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A review of "Blood Meridian" or "WTF Did I Just Read?"

Since I don't possess a degree in literature, some might think I'm not qualified to offer an in-depth or scholarly critique of this work. But I'm reasonably alert and enjoy offering unsolicited opinions, so I'll have at it anyway.

While I don't advocate throwing books across the room when they disappoint or displease, I will state that I came the closest to doing that while reading this than I ever have. To back up a bit: I had never read anything by Cormac McCarthy before, and had only recently watched "No Country for Old Men". I heard nothing but complaints from family members about "The Road", so I knew I was taking a chance when I purchased a copy of "Blood Meridian", which I happened to do a month or two before the author's death.

Furthermore, I'd also read some analysis from people who cite McCarthy's Catholic upbringing as being influential to the themes in his works and while "Blood Meridian" definitely treats on the themes of evil, I didn't see much much Catholic viewpoint presented here, but maybe his work evolved after he wrote this one.

Set primarily in the 1850s Texas, the story is apparently loosely based on events recorded in an actual journal, similar to how "Moby Dick" was inspired by the tragedy of the whaler, The Essex. It's difficult to discuss the plot of "Blood Meridian", as it basically has none. Opening and concluding with the character of The Kid, its meandering, episodic structure serves as a backdrop for The Kid and a cast of equally empty, repellent figures as they stumble and lurch through an unforgivingly harsh environment. They commit--or are on the receiving end of--one revolting atrocity after another, almost to the point of parody. I get that life is tough, but the reader is given no relief. The closest thing to a glimmer of kindness is when a minor female character rescues an abused mentally retarded man. But of course, his plight is not really remedied, as he's almost at once taken captive by the demonic figure of the Judge (one of the more memorable villains in fiction).

I can't honestly say this novel is about good and evil, because there is no good. The closest thing to a break from the evil is kind of an inverse from what people normally think when it's "always darkest before dawn". In this story, whenever dawn comes, the sun is invariably described as some sort of bloody entity overlooking that day's parade of hopeless viciousness and mindless suffering. It brings no true light to the face of the Earth or its inhabitants.

As these episodes crawl towards a climax, they eventually take on a more mystical significance. The character of Tobin the ex-priest eventually seems to recognize the Judge for some kind of demonic spirit of violence, and he constructs a cross from animal bones in an attempt to perform a crude exorcism. He also tries to convince the Kid to shoot the Judge when he has the chance. The Kid's reluctance to take a life when it's not in a combat situation seems to be the closest thing to virtue he displays.

I say "seems" because we get so little insight into the characters' motivations and personalities, that it's really hard to come to a conclusion about them. As far as I'm concerned, they are beautifully sketched but ultimately cardboard cutouts, each one standing in for perhaps greed or lust or selfishness, but there's never anything good in them.There are no virtues to counteract either their own vices, or the sheer evil of the Judge.

Thus any sense of mysticism is strained through a nightmarish, hallucinatory fever-dream of debauchery and pointless despair. The bleak vision of the human condition depicted in "Blood Meridian" reminded me of David Lindsay's "A Voyage to Arcturus". In both works, masterful writing is put to the service of an ultimately nihilistic view of reality.

All that being said, I can't say I regret reading it. The artistry is breathtaking. McCarthy breaks nearly every writing rule I can think of: there's no punctuation in the dialogue, tenses shift, perspective hops between characters from paragraph to paragraph. It's often unclear where they're going and what they're doing, or what their motivations are.

However, it all it works, and it works beautifully. None of these "broken rules" are in any way a flaw; rather, they contribute to the overall experience of the prose. The prose is magnificent, and the desert Southwest itself is the most vividly realized of all of the characters.

While McCarthy does not look for beauty in men's hearts, he finds it in the darkness, in the merciless inevitability of hardship and death. Of course, this is a very dry and bitter sort of beauty and the result seems empty. I was not given any more insight about the human experience than I had before. With all his talent, he ends up saying very little about the nature of evil and sin that each of us doesn't already know from our own experiences. But since he also says nothing about hope or grace or salvation, the work is ultimately a dishonest, shallow picture of life.

Read it at your own risk.

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Tom Susanka
Tom Susanka
Sep 03, 2023

Yikes! I don’t need more bleak, dishonest, pointlessness in my day.

i think I bumped into Cormac McCarthy in a history of Texas,”Big Wonderful Thing” by Stephen Harrigan, and I can tell from your review that I don’t need more of McCarthy. Thanks for doing the hard work!

Review well written, by the way!


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