Posted by: Jeanie F | March 29, 2011

Carnage on the Prairie: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Rarely have I been so happy to FINISH a book as I was Blood Meridian. There are so many reasons why!

This is at least my third stab at reading this book. Maybe more. I decided to read it years ago when I read Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why. Bloom named it the definitive story of the American West, and I love stories of the American West. I went right out and bought a copy of Blood Meridian and quickly discovered that I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Here’s a sample sentence:

The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning.

Yep, that’s one sentence and there are a LOT of sentences like that. I couldn’t face it. Then I took not one but TWO seminars on the work of William Faulkner, and felt that I was finally ready to try Blood Meridian again. I have to admit, I was better able to handle the structure of the novel, but this time I was sent packing by the content.

Any book with “blood” in the title should be a hint that there’s going to be violence, but in this book the violence is graphic and unceasing. Take, for example, the tree of dead babies (WARNING – this quote is not for the squeamish):

The way narrowed through rocks and by and by they came to a bush that was hung with dead babies. . . 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.

So, that was as far as I got the second time I tried to read Blood Meridian.

For some reason this book has stayed with me as a sort of literary Mt. Everest for me to conquer. It helped to read Harold Bloom’s interview with AV Club where the great man himself admits that it took him three tries to actually finish the book. He blames the first failure on poor health, but I’m guessing that reading the book just made him sick. Still, if three times was a charm for him, I thought it might be for me – and sure enough, it was.

I’m not going to try to convince you that this was an easy or a pleasant read. It was neither. I had to read with a dictionary beside me (and ask my husband to translate the frequent lapses into Spanish). The book is full of arcane, biblical, and just plain hard words that were completely unfamiliar to me. As  noted, the syntax was challenging, the content gruesome, but in between was some beautifully lyrical writing, such as the following:

They passed through a highland meadow carpeted with wildflowers, acres of golden groundsel and zinnia and deep purple gentian and wild vines of blue morninglory and a vast plain of varied small blooms reaching onward like a gingham print to the farthest serried rimlands blue with haze and the adamantine ranges rising out of nothing like the backs of seabeasts in a devonian dawn.

Not just anyone can put together a sentence like that.

I have to say that I’m glad I read this book, challenging and disturbing as it was. As Bloom points out, this is the final expression of the American Western. He says, “It 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.”

It’s a great relief to know that. Now I’ll never have to read anything like this again.

Grade: A


Responses

  1. I’ve read two of the Border Crossing books. They were good but also like this, and rather depressing. I will probably read this sometime. I think McCarthy writes really well, but it never seems to be on a happy subject!

    (I accidentally unsubscribed from you blog. Will subscribe again, but I’m not a new subscriber. At all.)

    • Judith, I read All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men – neither struck me as being as difficult or disturbing. I think it was Judge Holden who really did me in. Did you know this was all based on a true story? I forgot to add that to my review.
      I know you’re a long time subscriber – thanks for being a faithful follower AND commenter!

  2. I read this ages ago and I am glad I did. I remember there being one scene where the author just described the sounds and yet this still managed to create a vivid picture in my head.

    I can never say I liked it though but it was certainly an experience.

    • Jessica, we should start a club of people who finished this book! I consider it a major accomplishment in my reading career!

  3. I’ve read three books by McCarthy, and enjoyed them all – none of them have been particularly pleasant reads, but they’ve been thought-provoking and gripping all the same. One of the recent comments on my blog mentioned this book, and said it was way too violent, and took about three attempts to get past p35.

    The dead baby quote is incredibly squeamish, but maybe it’s just the misanthrope in me that’s curious and wants to read it…. I’m not really a misanthrope, but you know what I mean, right? 🙂

    Love your thoughts on this – thanks!

    • Cookie, if you aren’t put off by the violence, I think you will be glad you read Blood Meridian. It’s a challenging read, so even if you only end up with a sense of accomplishment in seeing it through, I think it’s well worth the time.


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