immensity of that landscape and there was no dust other for the pale sutler who pursued them drives unseen and his lean horse and his lean cart leave no track upon such ground or any ground. By a thousand fires in the iron blue dusk he keeps his commissary and he's a wry and grinning tradesman good to follow every campaign or hound men from their holes in just those whited regions where they've gone to hide from God.

Or this:

All the creatures that had been at vigil with him in the night were gone and about him lay only the strange coral shapes of fulgerite in their scorched furrows fused out of the sand where ball lightning had run upon the ground in the night hissing and stinking of sulphur.

Seated tailorwise in the eye of that cratered waste he watched the world tend away at the edges to a shimmering surmise that ringed the desert round.

Amazing stuff. But, as one LibraryThing reviewer asked, are we supposed to wade through three hundred pages of unredeemed murder because of a few literary flourishes? If this were all the novel offered, even I (and I love a gorgeous writing style) would have to agree. But I think McCarthy is doing so much more. I think he's interrogating the nature of evil, and asking questions about action and intention which I'm still mulling over.

On one level, there is the Grecian inevitability about the books's narrative arc: the Mexican government, which has been colonizing Indian land that the Apaches have been defending, offers a bounty on Apache scalps. McCarthy makes the valid point that from this decision, the entire descent into chaos is unstoppable: the bounty hunters, a troupe of desperate and brutal Americans exiled from their own country, are given a hero's welcome, but they soon progress from battling the aggressive Apaches, to slaughtering peaceful Indian tribes in their encampments, to butchering and scalping the Mexicans themselves, to (eventually) murdering each other. After all, one scalp is indistinguishable from another. By the time the Chihuahuan coffers are bankrupted and the bounty rescinded, the entire citizenry is living in fear and a band of voracious killers is set loose upon the land, to survive however they can. Considering that there will always be a class of the absolutely desperate, every step in this descent is predictable to the point of inevitability: the Chihuahuan government brings about its own destruction in setting the bounty to begin with.

Most of the members of the bounty-hunting band, though, are operating on that basic level of survival: their brutalities are committed because in their experience, there is no other way. Either they have never been exposed to any different notion, or it's been beaten out of them by experience. Between the eleven-year-old kid who runs away from the shack of his alcoholic father, and the scarred and hardened product of Van Dieman's Land with his necklace of human ears, these men are products of the world in which they live - a world which allows no margin for hesitation. I think one of the functions of the extreme violence in the novel is to stress that McCarthy isn't apologizing for these men. The reader is constantly reminded what brutal, treacherous, repulsive people they are. The fact that they are unthinking products of their environment coexists with their actions, to some extent explaining but never excusing them.

Contrasted with all other members of the band, McCarthy gives us the larger-than-life figure of Judge Holden: educated and almost preternaturally skilled, he speaks five languages and is an accomplished draftsman, knowledgeable about art, botany, philosophy, and chemistry, facile with conversation and gifted with money. In other words, it's obvious that the judge, out of all the members of the band, chooses the life of utter brutality he's living - and furthermore, it's obvious that he enjoys it. The first time we meet him, Judge Holden walks into a revivalist's tent and exposes the preacher for a fraud: wanted in five counties, the judge says, the man's a pedophile and a thief. After whipping the rough crowd into a murderous mob, the judge walks away. A few pages later, we learn that he had never heard of the preacher before in his life; that all of his accusations were completely fabricated, and that the impulse spurring him to craft his lies was not one of passion or revenge, but of pure, undirected malice. This is a fair introduction to Holden: he's the spirit of darkest nihilism made flesh, a sharp-witted sadist who delights in control - of people, of situations, of information. He believes himself the rightful master of any person or landscape he encounters, and he delights in proving his sovereignty. And the question I pondered throughout all this was: is the judge worse than the other members of the band?

It's not like the acts performed by Holden are measurably worse than those performed by the rest of the gang. Every member in it actively seeks out and commits terrible violence, and the judge is no different. Does his bare enjoyment of the life he's living make him into more of a monster than the other characters? Something in my gut believes that yes, the judge is creepier and darker than the other gang members because of his nihilistic delight, because of his own conviction that he is an immortal god among men and that murder is his right. But something else in me believes that intention doesn't really matter here, that what matters are the actions of the characters, and that they are all equally heinous in that regard, the judge no more than the others. Because if I claim that the judge is worse, wouldn't I be implying that the others are better? And does it really make a remorseless mercenary "better" if he's murdering and maiming in order to earn a few bucks and some swallows of whiskey, rather than because he believes himself some kind of immortal war-god bringing men to a final reckoning? Furthermore, is it even valid to make this kind of moral distinction about a world itself devoid of even the most basic morality? I don't have the answers, but I'm indebted to McCarthy for bringing up, not for the first time, these very interesting questions.

(Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West was my sixth and final book for the What's in a Name Challenge, representing the "time of day" category.)


  • That was an absolutely fantastically written review. *kowtows* Thanks for letting me read it.

  • What I was actually thinking when reading Part 4 of 2666 was: thank heavens it isn't McCarthyesque! (I was so afraid it would be, that when it turned out less gory I came to appreciate it so much more.)

    Not that I've read a gory McCarthy but I've seen the No Country for Old Men movie. And have heard enough to know. But my question is, which books have he written that don't scream bloody murder? I've only read The Road (which I absolutely loved). And plan to read All the Pretty Horses. What else can I stomach?

    Btw, kudos to you for getting through this. :)

  • Thank you for a wonderful, thoughtful review. I've been kind of steeling myself up for reading more McCarthy, since his writing and his way of forcing you to face ideas and realities is such a beautiful challenge.

  • Fantastic and thoughtful review! I've been on the fence about reading this book for a long time because I have heard it is so incredibly violent. But I think I will actually read teh book eventually because you were so darn eloquent in writing about it.

  • I'm as anti-violence as the next guy, Emily, but I sense a clear voluptuous 'being-in-time' quality lurking right beneath the surface of McCarthy's rugged prose! All kidding aside, would you recommend Blood Meridian or another McCarthy title to me for my first exposure to his universe not mediated by the movies? I tend to be unduly suspicious of writers who are as popular as he is, but I liked the film version of No Country for Old Men and you have put me at ease re: his talent with this review. Cheers!

  • Cara: Aww, thanks! I'm blushing over here. :-)

    Claire: Yeah, I think that reading this book finally convinced me that to write The Part About the Crimes in a similar style wouldn't have been a feasible option for Bolaño. Re: recommendations, I actually haven't read much McCarthy myself! Although, my dad loves his Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain), and recommended it to me when I was 14. Which probably means it is less violent than Blood Meridian. I'm hoping, anyway.

  • Sarah: I totally agree. I'll be reading more of him as well, although definitely not right away!

    Stefanie: Thank you so much! It's definitely a novel that invites discussion, so I'll be curious about your thoughts whenever you get around to it. :-)

    Richard: LOL! Maybe a PAINED being-in-time quality! :-D I haven't read that much McCarthy, but I've heard that Blood Meridian is one of, if not THE most violent, and that the border trilogy is a great ride. I think the trilogy is what I might try next (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain). And by "next," I mean "in a few years when I'm ready for more McCarthy."

  • Wow, I'm scared by the "most violent book I've ever read" sentence. It may have lots of other merit but I honestly don't know that I could handle what you're describing here!

  • Rebecca: You know, I really think it's a book that's not for everyone, and that's fine. It's definitely not one that makes me want to grab passers-by in the street and say "You HAVE to read this book!" I got a lot out of it, but I imagine there are MANY people for whom the gore factor would make it not worth their time.

  • I heard of another book called Eden Eden Eden that is basically a 160-page-long paragraph, full of run-on sentences and crazy grammar, detailing, in extremely graphic terms, the sex and violence of war-ravaged North Africa. I'm never going to read it. Not only is the subject matter too much but the writing style sounds just unbelievably tedious. (You can read the first few pages on Amazon.)

    I think it's sometimes hard to tell exploitation from dark but legitimate literature. You have to wonder if an author is depicting extreme violence in order to demonstrate, in a very in-your-face manner, its damaging effects on human beings, or if it's something more akin to the character described in this passage from Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian:

    "I was introduced to one of the first of the great American historians of Nazi Germany. He lived in a comfortable house at the edge of the campus, where he collected not only books on his topic but also the official china of the Third Reich. His dogs, two enormous German shepherds, patrolled the front yard day and night. Over drinks with other faculty members, he told me in no uncertain terms how he despised Hitler's crimes and wanted to expose them in the greatest possible detail to the outside world. I left the party early, walking carefully past those big dogs, unable to shake my revulsion."

    I've been wanting to read The Road, and from what I've read about it, McCarthy seems an example of the former case: using difficult material to create an emotional effect, whether it's portraying the reality of the old West or the overwhelming love of a father for his son in a nightmarish post-apocalyptic landscape. Your review here is excellent in its tackling of this issue. I don't think I'm going to read this book either anytime soon. I have a very weak stomach when it comes to torture and gore.

  • I just noticed 1919 in your LibrarThing widget! Have you read it yet? I read the The 42nd Parallel and loved it, especially since I love this time period. It's a shame Dos Passos seems to have been pushed aside as a great Modernist author.

  • Emily.. Thanks! I didn't know All the Pretty Horses was first of a trilogy. I will try that for my next McCarthy.

    To Richard.. Please please please read THE ROAD!!!! IT IS EXCELLENT!!!!

  • I'm absolutely convinced by your arguments that this is a great book, but I'm not entirely sure I can read it. I don't like this about myself -- I like to think that I appreciate dark books and can handle violence and am not afraid of reading anything. And yet -- I suppose I have my limits. I really loved The Road, but I didn't get along with the two other McCarthy books I tried, and I'm not sure his sensibility works for me.

  • EL Fay: Yeah, the violence in this book never seemed masturbatory to me, which was actually something I intended to get into more above. It always seemed like it was in the service of his larger goal, and never seemed glorified. For an utter gore-fest, it was really well done.

    And yes, I liked both The 42nd Parallel and 1919 a lot! I got sidetracked halfway through The Big Money, so that's still on my to-be-read shelf. There are some things about Dos Passos that kind of irk me (like the way that none of his characters seem to have any real agency), but overall I think he's amazing.

  • Dorothy: I definitely have my limits, too, and they're right about where Blood Meridian stands. Anything worse, and I wouldn't have made it. If there had been graphic rapes, I would have stopped reading (it's kind of surprising that there are no graphic rapes, actually, but there aren't). So anyway, with so many great books there's no reason to force McCarthy on yourself if he doesn't click with you!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography