What have you been reading lately? During the holiday break I re-read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West, one of the greatest, but relatively little known, American novels. In contrast with this, Huck Finn is just a rollicking moralistic adventure story, and The Great Gatsby is pathetically shallow.
Based on the real-life Glanton Gang, Blood Meridian follows a gang of scalp hunters along the U.S.-Mexico border in the early 1850s, who are at times paid by Mexican governors to exterminate Apache and at other times exterminate anyone they come across without inducement or provocation. The main character is anonymous, no name is given but “the kid.” The protagonist is “the Judge“–whom Harold Bloom called “the most frightening figure in all of American literature.” Nearly seven feet tall, entirely hairless, somewhat baby faced, a polymath, pedophile and psychopath who declares that “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” A man who scrupulously sketches ancient artefacts into his notebook, then destroys the artefact so no others may discover and know it. A man who dandles an Indian child on his knee one moment, then kills and scalps it the next. In the end, the Judge targets the kid, solely because the kid retains some scrap of human feeling.
McCarthy details the vicious fistfights, scalpings, arbitrary murders and slaughters with a rich but cold and emotionless prose that is devoid of moral judgement. This is McCarthy’s magnum opus, a novel that is brilliant, but brutal. It’s a must-read, but not an easy read. If you venture into reading McCarthy, which you should, do not start here.
Following that I decided it was time to re-read McCarthy’s The Crossing, the second book in his border trilogy (following All the Pretty Horses and preceding Cities of the Plain, a series that is also set on the U.S.-Mexican border. Written after Blood Meridian, the border trilogy contains elements of the random violence of that story, but gives us a named protagonist with whom we can identify, who struggles to achieve a goal that is unreachable because of the violence he encounters. I’ve read Horses multiple times, and I think it is a great novel; neither brilliant nor epic in the sense of Blood Meridian, but more readable, with a clear story arc and more identifiable motivations for its hero (John Grady Cole), and lyrically written, and in the end, heartbreaking. But the first time I read The Crossing, I didn’t like it. I didn’t get the motivations of the hero (Billy Parham), and I found the pacing of the story agonizingly slow and awkward. This time around I liked it much better; I got it this time. It’s not as simple (in the sense of elegance, not lack of sophistication) as Horses, but contains similar themes of lost family and future and doomed love. I don’t think I can re-read this book for real enjoyment the way I can Horses or Blood Meridian, but I appreciate it now.
So now it’s time for me to re-read the third book in the trilogy, Cities of the Plain, which unites the heroes of Horses and The Crossing. I struggled with this book the first time, too, I think because I hadn’t grasped the Billy Parham character well enough. So this time I think I’m ready for it–the only problem is that I’ve misplaced my copy of it.
If you venture into McCarthy, I think the border trilogy is a good place to start, certainly better than Blood Meridian. Another good entry point might be No Country for Old Men, which (again) is set along the U.S.-Mexican border, and also explores the themes of brutal violence. That might seem to be getting repetitive, but–brutality in the borderlands–but the story in this case is so substantively different that it works as further development of a theme, rather than tired repetition of it. Particularly if you’ve seen the brilliant and faithful film adaptation, this may be the most comfortable point of entry into this uncomfortable body of work.
McCarthy also has an earlier series of books set in Appalachia. I want to read those, but I’ve become so captivated by the harsh desert borderlands of these other novels that I’m not ready to make that leap. Not having read those, I’m not sure if starting with them would be a good place to start or if they wouldn’t adequately prepare the reader for those other books. As a note of warning, however, avoid McCarthy’s egregiously and inexcusably awful short novel The Road, which is a trite, predictable, and shamelessly manipulative post-apocalypse story. It’s an astonishingly bad performance by a brilliant author. (It’s only redeeming value is the devestatingly satirical reviews it spawned on Amazon.com.)
But of course that one stumble, as painfully ugly as it is, does not diminish the quality of his other work. Read it; it’s rewarding.