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Blood Meridian – A Review

Did you ever play cowboys and Indians? Did the cowboys ever rape and mutilate the Indians? I thought not. You were with me up to the second part, right? Like most of Cormac McCarthy’s readership in the 1980s, you like Westerns, just not the whole “rape and mutilation” hootenanny. The trouble for prospective readers of McCarthy’s 1985 magnum opus Blood Meridian (and for any potential movie adaptation) is that the atavistic violence starts on page one and continues, roughly one act of violence per page, throughout the novel. If you took the words “they rode on” and “blood” out of the writing, you’d be left with a gibbering description of a desert.

It starts with a Christian preacher getting lynched. He’s telling his congregation about God (somewhere in Texas in 1850) when the Devil strolls up and accuses him of falsehood. The Devil is a man “bald as a stone” and “close on to seven feet in height”. He calls himself “the judge” and he will be the only survivor of this story. Watching him work is a character called “the kid”. He’s an orphan, a bar-fighter and a fourteen-year-old (in that order). The kid and the judge and some other people (who have names, but no character besides “horse-riding psychopath”) are all bound for Mexico. They are going to massacre Indians. The reason being: “War is God”.

There isn’t a page of Blood Meridian goes by without something appalling happening. So many people get their brains blown out it’s a wonder anybody can think. Killing is a constant itch. When the kid wants a job in a bar, he kills the bartender. When two men share the same name, one of them must die. A dancing bear is shot in the gut for dancing. Self-flagellating pilgrims are shot to pieces. People die in churches, routinely. A man’s skull is split “to the thrapple” (I don’t know what it means, but I bet it hurts). When, on a single miraculous occasion, the kid actually tries to help an old woman, it turns out she’s been dead for years; he’s trying to help ashes. The Old West is so bloody in McCarthy’s imagination, it’s like Sitting Bull was sat in a blender. Cormac is the Poet Laureate of viscera.

Plans to make a movie out of Blood Meridian are career-ending. I know McCarthy writes pretty metaphors (trees “assassinated by storms” and “frayed wires” of lightning), but: a) there are no sympathetic characters in the book, b) it reads like it was written by (the guy who stabbed) Christopher Marlowe. The only thing that makes Blood Meridian bearable is the beauty of the prose. Lose that and it’s just a bunch of cowboys hacking at Indians. Oh, and “the judge”, who, like the character of Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, speaks like a blood-thirsty thesaurus. On screen, it would be like watching a zombie movie with dialogue in iambic pentameter.

Casting would be like rounding up mountain men. You literally need people who’ve come out of the wilderness. Men, like those guys in strip clubs who look at strippers like rotisserie chicken. Savages. Guys who draw penises on walls everywhere they go. They’d have to know the world McCarthy writes about: that man’s world where you pass the ketchup with your fist. Mickey Rourke’s world. The place Charlie Sheen visits nightly when he’s done taping Two and a Half Men. Like that godforsaken sit-com, there is no good in Blood Meridian. There is only the urge to kill everybody, everywhere. The killer’s niggle. Even the parables in the book are moral-less.

In Cormac McCarthy’s version of Little House on the Prairie, the little house is on fire and the prairie is barren. The corpses of the Ingalls family no doubt litter the sun-leeched rock. Indians are copulating, primeval-ly, in the scrub. And all the cowboys are knife-happy drunks. It’s not a world where goodness is rewarded. Rather, it’s a place where men’s faith in goodness is bludgeoned with a poly-syllabic club. Don’t look to McCarthy for heroes. He’s into Dialectics. Goodness is Blood Meridian is a carapace for badness. Pretentiousness is all. As the judge tells the kid: “This desert upon which so many have been broken is vast…but it is also ultimately empty.”

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25 Responses to Blood Meridian – A Review

  1. Dogar says:

    Hilarious stuff. Thanks for the laugh.

  2. Patrick says:

    Mr Writer–your blog is hogwash. You missed the point of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; Violence happens-and if you are at the business end of violence, then no other writer yet to be can bring you the business end better than C.M.–Yes, scalp huntetrs did happen. McCarthy isnt saying all humanity is hell bent to scalp-he’s saying that some men (and women) are naturally evil, and describes that evil better than anyone. Too bad for you, dear blogger, for missing the point. You missed the poetry of evil in mens hearts. For you to know it truly, you will be one of those doomed to experience the business end of evil in reality.

  3. Darwin says:

    You’re an English teacher?! Stick with reviewing movies and pop novels.

  4. Rich says:

    It’s not all McCarthy in the violence. His imagination isn’t that horrible and vile. John Joel Glanton was a real man that fought in the Mexican American war around the 1850’s and they REALLY did get hired by the Mexican government, near Sonora, to scalp Apache indians. Even worse, Judge Holden was a real man as well. Glanton’s Raiders. Worst realization I ever had. Blood Meridian is based on real events.

  5. Bill says:

    No shit if you take the violence out of Blood Meridian it would be gibberish. The book is ABOUT violence. I mean its called BLOOD Meridian for god sake.

  6. Stephen says:

    Perhaps you should stick to reading “Little House on the Prarie”. The old west was violent and vile. The treatment of the native americans and their treatment of the settlers was violent and beyond modern comprehension. McCarthy is just relaying the “True Grit” of the old west. John Wayne and Zane Grey tried to create alternate realities with their portrayals. Have you seen Prime Time TV lately? There’s about 1 act of violence per half hour in most “crime dramas”. Nothing special about Blood Meridian here.

  7. jtatham says:

    To all commentators,

    My review may seem a bit negative. But please understand, I *do* love to read Cormac McCarthy…I just think he’s due a ribbing.

  8. The Kid says:

    “Split to the thrapple” means his head was split open to his esophugus. I read the book with dictionary.com open next to me. You should reread the book in this manner.

    Yes, this book is violent in the most appaling manner but I think that is the point. Senselessly violent men will trump the law abiding peaceful man everytime, but it is an empty existence

    Maybe you should keep away from big boy books.

  9. jtatham says:

    I’ve said Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian can’t be adapted, but I was wrong. Nicolas Winding Refn should direct it. Valhalla Rising is all the proof I need. Between this movie and Refn’s previous effort (Bronson) he has already established his McCarthy-amanuensis credentials. All that “blood-welling-from-the-landscape” stuff is in Refn’s wheelhouse. He seems to instinctively understand, like McCarthy, the darkest parts of men. And not just to understand either, but, again like McCarthy, to be able to enter the reverie of violence, the sea-churn of it, the natural clash. Because, to direct Blood Meridian right, you don’t want to show pornographic violence – it isn’t about men being killed – you want people to feel the terror of strength.

  10. Evan says:

    Sorry to be so late to the game, and I can’t add much to what everyone else has said. The novel is based on actual history and atrocities. Also, we come clost to developing sympathy for the kid when he and his earless, noseless friend refuse to kill a group of peaceful indians. I think UpChuck nails it: “in the right hands”, we could be looking at a more awe-inspiring (both -some and -ful) “Wild Bunch”. Count me as one who doesn’t think the “hands” they find will be anywhere close to “right”. I love this book.

  11. Evan says:

    One more thing, Gibbering is probably the least apt description ever for a Cormac McCarthy novel. He treats words as a currency and spends only as necessary. He’s thus able to concentrate an epic into fewer than three hundred pages. Every word is intentionally chosen and advances the story.

  12. hans says:

    @jtatham:

    Hi JT, i feel the same. Saw Walhalla Rising finally last month, and the mccarthy-ness is everywhere I fully agree. The prominence of the landscapes, silence, mans’s place in it: fantastic.

    I hope Refn is on somebodies shortlist for BM

  13. Ardin Lalui says:

    Whatever criticisms could fairly be made of Blood Meridian, it will probably be one of the best movies of all time.

  14. crovoltn says:

    a) there are no sympathetic characters in the book,

    The Kid is sympathetic to me. And the other major ones you are missing is all the characters they kill and humanity as a whole. You should come out sympathetic for people just trying to make an honest like in the cruel world.

    b) it reads like it was written by (the guy who stabbed) Christopher Marlowe

    What? Have you ever read any other C.M. novels? As you say it is beautiful prose, but even in the depths of depravity and human life it is a marvel; the story told is a segment of the expansion of the West. And is read written like C.M. No one else can write those tales like that. It’s language of an era, he transports you back with words.

    Thirdly whoever makes this movie will not have a career ender but an Oscar if they do it write. All the Pretty Horses got the short end of the stick from critics and it was beautiful and the rest of the Border Triology is. No Country for Old Men was done wonderfully. Blood Meridian will be the capstone of someone’s career and the actors would flock to it. We live in too much a sheltered world from nature and real violence, with our homes and police forces, the news showing fluff stories and saying things are too graphic for the public. Dumb movies about paranormal activity and Europeans cutting up American tourists are fine and the latter not gory? This movie will ecllipse Braveheart and Apocalypto in gore and the human conditions that drive different men, the choices we make, the things we let happen or fight for. Other C.M. novels would sure float publically more easily. I mean Suttree is the magnum opus really and it is violent and twisted as all get out too, but is one of my favorites. Child of God, also dark and yet light. Suttree is a great book I find hard to make into fitting movie. But Blood Meridian is action, story, stirring landscapes and interesting characters so it is perfect.

  15. crovoltn says:

    “Casting would be like rounding up mountain men. You literally need people who’ve come out of the wilderness. Men, like those guys in strip clubs who look at strippers like rotisserie chicken. Savages. Guys who draw penises on walls everywhere they go. They’d have to know the world McCarthy writes about: that man’s world where you pass the ketchup with your fist. Mickey Rourke’s world. The place Charlie Sheen visits nightly when he’s done taping Two and a Half Men. Like that godforsaken sit-com, there is no good in Blood Meridian. There is only the urge to kill everybody, everywhere. The killer’s niggle. Even the parables in the book are moral-less.”

    This is the single dumbest paragraph I have ever read about making a novel into a movie. Saying that the men needed to play Glanton and such would be guy who draw those on places is so absent of reason. Sounds like Frat Boys playing Contract Killers.

  16. Dan says:

    Very funny review. Some people have no sense of humor.

  17. jtatham says:

    Thanks Dan. It’s been a while since someone saw the funny side of my review.

    • Dan says:

      It was hilarious! You have the greatest turn of phrase in your reviews. Cool staccato sentences worthy of cormac himself! Valhalla Rising was excellent I agree. Ridley Scott would have made a lame blood meridian. He’s been medicore for decades.

  18. Bill says:

    BM – I loved it when someone spit on the desert and this lizard crawled out from under the rock and drank the stuff. Boy a lot of people getting pretty up in arms about one note book with some purple prose pasted on. Serious stuff. As for a movie I’d rather they made Suttree.

  19. No One of Consequence says:

    I really enjoyed your entry, Mr. Bloggerman. It was one of the more enjoyable things I have come across today. I typically stay away from blogs as I find anyone who writes them obnoxious and way too full of themselves. Come on, who the fuck cares what every Tom, Dick and Harry have to say about anything? I just stumbled upon this while following up on a rumor I heard about my fourth favorite book of all time being made into a movie. My number one is The Hobbit and has been since I was seven years old. I’d rather die than see either of these masterpieces defiled by modern day movie making. Now it seems that I will have to find the time to end it all for myself since it turns out that they both are destined for the big screen. Damn it. I swear, if Patrick Rothfuss ever lets “Name of the Wind” become a movie… though that would require him finishing the series! What’s the deal Pat? Is it the name? Is that what you are stuck on? “The Wise Man’s Fear”? Really? That’s what you use to follow up “The Name of the Wind”? Lame.

    Anyway, before I go, the real reason I felt it necessary to reply to your entry is to laugh at (not out loud or rolling on the floor, mind you) The Kid’s reply. I found it very amusing that he suggests, “maybe you should stay away from big boy books” when he had to read the damn thing with dictionary.com as a constant reference in order to understand it. Did no one else find that hilarious? Well, if nothing else, at least I had a few laughs before I die.

    STOP MAKING BOOK ADAPTATIONS. WHERE HAS ALL THE ORIGINALITY GONE? IS THERE REALLY NOTHING NEW TO FILM? REMAKES, SEQUELS, PREQUELS, ADAPTATIONS, DOCUMENTARIES, TRUE STORIES, RE-IMAGININGS… FUCK! FUCK FUCK FUCK. STOP MESSING WITH MY FAVORITE THINGS. BOOKS ARE BOOKS. IF THE DAMN AUTHORS WANTED TO MAKE MOVIES THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN MOVIE MAKERS, NOT WRITERS. FUCKITY FUCK FUCK FUCK IT. GYAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

    Ah, Anonymity. I have had a horrible day. Thank you for giving me something to vent about. Back to my Speyburn and Netflix. Peace and chicken grease.

    • DictionaryUser says:

      How is reading with a dictionary stupid? What do you do when you come across a word in a novel that you dont know? Just act like you do? I like to look them up in a dictionary so I know whats going on. And McCarthy uses lots of words that I have never even heard before. I bet translating the Spanish is a waste of time too. Idiot.

  20. jtatham says:

    Thanks Cormac (or should I say, Mr McCarthy?). It’s always nice to hear from the author.

  21. David says:

    I was surprised at a couple of things in your review:

    1. The bartender wasn’t killed for his job, he was really just killed. You could argue that he was killed for a bottle of booze probably, but not for his job.

    2. I was wondering why you didn’t mention anything about McCarthy’s “optical democracy” which it seems, at least to me and some of my colleagues, is one of the main points of the book. (I feel like trying to identify a single main point would be an exercise in futility, as he is attempting to make several imho..)

    3. There are actually acts of kindness in this book (the hermit, the Mexicans that give him water) although not a lot. Acts of kindness in McCarthy’s world seem to come from people who are isolated, or at least outside of the environment being discussed. I think that is an acknowledgement by him that goodness exists in the world, that’s just not the focus. After all, a lot of this book is heavily based on historical evidence (the US Gov did pay people money for indian scalps, and when that became difficult for the scalpers they figured out that any scalps would work because who’s going to id the scalp?), which goes back to the prologue of the book, and the many references to timelessness throughout the book in relation to violence, ie “Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all”.

  22. mimetic74 says:

    funny review, but clearly at the expense of accuracy or depth of perception, small things to sacrifice for a laugh

  23. Lame review of a damn fine novel. Fingers crossed for that Refn adaptation. Valhalla Rising is like Blood Meridian with vikings, alright.

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