Thursday, February 3, 2011

Book Review: Blood Meridian

[What was originally meant to be a quick link to another blogger's post on Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian with a few additional thoughts quickly spiraled out of control as my unending enthusiasm for the work spilled out of me. This is a post intended for those who have read the novel and know it, and I would encourage those who have not yet had the dubious but undeniable pleasure of traversing its sunburned plains to read the book as soon as possible.]

I just re-read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, one of my finalists for that ever-contested title of Great American Novel, based on the discovery of an excellent post by Sheila O'Malley of The Sheila Variations and a brief chat with her about that most awe-inspiring and terrifying of literary characters, Judge Holden. Sheila has been gracious enough to link my material to her fantastic blog more than once, and it's a pleasure to be able to narrow down the trove of her spotlight-worthy posts to discuss here.

Sheila and I largely share the same view on Holden, if another view could be said to exist at all. Just as all those who read Othello must recognize Iago as a being of supreme evil, so too must the judge be considered one of the great monsters of the arts, a condensation of Moby Dick's gargantuan presence and power into the form of a human being, which possibly is even scarier. McCarthy's novel is sparse and endothermic, retreating from its epic, descriptive tableaux into intimate, graphic and chilling that tap into man's soul and find the darkest recesses, or at least we can only hope to God that the darkness only exists in tiny cracks. At the center of the vacuum is the judge.

Not that this is obvious at first. Taking a leaf from Melville, McCarthy starts, if not with Ishmael's first-person perspective then at least a focused third-person view of the kid, the unnamed teen who quickly displays the same skill and penchant for violence as anyone else in McCarthy's caked-blood vision of the West. The first time we meet the judge, in fact, the author -- I almost said "camera" -- stays with the boy as he turns to watch this mysterious man denounce a revival-tent preacher as a deviant and a fraud. It is masterful setup, not only playing upon our identification, however, slight with the protagonist's discomfort with the preacher's Bible-thumping but modern cynicism. I can't speak for anyone else, but the thought of a snake oil salesman getting his, especially one spouting off a few verses, feels good, damn good. But the mob that runs the preacher out of town (and possibly harms or even kills him) returns to the saloon to toast the judge, and someone asks how he knew the preacher was a fraud. The judge casually responds that he never met or heard about the man in his life, causing only the briefest pause before the crowd laughs.

Despite the cruel reveal of the moment, there's still the possibility of morality in this man, whose encyclopedic knowledge of science and philosophy pit him against the empty spirituality of endless sermonizing. Sheila writes:
He seems to have a moral center. His first entrance into the book speaks to a sense of honesty and outrage that I latched onto. He recognizes hypocrisy in the preacher and he is unafraid to put a stop to it. In such a brutal amoral world, such honesty is refreshing. You can be lulled into a sense of complacency. You feel that perhaps the judge will protect the innocent. That is only my own failure of imagination and privileged 21st century life that would make me think such a thing.
I know exactly what she means, though I think the bluff goes even farther. McCarthy's stark description, and his carefully researched use of Gnostic imagery, create a spiritual void of the West that the modern, jaded audience wants to see filled with science, the deliverance from superstitious ignorance. And for a literary audience, that holdout crowd of defenders unwilling to cede what few patches of ground not to be overrun with America's blind fetish for not knowing things, the thought of the supremely educated man providing the shred of morality we clearly cannot count on from the kid is all the more delicious. Slowly, ever so slowly, McCarthy hands us a length of rope and whispers instructions for tying a noose.

Though the judge rides with a gang of rapacious, ultraviolent thieves and scalpers (a gang the kid slips into via the osmosis-like joining and un-joining of members to the posse), his actions are ambiguous enough to suggest a nobler intent. He disarms more than one potentially hairy situation with a command for language and an ability to put forward his knowledge in ways that entertain and transfix dumb, blood-hungry cowboys and Mexicans. His almost poetic focus on leaves and rocks and anthropology make him attractive even as McCarthy's phrasing never lets us forget that something about him.

Harold Bloom, who praises Blood Meridian as one of the greatest modern literary accomplishments and generally gives the rest of McCarthy's canon passing interest (if that), does something of a disservice to the amount of research McCarthy put into the novel -- which was considerable -- by dismissing much of the resonance of the author's Gnostic imagery and the undercurrent of commentary on Manifest Destiny/American imperialism, another trait it shares with Moby Dick. Yet Bloom is quite right to avoid pigeon-holing anything about the book, and especially the judge, as mere political commentary. Even casting the judge as a Gnostic demiurge, a demon presiding over the terrible expanse of the desert that makes the national border separating the United States from Mexico utterly meaningless, somehow limits him.

McCarthy builds him masterfully, evolving his distinct presence from faintly hope-inspiring to mysterious to unsettling to frightening to outright, pants-wettingly terrifying. He SCARES me. Scares me in a way that no cinematic villain ever has, despite the aided benefit of sight and sound to imprint upon my memory. Whatever feeling of trust one might have placed in him at the start as the rational, observant mind tagging along has long since faded by the time Toadvine, the earless horse thief, discovers him standing over a dead Apache child and scalping it.

Then, 198 pages into a 337-page book, comes the full turn. Scribbling his endless, perfectionist notes in his ledger, into which he also crushes leaves and soil, Holden finds himself drawn into a conversation with Toadvine that is far beyond the latter's ken. At last, Holden explains his position.

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

What’s a suzerain?

A keeper. A keeper or overlord.

Why not say keeper then?

Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.

At once, this man, already revealed to be a child killer, possibly a pedophile, becomes a being more fundamentally disturbing, spread out like the the setting into something so vast that meaning and interpretation dissipate. The judge sees the chaos of his surroundings but believes himself to be its future ruler. Amazingly, this never once seems like hubris. He rides with the gang not because of the greed of Glanton and most of the men who fade in and out in deliberate anonymity, nor even the predilection toward violence that motivates the kid. He finds purity in blood beyond the bloodlust. Blood is man, man is war and, as the judge himself says, "War is God."

This revelation rearranges the purpose behind Holden's preternatural mastery of philosophy and science. Religion has no place in this void, but knowledge will not fill the gap. The judge's intellect serves as facets of his planned dominion, and that which exists outside his considerable knowledge must be stamped out. He hinted at this earlier when he told a story about a harnessmaker who takes in and subsequently kills a traveler to reach the seemingly unrelated point about raising children harshly. Holden says kids should be thrown into pits with animals, to make mankind into the exaggerated Spartan ideal. The wilderness around the men is so unforgiving because all the wildlife in it matured in such conditions, so only the strongest wolves, bears and coyotes reached adulthood. For the judge, mankind must return to its primitivism to truly rule the world. Adam and Eve lost their position as masters of Eden for gaining knowledge and civility. Is it any wonder, then, that the judge spends so much time dancing naked on the plain?

Under his influence, Glanton's gang begins to fight less for the money and more for the sheer hell of it. They return to the Mexican city bearing scalps the way we think of Americans marching through liberated Europe, blanketed by support and gratitude though they come caked in blood (their own and that of victims). And they are showered in money. These rough-riders, most of whom are wanted with death sentences in America, could easily retire as kings. But something burrows into their heads, and soon Glanton is leading horrid charges through Mexican villages that make the violence to that point tame (somehow, McCarthy would pull this off again in the last 80 pages, which accelerate to the point I become dizzy with nausea). That money the men so coveted becomes valueless: one man, Brown, takes an ornate shotgun worth hundreds, no doubt, to a blacksmith to have the barrels cut down. The artisan refuses, unwilling to maim so beautiful and valuable a work of craftsmanship. But by that point, Brown cares only about using the gun, not prizing it or selling it. Likewise, Glanton, before his death, is reduced to absent-mindedly pouring gathered treasure into a box already filled with enough loot to last him four lifetimes in the mid-19th century. But the judge has snared them, turning them into killing machines who fight and die because they must. He has fitted them into his mold.

Slowly, the judge lets on that the kid does not fit into his mold. I've read this book thrice now and have yet to find the indication of the kid's humanity until after the judge tells him about it. This is not a mistake. No one, not even the kid himself, sees the "clemency" in his soul that the judge sees plainly. Sheila mentions the judge smashing the kid between the pages of his ledger; I always envision the judge raising his book and slamming it down on the boy's head like an idle scrivener crushing a spider in dispassionate ennui.

For the judge does not hate. Even Iago hated. We have no idea why he hated, but the intense glee he took in his destruction of his master displayed a rage not tempered by the character's intellect. The judge merely surveys, takes note, and destroys. He's an unstoppable juggernaut, a hairless mound of intractable flesh that always survives unscathed, always finds his target. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his stalking of the kid and Tobin, the expriest who retains just enough of his sanctimonious hold on theology to recognize the devil when he sees 'em. No matter where the two flee, there stands the judge, perfectly positioned on the horizon drawing nearer -- I always imagine him in this sequence as a cross between Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter and the animatronic Gunslinger from Westworld. It's psychological torture that turns the taciturn kid jittery and the already-broken Tobin into a hissing, sputtering bundle of fear. With the gibbering idiot in tow, the Lear to the judge's Fool, Holden reminds us that it is always the Fool in Shakespeare who knows all, who manipulates for his own amusement (there is a reason Iago was always played by the comedians of the troupe), but where the Fool usually attempts to berate his master into self-awareness for good, the judge does the same for evil. The judge will kill Tobin one way or another, but he wants to see if the kid might. His attraction to and viciousness toward children cause him to court the lad, hoping to eradicate that piece of soul within him, to convert the lad without killing him.

But the kid does not leave Tobin until they are separated in rescue and recuperation, and we at last start to see what the judge was talking about. He finds the boy in a jail cell, having framed him for all Glanton's massacres. The kid, now openly terrified of the man, backs to the other end of the cell as Holden beckons, but the judge continues to explain his position. "I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man if nothing but antic clay...Only each was called upon to empty his heart into the common and one did not. Can you tell me who that was?" The kid responds that the judge is the one; for the first half of the novel, that was also my response.

But the judge knows. He always knew. He is as capable of seeing through man and nature as McCarthy, who displays an ability to leap perspective with ease. Though he never uses first person, that initial identification with the kid seems personal until he moves to larger third-person view of the gang, his distant prose never probing any of them to emphasize the anonymous jumble of greed and culpability. Then, several times throughout the book, he suddenly opens up, turning the tiniest description into a piercing view of humanity, so operatic in scope that the book should come to a screeching halt and inspire derisive laughter at the obviousness. But it's never obvious, and McCarthy uses these bouts of omniscience with precision, never making outright commentary but dovetailing into the slightest burst of stream-of-consciousness musing that deepens the novel and makes it more uncomfortably universal than it already is. Consider how he describes a fire the men sit around:
The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be.
Beautiful. An ode to man's Promethean origin in the one place left in the so-called civilized world where man still has yet to move beyond the simple mastery of fire.

Those moments of grandeur swell and collapse like crashing waves, and the tide goes out at the end. The boy, now a middle-aged man, lives in quiet self-contempt, wearing the necklace of Injun ears he took from a hanged comrade as his makeshift albatross, and when he wanders into a saloon and finds the judge, unchanged, waiting for him, we feel the inevitability of the reunion. All the kid/man could ever do was put off this meeting, put off this demise. I cannot quote from their last conversation because I would be unable to follow up an excerpt with anything save drooling adoration, but it summarizes everything about the book, the bleak worldview of its blood existentialism and even its flecks of un-mined humanity (which McCarthy would bring forth in earnest with his response to the book 20 years later, The Road).

Then, there's the matter of the man and the jakes. When he goes to relieve himself in the outhouse, he opens the door to find the judge waiting for him, naked. The towering being takes the man in his arms, and the door closes. That's it. After 333 pages of unrelenting gore, McCarthy will not tell us what happens, and further tortures us when another man opens the door and recoils in stunned silence. This, naturally, leads to intense speculation on the part of the reader as to what happens in that outhouse. There can be little doubt that the man is killed in some fashion, but how? Patrick Shaw wrote an entire piece on the kid's fate, arguing that the judge sodomized him. It's certainly a possibility, especially considering the hints dropped along the way with the Indian children Holden abducts, but I find that explanation too simplifying.

Shaw writes:
The public revelation of the act is what matters. Other men have observed the kid's humiliation… In such a male culture, public homoeroticism is untenable and it is this sudden revelation that horrifies the observers at Fort Griffin. No other act could offend their masculine sensibilities as the shock they display… This triumph over the kid is what the exhibitionist and homoerotic judge celebrates by dancing naked atop the wall, just as he did after assaulting the half-breed boy.
I can see where he's coming from, but he is suddenly attributing the perspective, which has never identified with the characters other than the kid, to unnamed characters. Furthermore, if we take Shaw's view as the "correct" one (a dangerous term to use in interpretation), it reflects most poorly on McCarthy, not the men in his West. He has shown us horrid things this entire time: killings, infanticide, other rapes, torture. For him to pull back and say that sodomy, of all the violations of the novel, is the one thing too terrible to mention aloud, to suggest that homosexual violation is the sole unspeakable taboo of his West, would make him so disingenuous that the weight of the novel would suddenly sag and collapse.

Now, I'm not going to lie: what Shaw envisions is one of the first things that popped into my mind (and continues to do so) when this scene arrives, but that is McCarthy's genius. After devoting so many pages to repugnant descriptions of the worst gore, equalizing violence that undermines whatever Manifest Destiny commentary one might attribute to the work by revealing the Indian atrocity to match the white men, McCarthy suddenly bows out. By leaving the scene a mystery, he dares us to come up with mental images more grisly and horrible than anything he previously wrote. Thus, he proves the novel's entire point: that man is still violent, still able to tap into visions of terror with ease. Every time I am unable to stop myself imagining what happens out on the jakes, and it makes me culpable in the novel's bloodshed. All you can really do is accept the unknowable nature of it, resigned to standing outside the outhouse, silent but for the glissandi of the flies buzzing around the shit and the judge quietly eradicates that element he could not control.

It would make for a chilling anticlimax to a movie, a movie I hope never gets made despite the renewed talks of adapting the novel. Blood Meridian belongs in literature, where the reader projects into that vastness. Though I have always imagined the judge as Brando's Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, I do not want to see him on the screen. He occupies that uniquely literary realm between the abstract and the terrifyingly tangible and plausible. A film, for all its merits, cannot capture that -- just look at film versions of Othello (which is, after all, a play): Iago is never so scary on the screen as he is in print. Then there's the other side: what if they actually get the son of a bitch right? I don't know that I could handle the judge in person, towering 30 feet over me.

Early on in the novel, Marcus Webster, one of the interchangeable members of Glanton's ever-thinning and refilling gang, questions the judge's ledger and why he is always cataloging. "No man can put all the world in a book," he says. "No more than everything drawed in a book is so." Even the judge agrees, because he knows he cannot enter certain beings into it, beings like the kid. Yet the most unsettling aspect of Blood Meridian is just how much of our world Cormac McCarthy does put into his book, writing with enough detail to make everything real and enough space to let everything else seep in. I cannot think of a better and more affecting American novel from the last century.


  1. It would make for a chilling anticlimax to a movie, a movie I hope never gets made despite the renewed talks of adapting the novel. Blood Meridian belongs in literature, where the reader projects into that vastness.

    I couldn't agree more, Jake. I remember shuttering at the thought of the first incarnation of Blood Meridian's film adaptation which (I think) had Ridley Scott directing and Russell Crowe as the judge! Yikes. It's not just that the ending could never be filmed, but as you state, it's more that the Judge could never be filmed. I love how you state this in the section I quoted above. Just great stuff.

    I've always felt that McCarthy is one of the five greatest American authors. I prefer him to Faulkner (and it's not just a preference; I actually think he's a better writer) and Melville. Blood Meridian, though, is not my favorite McCarthy novel. It's brilliant; it's everything you say it is; however, I feel the same way and more about The Crossing. To me, that is McCarthy's masterpiece. Just a beautifully poignant and brutal coming of age story...and I love when he decided to switch to the wolf's POV. He plays more with conventions in The Crossing especially considering that it came off the heels (and acts as a "sequel" to) of the hugely popular (and career making) All the Pretty Horses.

    Speaking of the Border Trilogy and McCarthy being adapted to film, I'm still really eager to see if Andrew Dominik can ever get his adaptation of Cities of the Plain off the ground. The fact that he's working on like five other things, though, doesn't bode well. It's interesting that everyone was trying to get McCarthy to celluloid after the big-time success of the Coens' No Country for Old Men and when Oprah endorsed The Road.It seemed like every one of his novels was looking to be produced into a not so much. And that's a good thing. I think McCarthy is best left on the page (No Country for Old Men doesn't really count because it started out as a screenplay).

    This was great stuff, Jake, and now I can't wait to pick up the novel again this summer and give it another read.

  2. No Country worked, I think, because the book itself is minor McCarthy, containing the power of his view but not so much his pen. There was actually room for improvement, and the Coens tapped into McCarthy's prose-poetry that he exhibits elsewhere and fleshes out the themes he didn't hit as well with that book as he has elsewhere. The flipside was The Road, which certainly looked great but just...lacked. It knew the steps but not the rhythm because the book was so well-formed that the sparseness of it couldn't carry over. I think the same would hold true of Blood Meridian.

    The Crossing is on my to-read list, though I'm going to be a busy boy this year, so I don't know if I'll get around to it. I'm planning to read Ulysses all the way through for the first time, as well as the Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote, a re-read of Moby Dick, and more. But I'll go through shorter novels in-between so I don't overload and the Border trilogy is high on my list.

  3. Sodomy does seem to be a word too terrible for some people to mention out loud. Why? Do a search: THE FIRST SCANDAL.

  4. This was a feast to read, Jake, and I'm so glad (and also horrified) that my post on The Judge (which is still getting fascinating comments 2 years later!) would prompt you to re-read it. I have been avoiding re-reading it, it was such a full-immersion experience I was exhausted by the end of it. I am now reading Suttree, which I hadn't read before, and it is bleak and fantastic, with those strange omniscent flares that McCarthy handles so brilliantly. The only other writer I can think of - well, no, actually two - who can do omniscence so well are Herman Melville and George Eliot. It takes great confidence to launch your eye up into space, and stare down at the earth, and remark upon things with such distance. When lesser writers try it, it is condescending and trite. When these three do it, it sends ice water down your spine.

    I need to read this book again.

  5. Thanks, Sheila. I too am never particularly eager to re-read the book, stone-cold masterpiece that it is, because of how shaking it is. But I keep getting drawn back: there's something horrifying about it being so damn fleet despite how often I want to stop and either pore over a phrase or simply throw the book down and run in terror. It's just so alluring, so un-putdownable in the best and worst way simultaneously, that I wasn't even going to try to describe it until I couldn't help myself.

    I'm a bit reluctant to get into book reviews because I'm so out of my depth, but sometimes they hit you in such a way you at least have to talk about what grabbed you, knowledge of forms be damned.

  6. I love your thoughts on Iago too - I think they're right on the money.

  7. Iago has fascinated me since my Evil in Lit teacher had us read it my senior year of high school. I'd blown off Shakespeare before that (which was of course my failing, not the Bard's), but Othello never let up, and Iago was the first literary villain to truly trouble me in a way I couldn't shake. My teacher told me that the comedian in the King's Men took the part, but that was obvious: Iago is no prankster, but you can see the importance of timing just reading his lines. The Shakespearean comic is always more restrained than the dramatic actor, not projecting to the crowd but slyly whispering to them as he messes with the characters on-stage. Iago just lacked any and all of the human qualities of the other clowns.

    My teacher mentioned seeing an old show of it with Laurence Fishburne as Othello sometime in the '80s. Richard Dreyfuss, an actor I've never felt one way or another about, played Iago, but the way the teacher described him made the performance sound perfect. Apparently Dreyfuss is in a video version of the play from the late '70s but no one has much nice to say about the production. But I would give anything to see the stage production my teacher described. It sounded like it managed to fully capture Iago, though perhaps for the sake of my mental health it's good I never saw a perfect incarnation of Iago.

  8. Lovely read. Just want to give a shout out to the fantastically oblique Epilogue that follows the image of the dancing Judge. An unnamed pioneer who strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Yang to the Judge's Yin, I think. Man's questing spirit harnessed for the good of all.

    The end of the book (in a more subdued way than The Road) also asserts the feminine principle. Love in the Wild West doesn't get very far, but that little crack of light at the end does much to rebalance the picture for me.

    Personally, I don't think I could tolerate McCarthy if it was all just blood and nihilism...

  9. I enjoyed your review and your passion for Blood Meridian, one of the most remarkable books I've read since it came out. Its scenes are memorable and haunting. I'll never forget the gang meeting the caravan of quicksilver miners on the trail, the subsequent shootout, and the image of the quicksilver splashing down the cliff. McCarthy certainly knows how to paint an indelible picture!

  10. You've made me want to read Blood Meridian again, Jake. I read the book in high school and although there are some whole chapters I've forgotten, there are sequences I've never been able to shake: the Judge framing the poor preacher at the beginning; Glanton getting his head split in two; the Judge's dance at the end. I must confess that I don't remember too many details about the open-ended finale; if there was anything spinning through my mind in trying to comprehend the ending of the book, the possibility of the Judge inflicting "sodomy" must not have occured to me. Shows how far behind I am.

    But this is hand-down the greatest American novel since The Sound and the Fury, and even if I don't place McCarthy on a higher pedestal than Faulkner, it's relatively easy to conclude that McCarthy is probably our finest living novelist. With that being said, I'm apparently in the minority among fans of the book in that I'm eager for a Blood Merdian film adaptation. Wasn't Todd Field planning to adapt it? Rumor has it that James Franco wants to take over the project.

    Now, of course, I wouldn't expect a movie to be better than the novel, but I think the Coens proved after No Country for Old Men that it's possible to translate some of the flavor in McCarthy's concepts, tangibly, to the screen--even though the Coens had it a bit easier, since No Country was a much simpler story in comparison to Blood Merdian and The Road. Since I immensley enjoyed John Hillcoat's adaptation of the latter, however, I might not be the more reliable interpreters of McCarthy's prose. But I just love his stories, and despite the constant claim that his stories are unfilmable, I think they most certainly are.

    The problem, I think, is that general American audiences don't exactly have the stomach and the stamina for McCarthy. The violence in McCarthy's stories is never cathartic or rousing; it's ugly, it's brutal and it's horrifying (in other words, what violence itself truly is). The audiences I saw No Country and The Road with were both a little uneasy watching McCarthy, the Coens and Hillcoat all demonstrating violence in such a disturbing way. Imagine how they'll react to Blood Meridian in which the violence is turned up to 100X! It's a vast story with a lot of desert settings, blood and gunplay, too--in others words, something that would call for a big-budget if turned into a movie... I can see why studios would hesitate. But I'd like to see Faulkner's novels get made into modern movies as well, and that would be just as difficult. One way of putting it is that Faulkner was to Hemingway what McCarthy was to, well, Chuck Palahniuk, I guess.