Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West

Like the eminent scholar who introduces the Modern Library edition of Blood Meridian (1985), on previous attempts I failed to read this book through due to the violence.  It’s on every page.  While I recognized the quality of what I was reading, I just wasn’t in the mood for it at the time.  Even when I stopped reading it before, though, I always knew I’d return to it.  I’ve finally done it!  What changed?  Well, I’ve a bit more reading under my belt, both of McCarthy and in general, so my ability to understand (not just recognize) the brilliance was enhanced.  But probably the most significant change this time around: I read Moby-Dick.  Moby-Dick helped me learn how to read Blood Meridian.

Moby-Dick is definitely one of the highlights not just of last year but of my life in literature.  I loved it from page one until that emptying last line.  It is no spoiler, and it is important, I believe, to repeat that line here:

It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

Blood Meridian has been Harold-ed as a worthy successor to Moby-Dick, though it is probably reductive to think of it only in those terms.  However, since I only finished Moby-Dick last August, it is fresh on my mind, so I’m going to use it as a springboard.  In the first page of Blood Meridian we meet another orphan: the kid.  The first sentence is, “See the child.”  He’s actually not an orphan when we meet him, and in the first paragraph we get an interesting line about his heritage: “His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster.”  The Biblical allusion to “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” a reference to the curse Joshua places upon the people Gibeah after they’ve beguiled the Israelites, hearkens violence of Biblical proportions as well as the curse that followed.  It’s also suggestive of the profound issues McCarthy will be juggling through the book.  Following the allusion, we meet the kid’s father briefly when he says,

Night of your birth.  Thirty-three.  The Leonids they were called.  God how the stars did fall.  I looked for blackness, holes in the heaves.  The Dipper stove.

We then learn little of the kid’s mother:

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off.  The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it.

And then, just before another literary allusion, we learn this tragic fact about this young child:

He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a tastes for mindless violence.  All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.

Again, the line “the child the father of the man” comes from a William Wordsworth poem, “My heart leaps up when I behold.”  This poem speaks about a much more innocent theme: a child’s heart leaping when he sees a rainbow becomes the old man whose heart leaps when he sees the rainbow — so we hope.  In Blood Meridian, what the child fathers is much more desolate.

And it is here, at the end of that first page, which is not very long, that we orphan the kid.  At fourteen he runs away from home, never to return.  On the next page he is shot, though not mortally wounded.  And then there’s this beautiful sentence about his lost origins, which to me hearkens back to Ishmael’s concerns with the whiteness of the whale and with his own parentage:

His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.

All of that incredibly deep setup in just a couple of pages, and I am sure I’ve left out much more.  I’m afraid that that type of depth and that weighty dense prose is the nature of this book, but it pays much to the devoted reader.  It’s violent — but it’s beautiful to behold.

In his paths through that wild and barbarous terrain there is one looming figure, his main antagonist, Judge Holden.  How the kid first sees the judge is another part of the book that hearkens to Moby-Dick.  In the first few pages of Moby-Dick, when Ishmael is wandering the streets thinking of his mortality, possibly contemplating suicide, he attends the sermon of Father Mapple and is in part invigorated into going to sea.  In the first few pages of Blood Meridian, the kid attends a sermon by the Reverend Green.  Suddenly, Judge Holden enters the room and claims Reverend Green is an impostor, that he has no degree of divinity, and in fact he is wanted by the law:

On a variety of charges the most recent of which involved a girl of eleven years — I said eleven — who had come to him in trust and whom he was surprised in the act of violating while actually clothed in the livery of his God.

Reverend Green’s only response: “This is him, cried the reverend, sobbing.  This is him.  The devil.  Here he stands.”  After Reverend Green has been killed by the congregation turned mob, Judge Holden is asked how he knew all of that about Reverend Green.  His response is that he had never set eyes on the man before.  Judge Holden is a brutal man, the embodiment of the loftiest philosophical conflicts found in Blood Meridian.  He is, however, a kind of second to another man named John Joel Glanton, the leader of the filibusters.  The Glanton Gang is a real gang of mercenaries hired by the Mexican government to protect civilians from the Apache Indians.  They were paid by the scalp.  And there is one reference in history to a Judge Holden, perhaps the most ruthless of the bunch.  In Blood Meridian, Glanton leads the warfare; the judge leads the philosophizing and haunts the nights, eventually rising far above his role to the point where the story cannot contain him.

It is the kid’s misfortune to eventually become part of Glanton’s scalphunters.  We witness massacres and, sometimes, the aftermath:

Long past dark that night when the moon was already up a party of women that had been upriver drying fish returned to the village and wandered howling through the ruins.  A few fires still smoldered on the ground and dogs slank off from among the corpses.  An old woman knelt at the blackened stones before her door and poked brush into the coals and blew back a flame from the ashes and began to right the overturned pots.  All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon.

We also see the filibusters ride into a Mexican village, champions, saviors:

Hundreds of onlookers pressed about as the dried scalps were counted out upon the stones.  Soldiers with muskets kept back the crowds and young girls watched the Americans with huge black eyes and boys crept forth to touch the grisly trophies.  There were one hundred and twenty-eight scalps and eight heads and the governor’s lieutenant and his retinue came down into the courtyard to welcome them and admire their work.  They were promised full payment in gold at the dinner to be held in their honor that evening at the Riddle and Stephens Hotel and with this the Americans sent up a cheer and mounted their horses again.  Old women in black rebozos ran forth to kiss the hems of their reeking shirts and hold up their dark little hands in blessing and the riders wheeled their guanted mounts and pushed through the clamoring multitude and into the street.

The, well, rather: A terrible thing about it is that many of these scalps are the remnants of anything that even looked passably like an Indian scalp.  So we have here the scalps of women and children, to be sure, but also of the Mexicans the filibusters were asked to keep safe.  But, much like the whale and the search for the whale in Moby-Dick serves a greater philosophical narrative, the disgusting actions of the Glanton gang serve a similar purpose:

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?  Wolves cull themselves, man.  What other creature could?  And is the race of man not more predacious yet?  The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.  His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement.  His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day.

It really is superb to watch the judge and the other characters and McCarthy discuss grand ideas.  It is especially remarkable that the judge himself is a massive idea.  In Blood Meridian the judge is, in some respects, more than just a member of the searchers.  He is the white whale.  Albino, large, incomprehensible, seemingly — or perhaps literally — immortal.  More than a being of flesh and blood he, like Moby-Dick himself, is the bulging embodiment of bigger ideas.

To end this slight review, I’d like to change the focus from suggesting the big ideas to a quick look at McCarthy’s style.  More than in his other books, Blood Meridian is written almost as if it were written in the 1850s or earlier.  The word choice, the syntax, everything is archaic.  But it is also poetic and fresh.  Here, to end, are a few examples of his description of the loneliness or the violence encountered in the dessert surrounding the Texas – Mexico border in the 1850s (and today).  The following sentences do not follow one another in the book, though the final two are from the same episode (and what an episode! where the kid has the judge in his sights three times while the judge, naked but with skins covering his nake head, calls to the kid while walking an idiot man on a lead).

There is hardly in the world a waste so barren but some creature will not cry out at night, yet here one was and they listened to their breathing in the dark and the cold and they listened to the systole of the rubymeated hearts that hung within them.

His leg had begun to bleed and he lay soaking it in the cold water and he drank and palmed water over the back of his neck.  The marblings of blood that swung from his thigh were like thin red leeches in the current.

He looked at the expriest and at the slow gouts of blood dropping in the water like roseblooms how they swelled and were made pale.

I have now read five of McCarthy’s ten novels.  I’ve loved each one, and each is masterful in its way — but this stands out as a masterpiece among masterworks.

27 thoughts on “Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Hear, hear! It is a masterpiece, and it’s better than The Road or No Country For Old Men. Although various members of the opposite sex charge me with being predictable in this regard, and that this much vaunted novel is the Taxi Driver of literature – a sinewy, muscular, blood-ridden book for MEN. Ah well, it’s still magnificent.

  2. Wilson Knut says:

    I’ve read Blood Meridian twice now, and I’m sure I will read it again. It is that good. The Road is also one of my favorites, but I agree that Blood Meridian is McCarthy’s masterpiece. I never thought about it in terms of Moby Dick, but I can see it now. Judge Holden as the white whale. Very interesting.

  3. Not a slight review at all Trevor and brilliant to use Moby-Dick as a comparison. I was blown away by this book and probably a little over-awed when I came to write my own review. The violence is relentless and shocking; repulsive because it reflects a side of human behaviour we’d probably rather not acknowledge. McCarthy has no such qualms luckily. I’m a big fan of The Road because of its timelessness. Blood Meridian is so rooted in a time and filled with so much more detail as a result that I agree with you that this is the greatest of his books. I think the fact that I would recommend The Road to anyone and reserve Blood Meridian for those that I thought were up to it says something. Maybe that I’m just patronising!

  4. Trevor says:

    Lee, I really loved The Road and, more than most, No Country for Old Men, but I agree that this one is his masterpiece. (Hard for me to say better, though, because The Road is also a masterpiece and, I believe, perfect for its content). And I have to agree with your female friends — I can’t see many of the women I know enjoying this book.

    Wilson, it was hard for me to stop seeing it in terms of Moby-Dick once the association was made for me by Bloom. I think I would have seen it eventually, but probably not right at the start. There are several other literary allusions, not the least of which is to Paradise Lost. I’m sure there are dozens I missed from the works I’ve listed and dozens of works I’ve missed all together.

    And Wil, I have to agree that I wouldn’t recommend Blood Meridian to everyone I recommend The Road to. I know some of that is because The Road is so readable while Blood Meridian requires patience and attentiveness. I would like more people to read it, though.

    So now I have five McCarthy novels left (unless/until he brings out another). I’m not sure where to go next. A while ago I had some hesitation about finishing off the Border Trilogy, but I think that’s all gone, so maybe I’ll go to its volume two. Then again, I’ve only read one of his first five novels, so perhaps it’s time to go visit more of his early work.

  5. Tony S. says:

    I loved Moby Dick, but still have no use for Cormac McCarthy’s novels. His combination of extreme violence and sappy sentimentality just does not appeal to me. I’ve given him enough chances having read several of his novels. There are just certain writers who may be good, but I don’t like them anyway.

  6. Trevor says:

    Ha! Tony, I love that you find McCarthy to be laden with sentimentality whereas in my review of The Road, after I quote part of the first page, I say:

    That was not sentimental. That was not sentimental.

    I’m also in the camp who thinks the violence is extreme but not gratuitous. Doesn’t mean I feel those who think otherwise are misguided. At least no one, so far, has attacked his style here.

    Out of curiosity, which McCarthy titles have you read? I can see reasons people wouldn’t like all of the ones I’ve read, though I certainly do.

  7. Tony S. says:

    Hi Trevor,
    I’ll use ‘The Road’ as my example, since that is the last Cormac McCarthy novel I read. I listened to it on audiodisk, so that may have had something to do with my reaction. Whenever the little boy said “Papa!”, that to me was a cringeworthy sentimental ploy. Maybe I’m over-reacting.
    It’s interesting to me that you repeated “That was not sentimental”. That suggests you thought that a lot of people would think it was sentimental. I just think that people who live in a violent world should accept the fact that children as well as adults are going to get killed in the violence and not get all sentimental about it. Otherwise they can make sure the violence doesn’t happen.
    So far I’ve read ‘The Orchard Keeper”, “All the Pretty Horses”, and “The Road”.

  8. Trevor says:

    I think the audiobook might have had something to do with it, though that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong to feel that way. Some of those narrators have no idea how to read and their performance is atrocious. I can only imagine a less-than-talented reader trying to do that dialogue. Ughh!

    As far as repeating “That was not sentimental”: that was just a throw-back to the opening page of All the Pretty Horses where McCarthy writes, “That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.” In my review of The Road I wanted to touch on the relationship between the father and son and suggest that to me it was completely genuine and not in the least sentimental. I’m not sure my thought process, but I was probably anticipating the counterargument. I think it is going close to the line, but for me it doesn’t cross.

    I haven’t read The Orchard Keeper yet. I’ve heard from fans of McCarthy that, being his first book, it’s not all that, though the completist in me has issued a mandate that I read it. I’m really looking forward to The Outer Dark and Suttree.

  9. I have this Modern Library volume and keep looking at it and then putting it back on the shelf. My McCarthy exposure is limited to the Border Trilogy and my impression is close to Tony S — All The Pretty Horses was okay, the other two a disappointment. I have an aversion to dystopian novels, so The Road holds no appeal. Your review does move Blood Meridian forward somewhat — I’ll get myself motivated eventually.

  10. Trevor says:

    I have to say, Kevin, from my knowledge of your tastes I’m not sure where you’d fall on any of the McCarthy novels I’ve read. Your aversion to dystopian novels would probably be a major hinderance to your liking The Road, though I look at the setting as incidental — one of those books that is great and happens to be dystopian. Still, I know that setting holds a great deal of appeal to you, and you like to see how your characters interact in a given space and time period. I’m pretty sure you’d have no liking for No Country for Old Men, though I quite liked it. I liked it when I read it, but, again, reading Moby-Dick retroactively helped my reading of No Country for Old Men. And I don’t know if I could ever really recommend Child of God to anyone — it is just so disturbing — though I’d love to get others’ opinions.

  11. Wilson Knut says:

    I read the second book of the border trilogy a year or two ago. It was good, but not as good as All The Pretty Horses. There were scenes in The Crossing that just felt unnecessary and overly philosophical. I have the third sitting on my shelf and wanted to read it last year, but never did.

    So far I have not found his writing to be overly sentimental, but I guess that depends on how you define sentimental writing. I had a professor many years ago who defined it as “attempting to create unearned emotion.”

  12. Trevor says:

    attempting to create unearned emotion

    I like that definition of sentimental, Wilson. Thanks! I can see where some people might say that his philosophizing might be an attempt to create unearned profundity. I haven’t felt that way about any of the books I’ve read, though perhaps there have been times when I haven’t followed his thread and haven’t cared.

  13. Seoman says:

    Terrific review Trevor. I couldn’t see the link with Moby Dick at first but then got thinking about it and it made sense. I’ve read three of Cormac McCathy’s novels and Blood Meridian is by far the best. Though it took a false start before I tuned into the novel.

  14. tolsmted says:

    Tony – I’m not surprised you found his work to be sentimental. In my mind you can divide his novels into categories (not chronological).

    Suttree – This is his most under-rated novel and very Faulkner-esque. Interestingly, I think Suttree was the first indication of/attempt at the skill, rhythm and amazing language that he perfected in Blood Meridian. Unfortunately, it has hints of the sentimentality displayed in Border trilogy as well.

    Blood Meridian, Outer Dark and Child of God – Incredibly violent, but these three books form the foundation of his critical reputation

    Border Trilogy – Sentimental. If he wasn’t so talented these could have easily descended into smarmy westerns (I’m talking Louis L’Amore!). I’ve heard stories to the effect that he wrote these to make money and win some awards.

    No Country for Old Men and The Road – His Hollywood phase. These books (the former more so than the latter) are so obviously written to be adapted for screen that I’m sorry to say I believe this will be the future direction his writing will take.

    So I think you’ve been dipping into the wrong section. I don’t think it’s possible to read Outer Dark and consider him a sentimental writer. If you’re willing to give him another shot, this is where I think you should begin.

  15. tolsmted says:

    Trevor – Sorry for the multiple posts, but I feel I need to represent my gender! McCarthy is one of my favorite authors and I thought your comparison of Blood Meridian to Moby Dick was very well done, and added layers to the book that I hadn’t realized. So thank you.

    Child of God is disturbing, but I found Outer Dark even moreso (I also found Outer Dark a bit disjointed, so I’d be interested to hear what you think of it after you read it). What made Child of God – and I suppose this would apply to most of his works – bearable for me was the way he just he constantly throws in these beautiful phrases. The line the book gets its title from “a child of god, much like yourself perhaps…” (paraphrased – I don’t have my copy in front of me) drops like a bombshell in the middle of the paragraph. It’s that constant juxtaposing of beautiful prose used to describe the ugliest and most horrific behavior that brings me back to McCarthy again and again.

  16. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your thoughts tolsmted, and thanks for representing your gender! I’m actually kind of excited to read Outer Dark now that I know it is even more disturbing than Child of God. I’m not sure what that says about me.

    Also, I had to chuckle at your regret that McCarthy’s writing would be Hollywood-ish from now on — I wonder how many more he has in him? I have to say, though, that while I found No Country for Old Men slight in comparison to his other works, it worked for me. And The Road worked for me and then some. Those and All the Pretty Horses were my first, though, so perhaps as I get more of what I’m seeing has made his critical reception, I’ll lean more your way.

  17. tolsmted says:

    There’s a good interview that he gave to the Wall Street Journal (last year I think)where he talks about his next book.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704576204574529703577274572.html?mod=djemITP

    And I suppose in the interest of full disclosure I should admit I’ve only gotten 1/2 through The Road – I started it over a year ago and it frightened me so badly I put it down! I’ll eventually pick it up again, but I don’t think I’ll go see the movie.

  18. Trevor says:

    Great link — thanks!

  19. Tony S. says:

    Tolsmted,
    Thanks for the detailed summary of nearly all of Cormac McCarthy’s books. I remember at one point, after reading ‘The Orchard keeper’, being very excited about his work, and then a few years later being terribly disappointed with ‘All the Pretty Horses’. At that time, ‘All the Pretty Horses’ was getting uniformly positive reviews, but that doesn’t always mean much. From your comment, it appears the Cormac books I should read are Blood Meridian, Outer Dark and Child of God.

  20. Trevor says:

    Don’t forget Suttree, Tony S.

    I think there is a distinct line that divides McCarthy’s first five novels and his latest five novels. I’m a fan of both, from what I’ve read, but I know others fall on either side of the line. I’d like to see some evidence to the claim that McCarthy wrote All the Pretty Horses to win some awards and start making money. Doesn’t sound like his character. Also, I don’t see All the Pretty Horses as being an obvious award-winner.

  21. tolmsted says:

    Trevor – I don’t really have proof other than this… and honestly, I know how suspect it sounds. So please take it for what it is…I heard it from a close friend, who I trust without question. One of his graduate professors from Drexel was/is friends with Cormac McCarthy and said that McCarthy told him that he wrote ‘All the Pretty Horses’ because he wanted to win an award and sell books. The anecdote was not meant negatively, but to highlight how talented McCarthy is – that he has the ability to produce a specific kind of book “upon demand”.

    To be honest, it seems totally in character to me. I think the fact that the style of ‘No Country for Old Men’ translates easily into film is no coincidence. And if you had a chance to read WSJ article, McCarthy says that the only signed copies of ‘The Road’ belong to his son and have been put away until he’s old enough to sell them. I think the media likes to portray McCarthy as the new Salinger because he likes his privacy and doesn’t give a lot of interviews. But if you look at his career (which is rather prolific) I think all things point to him having a healthy interest in making money. And there’s really no shame in that.

  22. tolmsted says:

    Tony –

    Yes, those three are his darker books. And I believe that’s when he’s at his best. (It is a little twisted how people are so drawn to the macabre and morbid, don’t you think?) I have to very respectfully disagree with Trevor regarding ‘Suttree’… I liked the novel very much but I don’t feel it’s representative of McCarthy’s writing. It’s very different from the other books. It reminds me more of ‘Absalom, Absalom’ and ‘A Light in August’ then, say, ‘The Road’. At the same time, I do sometimes feel as if he farmed ‘Suttree’ for ideas and themes that he then used in the other books… but that could just be me being fanciful.

  23. Trevor says:

    I have to very respectfully disagree with Trevor regarding ‘Sutree’

    We might be on the same page there, tolmsted (I thought that how you spelled your screen name) — I haven’t read Suttree yet. Hopefully sooner rather than later, though.

    Also, interesting behind the scenes look at McCarthy. The only things I have to go on are his interviews — no anecdotes, unfortunately. Still, seems to go agains the character his ex-wife conjures when she said he used to decline readings and publicity and then they’d eat beans for supper. Perhaps that was pre-Blood Meridian McCarthy, and then that taste of money . . . that explains a lot about No Country for Old Men!

    By the way, I did read that interview — thanks! And I’m intrigued by his new novel, which he calls large, though since he says no one writes the indulgent long books of a century ago, that might mean somewhere over 350 pages??? I think the premise sounds interesting, and I look forward to seeing whether he succeeds in writing about a woman — I’ll need your perspective there, of course!

  24. Trevor says:

    I think we should acknowledge another dissenting voice: Nicolas Sparks does not like Blood Meridian.

    I actually hesitated linking to this. Not because I don’t think it’s absolutely hilarious, but because I kind of wanted to go along with John and Kevin’s gag that Sparks could be saying such stupid things just hoping someone would listen. Well, I guess I listened — but only for the jokes!

  25. Kerry says:

    You’ll have to put me in the “twisted” group, because Blood Meridian sounds like an absolute must read. I have read three of McCarthy’s novels so far. The results are mixed.

    No Country for Old Men was my first and, so far, my least favorite. All the Pretty Horses was next. I liked, but didn’t love, it. Then, The Road which I highly respect but still do not love.

    Blood Meridian is next and is make or break for me and Mr. McCarthy. Of course, it sounds like Moby Dick as a prelude would be the way to go. Of course, that is a substantial obstacle, so maybe I will just rely on your review for that connection.

    Great review. You have won me over.

  26. Trevor says:

    I look forward to your response, Kerry. I wish I could predict it for you! If you like it, you’ll have to pay attention to the commenters above who seem to suggest that McCarthy’s best period was Blood Meridian and before. I’m going with The Outer Dark next.

  27. Interesting review and discussion both. So far I’ve read No Country for Old Men, and The Road, and of the two I much preferred No Country. I had mixed views on The Road on first reading, and I’m not sure that for me it’s growing in the memory. Haunting and well written, but at times overblown too and while the setting wasn’t the point I’m not sure that wholly excuses it not making any real sense.

    Ahem. Anyway, the westerns tempt me more. McCarthy was always a genre writer as best I could tell, more specifically a writer of westerns – a largely extinct genre. That’s interesting in itself, and all the more so when coupled to his talent. Talent of that kind tends to struggle with the constraints of genre, as perhaps McCarthy has at times.

    He’s almost Ellroyian in his violence isn’t he? Like Ellroy too, he has power but but his narratives lacks a certain credibility – uglier than real life, ugly as that can be, without the leavening of humour we actually have to lessen the darkness around us.

    That said, unlike Ellroy McCarthy clearly has maintained his talent, not squandering it in self-indulgence.

    Well, all that said, I can’t add this to the TBR pile. I haven’t read Moby Dick yet!

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