“Blood Meridian,” a Western for People Who Hate Westerns

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

This summer I read two wonderful novels, Hombre and Valdez is Coming, early Westerns written by the masterful Elmore Leonard. After finishing those books I decided it was time to tackle one of the Big Kahunas of the last few decades, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. My only previous experience with McCarthy was The Road, which I didn’t care for, and the Coen Brothers adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which I enjoyed. Full disclosure: knowing the book’s reputation as one of the canonical works worshipped by the literary establishment (e.g. MacArthur “genius” Junot Díaz: “so horrifyingly profound and compellingly ingenious it’s almost sorcery”), I was suspicious of it from the beginning. But hey, we’ve all had the pleasant experience of being won over by a work we were initially skeptical of, so maybe that would happen here?

SPOILER ALERT: It didn’t happen here.

Before I launch into my fatwa-like hatred of this novel, let me start off with some praise. The book does two things exceedingly well. First, these covers are excellent. (US edition on the left by Chip Kidd, UK edition on the right by David Pearson.)

The second good thing about the book is HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I’m just kidding! There is NO good second thing about the book! Everything else about it is awful!

The story and charactersThe book barely has a plot. It’s ostensibly based on the exploits of the real-life Glanton Gang, a paramilitary group of Indian scalp hunters who cut a swath of death and destruction through the mid-19th century southwestern U.S. But the book fails on a basic storytelling level because it never asks two essential questions of its characters:

  1. What do they want?
  2. What happens if they don’t get it?

OK, well I guess question #1 is kinda answered: they want Indian scalps, so they can get paid. It’s what they’ve been hired to do. A need or lust for money has been the motivator for plenty of stories. But c’mon, this is a “literary” work, so it’s not concerned with such mundane matters like narrative motivation; McCarthy is here to make Big Statements about things like the nature of violence, war, and the American character and wrap it all up in fancy writin’. Thus, questions of character motivation are never really given much attention so we have no story to push us forward.

As for the characters, they’re flat and poorly-drawn. All we know about “the kid,” who along with “the judge” comprise the two protagonists of the novel, is found on page 1, paragraph 3, “He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence.” Even Harold Bloom, the HNIC of the literary world who thinks BM is the mother ‘effin shit, admits that the kid’s “personality remains largely a cipher, as anonymous as his lack of a name.” Bloom and others instead focus on “the judge,” who is little more than a trumped-up Boogeyman. A seven-foot albino, the judge is McCarthy’s attempt to cross the white whale in Moby-Dick with Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. He leads the gang while spouting pseudo-philosophical garbage that wouldn’t pass muster in a late-night college bull session. “The kid,” “the judge” — as their names imply, these aren’t people, they’re devices. Their thoughts are hidden from us, their motivations a mystery, their souls nonexistent. Not once do we feel they really exist, other than perhaps in the pages of a second-rate horror comic. They’re props for McCarthy to manipulate, symbols to clash in the desert with other symbols. So along with the lack of story, there are no recognizably human characters to relate to, empathize with, or hold our attention.

Bloom says two of the “glories” of the book are the landscape and the violence, so let’s look at those.

The landscape. What gets Blood Meridian‘s fans worked up is McCarthy’s prose. Bloom calls the book’s prose “as overtly Shakespearean as it is Faulknerian.” OK, I’m not really sure exactly what that means, but I found the prose to be horribly, laughably awful — we’re talkin’ Bulwer-Lytton bad. It’s verbose, pretentious dreck that’s written to within an inch of its life. His sentences twist, meander, and sprawl like overgrown kudzu that must be hacked through. Some examples:

They rode on. The horses trudged silently the alien ground and the round earth rolled beneath them silently milling the greater void wherein they were contained. In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and rock become endowed with unguessed kinships.

Whoo boy, are you shitting me? Is this a joke? I get the point of the passage, I think — something about everything is, like, connected and shit, but nothing is…more important than…OKOK, I guess I don’t get it. And hey, that “round earth” he’s talking about — does he mean planet Earth or “earth” as in dirt? Because planet Earth is by definition spherical, so in that case the word “round” is redundant. But I guess he told us it was round even though we already know it’s so because “round earth rolled” is alliterative. And if he means the dirt beneath them, I don’t see how important that it’s “round.” Yet, whatever it is, it’s all “silently milling the greater void. Yeah, if you’re milling nothing I imagine that’s pretty fuckin’ quiet. I’m not even gonna touch “optical democracy” because that’s just plain silly.

The crumbling butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and heard of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor.

Thank God for Wikipedia, because I had to look up “mare imbrium.” I figured it was reference to the moon and, yes, it’s a lunar crater that means “Sea of Showers” in Latin. OK, so he wants to liken the desert floor to the moon. Fair enough. But saying “moon” isn’t good enough for him, he’s got to impress you with his knowledge/intelligence/thesaurus, only the phrase he chooses refers to water and he’s describing a dry lakebed. My guess is he just expects you to be carried along by the momentum of his bullshit and not think too closely about it.

It was an old hunter in camp and the hunter shared tobacco with him and told him of the buffalo and the stands he’d made against them, laid up in a sag on some rise with the dead animals scattered over the grounds and the heard beginning to mill and the riflebarrel so hot the wiping patches sizzled in the boor and the animals by the thousand and tens of thousands and the hides pegged out over actual square miles of ground and the teams of skinners spelling one another around the clock and the shooting and shooting weeks and months till the bore shot slick and the stock shot loose and the tang and their shoulders were yellow and blue to the elbow and the tandem wagons ground away over the prairie twenty and twenty-two ox and the flint hides by the ton and hundred ton and the meat rotting on the ground and the air whining with flies and the buzzards and ravens and the night a horror of snarling and feeding with the wolves half crazed and wallowing in the carrion.

That’s one sentence. Why? As others have pointed out, run-on sentences like that are a staple of thriller writers to convey breathless action. But here he’s describing the slaughter of buffalo that takes place over “weeks and months” so how is a single 184-word sentence better than a number of shorter ones? Why the rush? Like the moon/dry lakebed simile above, McCarthy’s prose undercuts and muddles what he’s trying to communicate.

Sentences like the ones I’ve quoted are on every page. I could be here all night pointing out these howlers and head-scratchers. Yes, every once in a while he creates an arresting image or there’s an evocative passage. But this heightened language he’s using is best deployed sparingly in a novel; it should be used like rifle, not a shotgun. I was talking with someone about book and he had a good line, “A problem with McCarthy is that he never really lets you up for air once he gets started.” He drowns you in verbosity and hopes you’re too stunned to notice that it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

The violence. Almost every discussion of the book starts with this aspect. Bloom says, “I will begin by confessing that my first two attempts to read through Blood Meridian failed, because I flinched from the overwhelming carnage that McCarthy portrays.” Pardon me for saying so, but the good professor is a pussy. Sure, there’s a lot of violence but because we are never emotionally involved with the characters or their plight, the violence has no context, it lacks any emotional impact. The main characters don’t seem to care if they live or die, so why should we? Everyone else in the novel — the Mexicans, the Indians, the wretched townspeople then discover — are background redshirts to be dispatched so who cares about them either? Here’s the kid getting shot on page 2:

On a certain night a Maltese boatswain shoots him in the back with a small pistol. Swinging to deal with the man he is shot again just below the heart. The man flees and leans against the bar with the blood running out of his shirt. The others look away. After a while he sits in the floor.

Something more graphic:

They followed the trampled ground left by the warparty and in the afternoon they came upon a mule that had failed and been lanced and left dead and then they came upon another. The way narrowed through the rocks and by and by they came to a bush that was hung with dead babies.

They stopped side by side, reeling in the heat. These small victims, seven, eight of them, had holes punched in their underjaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of a mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky. Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being. The castaways hobbled past, they looked back. Nothing moved. In the afternoon they came upon a village on the plain where smoke still rose from the ruins and all were gone to death. From a distance it looked like a decaying brick kiln. They stood without the walls a long time listening to the silence before they entered.

Describing them as “bald,” “pale,” “bloated,” and “larval” seems to liken them to giant maggots. Bloom says that “none of [the] carnage is gratuitous,” but I think this passage is entirely unearned. It’s meant for nothing other than shock value. The children aren’t real, they’re props to create an air of foreboding and dread. The characters are hardly affected by this grisly sight and never refer to it again.

A Comanche attack:

Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses with eyes walled and teeth cropped and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws and their shields winking in the dust and up the far side of the ruined ranks in a piping of boneflutes and dropping down off the sides of their mounts with one heel hung in the withers strap and their short bows flexing beneath the outstretched necks of the ponies until they had circled the company figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.

The liberals who have showered this novel with accolades would denounce this same passage as irredeemably racist if it appeared in a Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour story. Similarly, I’ve read two McCarthy novels and neither contained a single believable or well-rounded female character, another thing traditional Western writers get continually criticized for yet McCarthy seems immune.

A few closing points, a hail of bullets, if you will:

  • I read he learned Spanish while researching BM. His Spanish sucks. I haven’t set foot in a foreign language class in six years and my high school/college Spanish was good enough that I translated all the dialogue easily. (“Quiero mirar su pistola,” “Qué pasó con ustedes,” “Son muy malos,” “Claro,” “No tiene compañeros?” etc.)
  • As you can probably tell from the quoted passages, McCarthy is completely humorless. Not just in this book, but in all of his work that I’ve encountered. The first “joke” I noticed in BM comes on page 134, “The next day on the far side of the mountain we encountered the two lads that had deserted us. Hangin upside down in a tree. They’d been skinned and I can tell ye it does very little for a man’s appearance.” I find it hard to relate to people in real life without a sense of humor and the same goes for novelists.
  • Bloom says that BM “culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition.” What the hell does he mean by “aesthetic potential”? That the highest concepts a Western can deal with are violence and the landscape? How many Westerns do you suppose Bloom has read? Did Moby-Dick “close out the tradition” of the seafaring story? If so, I hope someone told Patrick O’Brian before he died. Dude wasted his time.
  • McCarthy, along with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon, are the Americans thought most likely to win a Nobel Prize. But The Guardian recently argued that the greatest living American novelist is someone else entirely.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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26 Responses to “Blood Meridian,” a Western for People Who Hate Westerns

  1. Excellent rant. Not a Cormac fan myself. All that gloom, that incantatory Biblical-Faulknerian protentousness, the drabness of the stories themselves … I don’t find the characters very convincing either. I can semi-see how people might dig his work as a lot of heavy prose-poetry hung on some Western themes, but I can’t go there myself.

    But: eager to hear how Scott Chaffin responds. Scott’s the rare sensible-guy-I-like who really loves Cormac’s books.

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    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      Callowman liked it too, and I have a couple other friends who adore it, so I’m steeling myself for the backlash.

      Like

    • Scott says:

      [sigh] I’ve been defending this book, and McCarthy, for a decade in the blogosphere. Mainly against people who are simply determined to take a piss on the literati, such as this Bloom fellow and fellow traveler high-art criticism jet-set (most people who hate McCarthy), or just on McCarthy himself (for why, I never quite get — he’s just writing, he’s not an attention-seeker, or all over the teevee, or doing interviews all to hell and back.) I no longer will. You either like it or you don’t. I happen to love it, pretty much all of his work. He’s a gloomy MFer, can be very bloody, this is well-known. But I like his prose, his style, his characters, his rambling-all-over plots. I get really deeply immersed in his work, but then I do so with Patrick O’Brien’s work and Iain M Banks’ work and many others as well. I have the deep advantage of being an unlettered hayseed who can approach this without bleeding decades of baggage. I just read, ya know?

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  2. The passages you quote really are a hoot, btw. I don’t know how a writer can put shit like that down on the page and NOT wake up at 3 a.m. and run to the computer and delete it in shame. If I ever come up with anything half so unwieldy, bloated and vague, please shoot me. And then describe the shooting in down-to-earth language, please.

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    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      There was stuff like that on almost every page. I had lots of other passages flagged that I wanted to ridicule. I didn’t even touch on the judge’s pseudo-philosophical ramblings. But I figured the post was long enough and didn’t wanna wear out my welcome.

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  3. Some people really like fancy writin’, though. And why not?

    Got an answer to that one?

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    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      Nothing wrong with liking fancy writin’. The preference is no better than the leaner style I prefer. Not that one even has to choose — I hear there are some crazy people out there who like both! But if you’re gonna hold that style out as “better” than, say, a Leonard or a Charles Portis, then yeah, I have a problem with that.

      Also, that sort of high style is enormously difficult to pull off, right? When it’s done well (Milton, Faulkner) we rightly prize the results but, as I think I showed in the quoted passages, it’s really easy to go off the rails.

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  4. I like McCarthy! But, after reading this review, I see the Emperor truly is naked; and here I thought he was wearing ermine and jewels.

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  5. Shelley says:

    Thought it was on that high ‘guy’ shelf with “Heart of Darkness”.

    Like

  6. Adrian Hyland says:

    I just read ‘Women in Love’ on the recommendation of a friend, having forgotten the Lawrence I failed to finish in high school, and I have very similar thoughts to those articulated above – I think he and McCarthy are the same kind of writer. You basically keep asking yourself ‘Did this writer not at some point ever consider that he may have over-written this passage? Or that passage? Or that passage?’ And Lawrence is entirely humourless – I would almost say witless. Normally with a book by a writer of that stature I would be jotting the really good stuff down occasionally in a notebook, or underlining with a pencil. With Lawrence that didn’t happen – but I almost jotted down the many many terrible, Mills and Boon style ejaculations. I wish I had so I could lay them out here and we could expand our discussion on over-rated writers! The only thing I would say is that Lawrence at least had an excuse – he was trying to discover a new something or other, and i suppose that exercise was called Modernism. For me Modernism peaked with Faulkner, but McCarthy is still having a go at it – a hundred years later!

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  7. Mark says:

    There is so much well-pitched ridicule on here I’m tempted to agree with Cowtown Pattie and throw in the towel for McCarthy. I’m also tempted to respond with sage nodding to what Adrian has said about Lawrence. Both writers are so bombastic that to take their words off the printed page and reformat them for the snarkosphere, only one outcome could result. Yes, they are both humourless, but why is that a crime?

    But are not peple drawn to the seriousness of McCarthy and Lawrence? Both exploit a potential for this quality, which novels have more of than any other art form. Novels afterall demand time; they are anything but one liners. And literary jokes have a definition all of their own. When they work they are seriously funny.

    Maybe Lawrence and McCarthy are a bit overcooked at times, but just look at the labour that’s gone into those ‘ribtickling’ passages quoted above. Bombastic, maybe, but praise be there are such serious figures out there in this world of ours..

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    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      True, Mark, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with being humorless. I was just stating a personal perference.

      Besides, who am I to talk? — I’m totally taken in by Bergman’s more self-serious efforts like PERSONA, AUTUMN SONATA, and the like. There’s no crime in liking pretentious art.

      You all have got me curious about D.H. Lawrence. Which novel do you recommend?

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      • Mark says:

        I like a bit of Bergman too 🙂
        If you’re pushed for time, Lawrence offers short stories and a novella called The Virgin and the Gypsy, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. But if you want to give him more time, I’d check out Women in Love or Lady Chatterly. Both are really substantial reads, as serious as you like, and like Adrian says dramatic in their attempt to fashion some new modernist thing.

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      • Adrian Hyland says:

        yeah Bergman is Gangsta, especially ‘Smiles of a Summer NIght’. re Modernism, I have a theory that its perpetrators were desperate to create something that would surpass the previous high points of the novel like Eliot and James, but simply couldn’t come up with anything anywhere near as good. Joyce with ‘The Dead’ maybe? And Faulkner. I’d love to know if there are any others…

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  8. Onetime huge D.H. Lawrence fan here … Where the big novels go, I’d suggest starting with “Sons and Lovers” before “Women in Love” or “The Rainbow.” It’s more straightforward, far easier to read, and just as emotionally rewarding. In any case, I much prefer his short fiction and his essays to his long fiction. They aren’t nearly as churning, or as bogged-down by ambition, as the big narratives are. Any collection of his stories is likely to be mind-bogglingly good — I seem to recall that “The Prussian Officer and other Stories” is one of the better collections. His “Studies in Classic American Literature” is short and amazing, and his travel books (like “Sea and Sardinia,” “Mornings in Mexico” and “Etruscan Places”) are just great. They’re fast — they really fly — they’ve got some wit, and they’re crackling with ideas and perceptions.

    It’s been amazing to me how much Lawrence has been forgotten. Back in the ’60s and ’70s he was a giant, but he seems to be seen as an embarrassment these days. I suspect that’s got something to do with political correctness, and with our current lewd-but-prissy environment. But I need to work on that hunch a bit more before going public with it.

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    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      Thanks to the miracle that is the Kindle, I got all of that and lots more for $3: http://www.amazon.com/Works-D-H-Lawrence-Illustrated-ebook/dp/B0050SQLMS/

      Like

    • Adrian Hyland says:

      Short stuff is so often better than the ambitious overblown stuff with these guys. Applies to so many writers. I’d forgotten Lawrence wrote travel – I’m going to check that out.

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      • My feeling these days is, If somebody’s got something he/she wants to express or do in fiction terms, why not deliver it in a shorter and faster package rather than in a longer and duller one?

        I’ve got very little desire to devote 10 or 15 hours to making my way thru a prose-fiction experience — especially when I can sense that the amount of fictional inspiration and idea-content in a book could have been done in, say, 60 pages. It seems rude and arrogant on the writer’s part — “For 15 hours, you’re going to pay attention to ME and to the MADE-UP WORLD I INVENTED!” What kind of person even wants to make those kinds of claims on other people’s attention? A novel doesn’t even give you actors, or set design, or music, or photography to enjoy as the story goes by.

        I understand wanting to get some of the classics under your belt, and god knows some of them are long. But I have zero temperamental understanding of people who have an ongoing taste for these sit-still-for-15-hours-and-pay-attention sorts of entertainment experiences. “Settle in. This is going to be reallllllllly slow …” is what I feel most novels are telling me on page one.

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  9. Scott says:

    KILL THE NOVEL! DEATH TO THE NOVELIST! UP AGAINST THE WALL, LONGFORMERS!

    (You actually sound like me talking about so-called modern music. Black Keys? This is good? Done been done. And you have not in any way expanded the form. Adios.)

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  10. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    I loved the book and I would say that the author of the post was cherrypicking a bit with regard to the purple passages. In any event, one could make the exact same criticisms of Moby Dick, but Melville’s book still one of the best ever written by an American.

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  11. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    I’d also defend the long form too. Most of the best work is found in the long form, so I’m glad that people try it. I’m happy to agree that most people don’t have enough worth saying to fill up a whole book, but the general solution to bad work in longer form is simply to not read it.

    1. If someone (alive or dead) whose taste I respect says that the book is amazing (not just good) then I’ll generally read all the way through. I end up liking some works more than others, but I’m not usually disappointed in a major way.
    2. If its a new book and you’re bored, skip ahead. Or just start randomly sampling a here and there. If a book is really that great you should run into something that piques your interest. I try to take in a decent portion of the book, but why would you waste a huge amount of your life on a maybe.

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  12. Eric Brooks says:

    In lieu of all of these interesting comments on McCarthy’s Novel, one other thing has to be added: This is a real life ideocracy we’re living in, and this blogster, I suppose, is one of it’s respected thinkers.

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  15. delayed input says:

    There are so many horrible novels in the world that I can’t understand why you spend time hating on BM. McCarthy includes extreme violence because the Southwest of that era was extremely violent. To just write “the Indians killed them” leaves out incrediblly appalling strains on human existence and also prevents the reader from really understanding that world. As for the shallowness, the level of anonymity the kid attained was an art form, considering how little we know about witnesses of some of the crazier events in history. The moon imagery gives a specific mental image and helps connect the desert to a desolate crater thousands of miles from earth. The language he used was pretty simple apart from a few Paleolithic references (even those are a gift to those who haven’t learned about them.) All in all the book shed light on a character’s inability to even share a response to extreme and forgotten chapters of human history. If you’re going to rip apart a novel, rip apart Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon devoted 750+ pages of obscure references and purposely confusing writing in exchange for an empty and generally dumb story. He deserves the criticism. Lastly, if you don’t like stimulating imagery and learning about interesting eras, then why do you even read?

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    • >>There are so many horrible novels in the world that I can’t understand why you spend time hating on BM.

      Because I didn’t enjoy the book. It’s one of the most celebrated and revered novels of the last 50 years, so I’m sure McCarthy and his fans can handle the occasional dissent.

      >>If you’re going to rip apart a novel, rip apart Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon devoted 750+ pages of obscure references and purposely confusing writing in exchange for an empty and generally dumb story. He deserves the criticism.

      Pynchon is generally considered in the top rank of American writers right along McCarthy. You didn’t like GR? That’s cool, neither did I. Not sure why it’s OK for me rip on one writer but not the other. Merely b/c you say so?

      >>Lastly, if you don’t like stimulating imagery and learning about interesting eras, then why do you even read?

      McCarthy doesn’t have a monopoly on stimulating imagery or imparting information about the past.

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