As if writing a book review isn’t hard enough, it’s even harder when you didn’t really like the book and you try your best to sound fair and you’re not disliking it’s about a war and you’re very anti-war. It gets even harder still when the book seems to be high up on many people’s lists of great books. In this case, to stick yet another pin in the doll, it’s also the same author who wrote something in my top 10 of all time.
The first problem with Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, is that it’s not plot driven. It’s about a 400-page episodic “adventure” of a boy, neglected and ignored to the point of not even having a name, who runs away from what is barely a home at age 14. “The Kid,” as the narrator refers to him, is recruited by a band of U.S. Army irregulars and outcasts with the promise of land and livestock of his own after their mission into Mexico. While that doesn’t work out well, The Kid eventually joins a party of men whose sole purpose is collecting bounties for Indian scalps. This premise allows for good possibilities for a plot, but it was McCarthy’s intention for it not to be so because it would betray his aim. Book critics often praise McCarthy because his writing is so “gritty and raw.” Well, watching a squirrel get squished by a truck is gritty and raw, but that doesn’t mean I should watch. However, if someone else is out there telling you that a squished squirrel is like pressing flowers, then maybe it needs to be examined with the gloves off.
If there’s anything McCarthy is known for, it’s taking away the scenery and props and only leaving the people – and that includes everything those people want, no matter how wrong it is to want it or what wrong things they do to get it. McCarthy makes a reader see an underside of the world that we don’t want to see, but the reason we don’t want to see it is not because it’s difficult to witness but because it’s real. In my favorite book of his, The Road, we saw what real people would do if there were an American apocalypse. In No Country for Old Men he showed us the unstoppable lengths that drug dealers will go to if you mess with their money, their drugs, or their reputation.
The aim of the book is to show what the real “Wild West” was like, which was not like it may have been depicted in a more devoted group of films and novels that romanticized the era. Blood Meridian certainly stresses the blood, and it’s the blood of everyone. Women, children, babies, the elderly. Shooting, stabbing, slicing, dismembering, clubbing, trampling, biting, hacking, and dehydrating. Some are killed for what they have, and some for what they don’t have. Some are killed because they’re in the way, and some are killed just for fun. Many are killed because most situations are “kill or be killed,” which is the point of the book. Many are killed because of their heritage as it’s mainly about an expedition to kill as many Native Americans as possible. Scalps are money, and money is food in a land where everything is scarce, especially life.
When I read a book, I hope to come away with something. I don’t expect breakfast in bed, but I do expect to either learn something I didn’t know or walk away being emotionally affected either positively or negatively, but it should always be emotionally. In Blood Meridian, all I walked away with were too many different ways to describe blood leaving one’s body, brains leaving one’s head, and a scalp leaving one’s skull. I also walked away knowing more accurately how long it takes for someone to die from a bullet, knife, or lack of food, but it’s nothing I need from a work of fiction. I also don’t need a work of fiction to tell me that John Ford westerns were not exactly what the West was like.
It could be that I’m too accustomed to stories with a beginning, middle, more middle, and an end. I’m too trained to follow what a protagonist wants, what an antagonist doesn’t want him to have, and watching them duke it out. If that’s the case, then I’m not complaining about that because it works. I kept waiting for The Kid to learn something, like that maybe his life is pretty messed up, but I can also see the unlikelihood that someone in that situation would have no way of learning anything any different from that to which he’s been accustomed. Thus perhaps I’ve been too accustomed to books with a traditional plot, and maybe I need to read more books that forge their own direction. And perhaps I could do that more easily if the progressive, ground-breaking new book doesn’t show 33 1/3 ways to kill someone and make me feel like I was one of them by the time I was finished.
One of the reasons you read is to get a break from the things that are kicking your ass. You don’t want more of an ass kicking from reading a book. It was about halfway through that I wanted the whole thing to end because it was just death after death, and not only did I not care anymore but I also had no reason to expect anything any different was going to happen.
58 thoughts on ““Blood Meridian” or “Are We Dead Yet? Are We Dead Yet?””
Call me a Philistine but I’ve found some McCarthy really hard to read. His prose is beautiful but without any clear plot to hang it on the book as a whole can be dull and inaccessible.
It’s interesting to note that the books most people enjoy are the ones that have been filmed, perhaps because the movie lends us a perspective on the text that would otherwise be missing. I read ‘The Road’ before I saw the film, but knowing the film had been made; I read ‘No Country’ after I saw the film, and had Tommy Lee Jones’ voice in my head the whole time 🙂
Then I read ‘The Crossing’. I told myself that it was literature, that I shoud be enjoying it, but I just didn’t. It was drawn-out, mysterious, ponderous, aimless, and dull. Maybe there are some people who really enjoy ‘real’ literature like that, or maybe they’re all just pretending?
Me, I like a good rollicking story.
So sue me 🙂
Great review. Thanks.
nothing to thank me for. i had the easy part. i read “the road” after it was awarded the pulitzer, so i experienced it before the movie, but at least it did have a plot, mostly. same with “no country.” i also read “all the pretty horses,” but what’s interesting is that i cannot remember one single detail about the book. that can’t be a good thing.
Nothing ruins a good story like plot!
dull..(pulls hair out)…dull? The kid has to hunt and then nurse a wolf, thats just the beginning…I wont sue you, no reputable lawyer would take the case. I can’t pretend to like this literature, it likes me and grabs me and forces me to ponder and dig and delve and steal from it in my own writing…Anyway, Try Rick Moody…Cormac McCarthy lite…??
🙂 This must be a good review, to incite such a heated debate. I think it goes to show that with Cormac McCarthy you really do either love him or hate him (or certain books, at least). He could certainly never be accused of being mediocre!
Let me just reiterate that I love his writing style. My personal hang-up is with the pace of the story. Maybe I was in the wrong place mentally when I read ‘The Crossing’ — I appreciated the wolf saga, and the sense of immensity in that setting; I just trailed off eventually, around where he meets the priest.
I am a genre writer, so I’ve probably been spoiled for ‘proper’ literature! But I’ll give him another go as you have so much faith in him!
what genre would that be? i like stephen king’s take on genre vs. literary fiction. he said that literary fiction is stories about amazing people doing ordinary things. he prefers genre fiction, which is usually about ordinary people doing amazing things. for me, i’d prefer to read the latter.
thanks on the “excellent review” comment.
I went into ‘The Crossing’ having read ‘All the Pretty Horses’ and knowing that I would read ‘Cities of the Plain’ so I wanted it. I tend to enjoy a novelist than read as much of him or her as I can with the intent of enjoying each book, so I look for it. I am character and theme driven, a story line and plot and really ruin that for me if it is too central.
I’m dabbling at the moment. I have one pretty straight-up fantasy novel done (though I sailed closer to historical fiction — grubbier, and no magic); and I’m skirting around the edges of a contemporary sci-fi thriller at the moment. I have more fun playing with genre conventions and poking holes in expectations. I like the way Stephen King balances character, themes and plot. If there’s something to be said about genre fiction it’s that plot can be promoted to the exclusion of all else. I prefer something mid-way — such as Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’: mind-blowing and full of ideas about religion, life and death, but classified firmly in the genre of YA Fantasy.
In the end, I have neither the patience nor (frankly) the intelligence to write great literature. Maybe when I’m 60 and I’ve actually seen the world …
this is a very loose way of putting it, but i’ll try:
to write good literary fiction is to thrill 250 people with 1000 pages.
to write good genre fiction is to thrill 1000 people with 250 pages.
i’ll take the 1000 people.
🙂 straight up.
Hey, good luck with the books, Mine is a semi-autobiographical piece, yes with a story and plot, but neither is as central as the development of the character-and by extension my own self discovery….
I’ve given away a few copies of Blood Meridian to friends and recommended it to others. My friends have forgiven me and I haven’t heard back from any of the others.
That being said, I will still recommend it to those I think will enjoy it or find some part of it that resonates with them. Blood Meridian is rich with descriptive detail beyond the killing, blood and death that weighed on you. There are gems aplenty to be found beneath the alkalai dust. I’m not here to convince you of anything regarding the book, but I do want to plant a seed, which, I fully acknowledge, given the grim review you posted, may never find purchase.
Should you ever revisit Blood Meridian pay particular attention to The Judge. Where does he spring from? When does he appear, and how and what happens to those in his orbit throughout the story. In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy has added a classic to the genre that includes The Devil and Daniel Webster and many others. The book is far more than a tale about a bloody and dimly remembered time in the old west.
Loved your post, sympathized with you as I read it, and now I’m off to Google to see whether I can find a perfect paragraph from the book that makes reading it worth the time.
what matters most is that you felt your time reading was well worth it, and nobody will change that, and that’s good. i left out the judge because he was some kind of perverted narcissist who acted holier than thou but was willing to lie, possibly cause someone’s death, just for his own twisted enjoyment.
i like how you said that those to whom you lent or given the book have forgiven you. i think part of the problem for me was that the violence – no matter how well described – was overkill, and the saturation caused me to lose interest. so i won’t disagree, as you suggested, that i may have missed something because of that.
thanks for reading.
Damn, you said it way better than I could..I get too emotional. I loved this book
Good to see you are a McCarthy fan Doug 🙂
we should all be mccarthy fans – but we’ll have to pick and choose which titles work for us.
That’s true, I’ve been trying to encourage people to read ‘The Border Trilogy’ who are turned off by the violence and the perception that he is a depressing read, I don’t find that at all, I love his prose – but recognise that plot driven readers may not want to take the journey and people like me who can’t take violence resist certain titles.
in that case, then i’ll look for that series. thanks. i don’t usually like trilogies or series because i don’t want to feel like there’s something i’m missing if i don’t continue. i spoke to a guy on the beach a few days ago reading a stephen king book which he said was the 3rd book in a 7 part series. and he said, “it’s just starting to get good now.” really? i’m not about to read 3 books before it starts getting “good.”
I read the first book in this trilogy a couple of years ago and this second one could have been read independently, I think the two characters meet up in the third book.
thanks. i’ll keep that in mind.
The Road exhausted me.. it was tough to read. I had to read a few pages at a time and put it down…
And even tougher if you’re a parent.
I personally found The Road to be a well crafted book.. Short, concise..beautiful dialogue..It’s one of my Top 10 favs.. (The movie was so-so)
Yes. I enjoyed “the road” too. Gripping suspense that made me squirm. But there was a goal the father and son were working towards, and that keeps my interest. If I can’t answer the question “what goal is the main character(s) working towards?” Then I’m not going to enjoy the book.
You have my condolences Rich. I shall stay well away from Blood Meridian.
Thanks. My advice is you can find more enjoyable books easily.
lol – this is one bit of advice I will be taking most seriously 😀
I have the book, “The Road”, I liked it. (never saw the movie)
As usual, the movie from a book was a little bit of a letdown, but not much. It was worth watching and I always like viggo mortensen.
Maybe that was the plan of the author. To desensitize you to the killing. Isn’t that what the military does to our soldiers? They make them killing machines. They make them not care that they are taking life. They take their will. Their conscience. Maybe that’s what the author was trying to do to the reader. To you. Not sure. I don’t think I’ll read it. Because it is about war. I don’t believe in war. I don’t think it solves anything. Maybe that’s the reason for the story. Or non-story as it were.
that angle makes sense. thanks. hadn’t thought of that. but then again i know nothing about how the military works.
It’s just a thought. Like I said, I haven’t read the book. But it could be what he was going for.
The military does not have ‘desensitization’ to killing as one of its goals, nor are they in the business of producing ‘killing machines’. To a man (and woman) they care more than you know. They have not lost their will, nor given it away. If anything, their will is stronger than yours or mine. I assure you the consequences of performing their duty weighs heavily on their consciences, which they also retain.
You can afford to ‘not believe in war’ because there are men and women willing to defend your right to think as such. Give that a thought in your spare time.
The question you raise is an old one and not likely to be answered anytine soon. I thank you for listening and I leave you with a link to a poem by Rudyard Kipling titled Tommy published almost two-hundred years ago. it bears reading and I hope you will.
My sweet I know nothing of war. Only the scars left by it on my veteran friends. I see their will broken, their lives changed forever by what they’ve seen and done. I know nothing about what they’ve gone through, or how they will mend. I wish war wasn’t so. But I’m not stupid enough to think that it will never happen. War is inevitable. Killing is inevitable. But to see a soldier’s spirit broken, kills me a little. I agree their will is stronger than mine. I could never, ever do what those brave men and women do. Never. I’m proud of our soldiers. I am. I will take your book recommendation wholeheartedly. Thank you for sharing your point of view.
The link is just to a short and timeless poem.
(And I abhor war as you do. We need better leaders and educated citizens, not better soldiers. Jury’s still out on both counts)
Amen on the leaders and educated citizens comment my dear sir. Amen. Thanks again.
When I get my book done I will send it your way for an honest opinion!
Love your review. I often think that too many try really hard to find something positive to say. After being in a book club for over 12 years, I am more used to hearing dissenting opinions.
I can’t handle reading gory novels for gore’s sake either. One of Sidney Sheldon’s books although pretty good, still haunts me….
aww. which book?
I think it was The Naked Face. It was about a murder, a sex cult and a mask…
not necessarily in that order.
You make many interesting points and I agree with many of them. However, I feel compelled to come to the defense of one of my fav writers, though Blood Meridian is not one of my favorite books he has written.
McCarthy is an enormously talented writer, but he violates one of the most important conventions of fiction writing in Blood Meridian. But that’s one thing I love about him. He’s not afraid to go against the grain. Blood Meridain is an experimental novel. Conventional plotlines building to an climzx at the end. Blood Meridian is all climax start to finish. I think what Mccarthy is trying to say here is that life is not always like novels. It’s more random than that. Novels put events in an an order, building from small small climaxes to a final big one. So, you’re right about the plot line not working for you. It’s all one long, grisly, bloody, violent, gory marathon. But isn’t that a more realistic depiction in some cases, like war stories? McCarthy doesn’t care if he’s throwing out conventional plot structure. He’s saying, this is how it really is, and I think he’s right.
I, too, quickly was sickened by all the violence and blood, but isn’t that the point of writing about violence, that we should be sickened by it? McCarthy delivers a mega-dose of it in Blood Meridian, enough to turn the reader into a believer that violence is gross, and not the solution it is often depicted to be.
I agree with you it’s not a great read. It’s more or an endurance contest. But I will never forget this book, as I have many others, because the violence is so severe it’s burned into my brain permanently. As a writer, I wish I had that kind of power.
i can’t imagine anyone thinks that life is like novels, so if that was mccarthy’s aim, it wasn’t necessary. however, it’s better to speak a truth that’s known instead of not speaking it, just in case. and if his point is to show the gore of war, then he didn’t need to delve into a fantasy world that seemed almost hallucinogenic as if the kid was on an LSD trip or those chasing him were on such a trip. it could be argued that war and violence does that to someone. certainly. but for the average person looking for an enjoyable book to read, this isn’t it. and a book can be “enjoyable” without being fluffy and sweet.
p.s. Sorry my comment is so riddled with typos. When I try to post a long comment on WP, I sometimes can’t see what I’m typing for some stupid reason.
nothing to be sorry about. this is informal writing, and typos and other things are all forgiven. i appreciate your thoughts, regardless of arrangement.
I LOOOOOOOOOOOve Blood Meridian. It is genius. The violence is unbelievable and works for that reason. It is so outrageous that it becomes surreal, like the character of The Judge. It is the Modern Moby Dick. I had to study it before it became clear to me. The Road was not a apocalyptic tale, it is about the Father and Son, I know that doesn’t escape anybody. The landscapes are gone, the plots are gone, the scenery and much of the back stories are stripped away. This leaves only the humanity at all of it’s glory and frailty. I mean…the Judge was able to mix a working gunpowder out of caustic dust from a mountain and the cowboys’ piss…. Prometheus anyone?
The Border Trilogy is a little easier read, but still all based n humanity and it’s ultimate demise at all costs pursuing faulty perfection. A capitan’s daughter, a scarred hooker with epilepsy…whatever.
Cormac McCarthy Is a genius. I hope some of that made sense.
how was the road not apocalyptic? was there not an apocalyptic world that the father and son were trying to survive? were there not bands of scavengers willing to kill for food or for self preservation because of the conditions? that seems apocalyptic to me. i wasn’t saying the story was about the actual apocalypse. in fact, mccarthy intentionally did not even explain what caused it so that we wouldnt focus on whatever politics might have caused it. it might have been environmental or man made. might have been nuclear or astronomical. what mattered was “that” it happened, not “why.” but it still happened and forced the situation. the apocalypse was the antagonist. that’s pretty significant.
i appreciated how stripped down the writing was. the story, physically on the pages, mimicked the charred and stripped down trees of the aftermath. being a father of two, i was clinging to their survival hopes, and – given mccarthy’s tendencies – i was surprised but not disappointed with the ending. it wasn’t how i expected him to end it, but it worked well.
back to meridian for a second, “glory and frailty”? plenty of frailty, but i don’t recall the glory other than living to see tomorrow, which did not happen easily. the judge was not impressive to me. just a sick individual, with what he did to the preacher in the beginning when the judge interrupted the service to tell what he “knew” about the man.
let’s put it another way. when i’m reading, i usually need someone to care about. someone, just one person, who i am interested in following through the story to see how things turn out for him or her. they could have all died, and i’d have been perfectly fine with that.
as for the idea of showing the horrors of war and violence, we already had that in “the heart of darkness” and “the last of the mohicans.” if we’re looking for originality, it’s not here – IF the originality is depicting a raw vision of man’s inhumanity to man. although that phrase itself is debatable.
putting all that aside – the book reached you, and it held you, and you’re certainly not alone in that respect.
hey, i know you just left a long, good comment about “the road,” but i deleted it because i know there are people following this who hasn’t read it and plans to, and i didn’t want them to see what was in there. i’m sure you can understand that.
your main point was about the apocalypse being a device, which is was, but it was still vital. any apocalypse story is not really about the apocalypse but about the people dealing with the event. that’s given. mccarthy is full of doom and gloom, and we need that to counter all the fluffy cotton candy stories out there.
Just finished‘The Crossing’ and remain a fan of McCarthy, he takes the reader on a journey, he’s not interested in contriving plot, he puts his characters in situations and we are drawn onward to discover what will become of them. He’s a pessimist, so we don’t go into it expecting a happy ending, but he is a writer whose sentences and paragraphs pull me in and I like to read and reread them.
Not sure about ‘Blood Meridian’due to the violence, but will be picking up‘The Road’< next for sure.
oh, pessimist is putting it mildly. have you read about the “end of the world” group of scientists he hangs with out in the southwest? interesting what they do. i remember reading about them in “rolling stone” a few years ago. i think you’ll enjoy “the road.” i loved it, but it wasn’t easy to read. there is one big plot hole, but i’ll save that for after you’ve read it and i’ll hope you come back to discuss it. if anyone else would like to discuss the plot hole – and it’s a biggie, unless i’ve misinterpretted it – it’s a worthy discussion. i don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t read it, but i’ll just say that the hole is connected to the people with the dog. and maybe it’s really minor. oh well. it doesn’t take away from loving the book. maybe it makes it a 9.875 instead of a 10, and i’ll take that any day.
I love the depth and breadth of the comments re Cormac and his various works. Outer Dark is another early and strange work. When I get off this mountain and back down to my library I’m going to find that paragraph I was talking about in Blood Meridian and reviesit this post.
Cormac McCarthy challenges us with his writing. His prose can be overwrought but is often beautifully crafted and his experimentation with lack of punctuation is interesting. He has no illusions about humanity and I like that he doesn’t waste our time trying to convince us otherwise.
Thanks for being the catalyst for this thought provoking exchange of ideas.
nothing to thank me for. i had the easy part. and i’m looking forward to the paragraph and possibly changing my mind.
There are two instances of truly amazing description that I’m going to dredge up for you from that book, but I think your take on it will remain dominant in your mind. The Judge as the Devil will be a thread I’d love to visit when at last you re-read it. Maybe never, though, eh? who knows.
i’ve re-read books before. did that with “the great gatsby.” still hated it the second time.
I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy but I should since he’s considered one of today’s great writers. I did watch the movie, The Road, however and it left me feeling utterly depressed.
it was a grueling book, for sure. but it was also a great father-son story. it beat me up, but i enjoyed having read it.
Perhaps that was the point of the book, that we are so used to killing all around us, we no longer bother being offended or moved by death when we see it on the TV screen or all around us? Death from starvation, death from poverty, death from want and neglect. I’m not sure I could cope with McCarthy’s book though. I’m depressed enough as it is, don’t really need McCarthy to tell me most of the time the world sucks. I start crying when somebody hurts Godzilla, never mind reading about mass killings of Native American women and children. Perhaps McCarthy should watch Fast Girls the movie, cheered me up no end:) (no, they don’t pay me anything to promote their film).
Love blood meridian but not for plot. I guess for me it’s all got to do with the kid and the judge. There are so many great set pieces this will stay in my favorites. His style of writing is an obstacle more than an attraction especially in the epilogue.
i’m glad i read “blood meridian,” but i didn’t greatly enjoy it. thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.