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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985) 337 p.

A heavy and difficult book, and not an easy one to review while I’m hepped up on antibiotics, but let’s give it a shot.

Blood Meridian is considered Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, a dark and violent novel set along the US-Mexican border circa 1850. The novel follows a protagonist known simply as “the kid,” who falls in with the Glanton gang, a historical band of bloodthirsty scalphunters. Led by the wild and savage John Joel Glanton, the real antagonist is Judge Holden – a pale, hairless, disturbing man serving as Glanton’s advisor and second-in-command. He fancies himself a philosopher, an educated man, and yet he seems to thrive on violence and depravity, and is implied to be a pedophile – children often go missing when he is around.

I’ve read one other McCarthy novel, The Road, but this one struck me as a lot more similar to Moby-Dick. They are both deep, thematic novels focusing on the darkness of human nature and the weight of the world, with the characters very clearly being drawn towards an inexorable doom. After the kid joins the gang the narrative shifts away from him, largely focusing on Glanton and the Judge, which reminded me of how Ishmael fades from view once Ahab and Starbuck come into focus in Moby-Dick. And The Road, for all its bleakness, had an optimistic and uplifting ending. Blood Meridian, on the other hand, sinks into a black hole of utter and infinite despair.

It’s unwise to try to judge an author after reading only two of their books, but my preliminary impression is that McCarthy is a one-trick pony. Now, it’s a very impressive trick to be sure: lyrically beautiful prose describing a landscape soaked in brutal violence. I suppose that’s the equivalent of a stallion doing a backflip on a trapeze. But it’s a single trick nonetheless. If you had to pick this or The Road, I’d probably say Blood Meridian – while The Road was one long sad trudge through a landscape of ashes, Blood Meridian at least takes place in a living, breathing world, and thus presents a lot more diversity.

It’s a good book I guess. I generally split books with literary merit into two groups: those that are fun to read (Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and those that are tedious and boring (A Passage To India, The Sheltering Sky). Blood Meridian hovers somewhere in between those two groups, just like Moby-Dick: it’s not fun to read, not particularly enjoyable, but you come out of glad that you did so. Whatever. I’m going to sleep.

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June 2009