Book Review: Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West: (Vintage, 1992, 335 pages). This was the first book I read by Cormac McCarthy. It is both beautifully written, and deeply flawed. The prose is often scintillating. McCarthy’s command of the language and his use of metaphor and vocabulary is extraordinary, enough to make me envious. On the other hand, the flaws (as I see them) often make this book a difficult read.
First, in the modern literary tradition, McCarthy attempts to make his book as inaccessible as possible to readers. He eschews the use of normal dialogue punctuation and often leaves out helpful speaker tags. There are “no” quotation marks to indicate dialogue and I was incredibly irritated by this. It smacks of elitism. I see no benefit to it and the costs are considerable. There were many places where it was difficult to recognize transitions in dialogue and who was speaking. The writer’s job is to make his or her prose as accessible as possible. Note, I don’t say “easily accessible.” McCarthy’s work almost demands rereading for the quality of his prose, his imagery, and his meaning. Why, then, make a sometimes difficult task more difficult by doing something as silly as leaving out quotation marks.
There were two other major flaws in this work, flaws that prevent it from reaching the level of artistry that it had the potential to reach and which the cover blurbs suggested it had obtained. First, and most critically, there is little “story” in this tale. I don’t believe story is the “only” reason for writing. I appreciate beautiful language and surrealism, but story is important and is needed to carry a long work like this. A book cannot be a masterpiece without story.
For the most part in this book, a young man, fourteen years of age when the tale begins and known only as “the kid,” wanders around in Texas and Mexico observing and participating in various acts of extreme violence. He has no goals (realistic perhaps but not particularly conducive to story). He simply survives one scenario after another with little more than animalistic reactance. His “will to live” may be remarkable, but when the blurbs say that this book should stand alongside Moby Dick I think they are wrong.
In Moby Dick, at least the character of Ahab had a clearly discernable goal--to kill the white whale. The Ahab character in Blood Meridian, who carries a touch of the character of the white whale as well, is known as “the judge.” But the judge doesn’t even appear until page 79, and his motives are opaque, at least to me.
Another flaw, and one that strikes me as a major one in a “literary” novel, is that there is virtually no character development. This is perhaps understandable for the judge, whose personality is fully formed when we meet him, but it seems there should have been much more development for the kid, who ages by over a decade during the book. There is no “regeneration through violence” as the front cover asserts for the kid. He is the same at the end as at the beginning. The sheer weight of violence this boy witnessed and took part in would have been expected to have shaped his character. It doesn’t. He becomes neither holy nor truly debauched. In fact, his emotional reaction throughout is virtually deadpan. It’s as if he’s spent the years as a garbage collector, but without really getting any extra ‘stink’ on him.
Speaking of violence, Blood Meridian is, make no mistake, intensely and brutally violent, perhaps the most violent book I’ve ever read. The violence is constant and deftly handled, neither over dramatized nor too understated. There are certainly echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and such films as Apocalypse Now. Had the violence more clearly served the purposes of a story I would have praised it. Perhaps McCarthy’s point is that there is no glory or honor or redemption in violence, and he may be right. But that is hardly the stuff of myths. One aside about the violence in Blood Meridian is that I find it interesting that a level of violence that would, in a genre novel, be seen as “over the top,” is here considered masterful. Perhaps violence that has a point is suspect.
A last flaw in the book comes with the ending, though I’m sure many literary critics would disagree. Frankly, as with many literary novels, I didn’t understand the ending. When the kid stumbles upon the judge at the end, the judge embraces him and then.... What? From the response of witnesses it was something rather horrible. I ’m just not sure what. Cannibalism? Murder? Sex? Clearly, Blood Meridian had an effect on me or I wouldn’t have gone on so long about it. It has passages of great beauty, and though I’ve criticized it I still find myself recommending it. I don’t think it is a great novel, but it does have power.