Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Book Review - Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West was first published in 1985. As Cormac McCarthy's fifth book, it comes well before his more famous works, No Country for Old Men and The Road (both adapted for the screen in recent years). The book is a fictional account based upon both true events and a memoir - Samuel Chamberlain's book, My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, detailing his time with the notorious Glanton gang.

Blood Meridian follows the exploits of a teenaged runaway from Tennessee who finds himself caught up in the Indian massacres along the Texas-Mexico border in 1849. We know him only as "the kid", and through him we are introduced to the rest of the Glanton gang. Real life figure John Joel Glanton, born in 1819, led his band of scalp hunters through senseless violence in the borderlands at a time when the price for Indian scalps was high. Unfortunately, Glanton seemed disinclined to restrict his butchery to Indians, with seemingly anyone he encountered falling prey to his murderous intent. McCarthy details with almost fiendish delight their depraved excesses as they traverse the unforgiving landscape in which they find themselves.

Blood Meridian has been hailed as "epic", and one of the finest novels of the 20th century, but I have to say...I can't exactly see why. The seemingly endless passages of description descend into repetition, and McCarthy's refusal to use quotation marks means trying to follow dialogue becomes a real chore - a task made even more difficult since few of the characters exist as anything more that caricatures or brief sketches, so their words can't be identified through their "voice". Indeed, it's nigh-on impossible to warm to any of the characters, particularly the blank kid. McCarthy sets up the insane Judge Holden as the primary antagonist, and while his lengthy diatribes provide an intellectual counterpoint to the mindless violence of the gang, eventually they become a parody of themselves and the comparison collapses inward.

I have no doubt that McCarthy included these repetitive exploits to highlight the senseless nature of the gang's behaviour, and to underscore the life of depravity thrust upon the kid after his own fruitless wanderings. I am sure there will be many who may say "Yes, it does go on a bit in places, and he does sometimes seem too fond of his own 'voice' when he's describing something, but that is the point!" Sorry, I'm unconvinced.

That said, for some reason it becomes a real page turner. The overly florid language, which I fully believe would not suffer from the occasional insertion of punctuation, leads into a flow of sorts, and his descriptions of the landscape often verge on sheer brilliance. Many of his metaphors fall flat, but when he nails them, he perfectly evokes mood and setting. It does subvert the expectations of a Western, and the extent of his research oozes from every page - this is not a writer who feels compelled to give his work a Hollywood sheen, and he revels in the harsh reality of it all. I'd even go so far as to say that I was really enjoying it, despite its flaws, right up until the end. Or should I say, the "non-end". For a book that smouldered and burned with the inflamed sense of indignation at such unnecessary atrocities, it simply fizzled out in the last few pages.

3.5 blunt pencils out of 5


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