Blood Meridian

Some of my favorite places are wide open spaces. Standing in a desert field can compare with strolling through a bountiful metropolis, and I’ve traveled hours upon end to stand in some fairly desolate spots, just to listen to the dry grass crackle and to gaze upon wagon wheel ruts which can’t be erased. There’s a notion I’ve held in the past, deeply mistaken, that the western half of this country was forged and settled by brave persons, bringing thrift, order, and tenacity under canvas with their tin utensils in streaming succession, all for the glory of striking homestead in an unforgiving landscape that will, ultimately, allow itself to be subdued and civilized. There were surely settlers fitting this bill, but Cormac McCarthy doesn’t write about them.

McCarthy’s 1985 novel, Blood Meridian, is a master work of historical fiction. The novel is based upon events occurring along the Texas border just prior to the Civil War. A teenager, known only as “the kid”, drifts westward from Tennessee and is recruited to join a band of scalp hunters led by a man named John Glanton. Encouraging and molding the group is an enigmatic figure known as the Judge. The terrain and distance before the riders is fraught with both opportunity and peril, for Apache raids pepper the landscape, driving fear into settlers and prompting their government to offer large bounties for the retrieval of Indian scalps. The kid and his companions ride the wild borderlands, working their way toward the west in an abundance of bloodshed.

This small summary cannot begin to describe Blood Meridian. I finished it late last night in a marathon session which found me declaring under breath “I bloody will finish you tonight.” The novel had haunted me for over a week with its dense, tangled sentence structures and unremitting violence. And its overall tenor and denouement will serve as bloody doppelganger in my mind‘s image of the West from now on. McCarthy’s depiction of events that shaped the southwestern US may not entirely encompass the full range and savagery with which Indians were driven from their home. For this reason, I was able to read the violence, knowing that its rendering is fair and that it is the romanticizing of these events which has been so grossly perpetrated.

Yet, there is so much more to this novel than any attempt to expand upon treatment of the native peoples. McCarthy is a writer who specializes in the grand, his sentences breathing fire and scorching earth with their complexity and profundity. He’s not easy to read, and his Shakespearean-like sweep can seem dissonant and otherworldly when it meets the end of the reading session and a return to the realities of modern life. Reading Blood Meridian is stepping back in time, taking the dark path toward an unknown end, certain only that there will be no ease, no answers, only endless mysteries. Is the novel saying something about Manifest Destiny? Is McCarthy crafting Biblical allegory so fearsome that Faulkner and Melville appear light in comparison? Most chilling for this reader, could he be implying that the birthing of a nation requires the death of any who stand in the way?

The Judge thunders and shapes Blood Meridian in the way few antagonists can. He’s larger than life, taunting and driving the men with clever musings and exotic forays into artistry, music, and playfulness, all the while grooming the murderous riders for their next dip into blood bathing. And it is the almost imperceptibly subtle relationship between the Judge and the kid which held me captivated and bound me to finish a book that was quite often so disturbing that I had to put it down and return to this century for a while. The notion of honor among thieves and bandits is very deftly placed within Blood Meridian. One of the riders is a would be theologian, and he raises questions before the kid about the nature of their enterprise and leader. Yet, McCarthy gives almost no inkling that the kid even momentarily considers the man’s comments. The last pages of Blood Meridian kept me awake long past a suitable hour and are filled with such terribleness that I can’t read them again. But, before that path narrows, the kid has his own moment of wide open space.

    He squatted in the sand and watched the sun on the hammered face of the water. Out there island clouds emplaned upon a salmoncolored othersea. Seafowl in silhouette. Downshore the dull surf boomed. There was a horse standing there staring out upon the darkening waters and a young colt that cavorted and trotted off and came back.

He sat watching while the sun dipped hissing in the swells. The horse stood darkly against the sky. The surf boomed in the dark and the sea’s black hide heaved in the cobbled starlight and the long pale combers loped out of the night and broke along the beach.

He rose and turned toward the lights of the town. The tide pools bright as smelter pots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.

 

Rough going

Goodness. I began the year with renewed enthusiasm for the TBR stack and energy to burn. Then the midwinter blahs struck and it feels as though I’m treading water in a large tub with no ladder. With the exception of No Country for Old Men, the past few weeks have been slow going. Tree of Smoke couldn’t hold me, The Maytrees was bright in spots but lacked cohesion and purpose for this reader. And now, Blood Meridian. I’ve wanted to read this for several years. The first 70 pages or so were riveting and I lapped them up one evening with ease. But the last hundred pages have slowed to such an extent that I’m feeling sapped and roughshod. The basic story is this- a young boy leaves home and travels west in pre-Civil War America. He joins a band of scalp hunters, led by an enigmatic figure known as the Judge. The group is beset by long, black nights, wolves, and Apache attacks. The boy converses, very briefly, with a former priest who plants some seeds of thought that are yet to be seen in fruition. I’m hanging in for now, but it’s such a long ride.

Laundry

That’s blue, the poem

Of an early egg, a spray of foam

Or green, spit from a single shoot

Pushing, highward, violent root

Fond yellow, come? see? dandelion?

The beige of memory, sand, of time

More purple, spilt in royal light

‘Gainst grey and brown

Near black’s smooth sight

Then love,

A crimson filament,

The brightest hue, the strongest thread.

The Maytrees

A long time ago, an English professor of mine professed great respect for Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I haven’t read it but am working on The Maytrees, Dillard’s 2007 novel, a light and breezy thing thus far. Written in a vaguely post-modern style, with many flourishing trills and inventive words, Dillard tells the story of a man and his wife who live unconventional lives in post war New England. She has introduced them rather nicely, in a standoffish sort of way that doesn’t allow the reader much access to them as characters, more as prettily descriptive words placed carefully together. I’m waiting for something to happen, though there’s a hint of looming conflict. This sort of writing has me all agog one minute at its niceness, crisp new phrases and artful sentences that, almost in the same breath, leave me feeling as though I’d just eaten two pieces of white bread toast. As a reader, I’ve more affinity for a broth of not-too-plodsome plot, generous servings of characterization, sprinkled with some philosophizing and some zesty description. Is this too much to ask from each writer? 🙂

As for Tree of Smoke, I’m afraid it got left behind. I picked it up Saturday night while still thinking of the McCarthy. I found myself unable to get through even two pages and decided that I would save it for another time. I have a feeling that Johnson was trying to suggest a relevance for today’s war, how origins may contain fine intentions that become inextricably tangled by the lives involved. Could be wrong, and I may never know.

No Country for Old Men

I finished No Country for Old Men late last night, a bitter wind hitting the house from the north and west. Even though the pages turned lightly, I felt such heaviness as I finished the book and trundled off to the cold bedroom. The earthy decency of Sheriff Bell, his complex simplicity (a well lit oxymoron), and his longing for times that can’t be revived, all combined to produce in me a bit of “what’s the use” sentiment. His kind of man stands no chance against an eerily logical automaton. Then, I lay down and started to think about how cleverly McCarthy uses grand metaphors. What was he really saying, amidst all the bloodshed, the inhumane expression, the greed? Could there be more to this than meets the half-closed eye?

For some reason, this winter has found me feeling older, something I’ve never considered possible. I’ve always been able to go and go without much thought as to speed or lack of it. But one night last week, I forgot three fairly important domestic tasks before retiring. A grand slam of forgetfulness. It hit me hard. Last night, while trying to pull some optimism from between the lines of No Country, I failed. I was tired, I felt old and sad, and I simply gave up and fell asleep. Maybe this is how Sheriff Bell felt, the fate of us all, the coldness that settles down in the middle years, the hint of what’s to come.

Sheriff Bell

Ah, the McCarthy is proving just the ticket for halting, at least temporarily, what might become a slide into a bona fide reading slump. I’ve been in a bit of one since the onset of winter. Something about the combination of too many hours indoors and not enough light leave me with classic winter blah. So many people experience this, but I think many of them don’t recognize it and are whipped about by it every winter. Anyway, No Country For Old Men is an energizing read, thanks to Sheriff Bell’s plainspoken, minimalist decency.

This is my second McCarthy, and I’m finding it quite similar to The Road in that so much of the story lies just beyond what isn’t said or described. His style of economical expression seems to give me just enough room to wander and create my own images. While I love classical descriptive style, when I’m in a funk, less is more, lighter, and packs more wallop. Halfway through this already and, while I want to find out what happens and who survives, I’m enjoying this lighter read as much as seeing my peonys sprout through the dead leaves, something I always go looking for in mid-February, and hoping that the excitement of the side journey into No Country will sustain me until Spring.  

Tree of Smoke

I’m enjoying Tree of Smoke, but finding it less than an easy read. Maybe this is a good thing as many times a challenging read will deliver days or weeks later in an unlikely return. Sometimes situations at work or amongst friends evolve to mirror one that I’ve found in a long, depthy novel. And then, my appreciation for the time it takes to develop characters and plot is renewed tenfold and I pick up another immersive tome. The lure of shorter novels is almost overwhelming this weekend, though, as there are multitudes of them calling, brief yet savory stories. I’m taking a bit of a break from Tree of Smoke to read No Country for Old Men, before it’s due to be returned to the library.