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 story and characters. The 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:
- What do they want?
- 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.