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.