Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian, like all other novels by Cormac McCarthy, lives in a locked cabinet at places like Bolen Books, which is one of my regular stops. It's not locked away for community standards, or because his books don't sell: no, it's because McCarthy novels are disproportionately shoplifted. These novels are the opposite of appealing, too, although I've noticed that my whinging at The Road (at which, just to belabour the point, I whinged twice) hasn't decreased that book's reputation (or sales figures).

In the present case, Blood Meridian is a horrible, unpleasant, often disgusting novel, with a body count and blood flow hard for any contemporary horror novel to match. It's also an essential novel, a novel that holds a blood-drenched funhouse mirror up to your face and screams at you to LOOK AT IT, JUST FUCKING LOOK AT IT, THAT'S WHAT YOU REALLY LOOK LIKE: McCarthy's exactly right to situate the founding of the North American West on a racist, murderous, misogynist social structure that places next to no value on ethical principles, human life, or suffering, but Jesus. What a read.

And no, I don't think that James Franco's film version was going to work out, though it's worth your time to check out his 25-minute test video.

Take science, for example, which isn't something you expect to find confronted directly in a Western novel set in the 1850s. But the terrifying Judge fancies himself something of a Linnean, collecting and documenting natural history in the same way that Charles Darwin was doing at roughly the same time as he knocked about the oceans in the Beagle. Toadvine asks the Judge why he's killing and stuffing songbirds, pressing leaves into notebooks, capturing butterflies, and the Judge offers a characteristically dominating response:
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent. ... Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth. (p.207)
So, yeah, science is a tool of colonialist and neo-colonialist exploitation. Obviously (though among other things). But you won't catch Louis L'Amour or Zane Grey or any other Western novelist saying that. McCarthy writes Western novels with a better sense of purple sage than Zane Grey, with vastly more intense insights into settler culture than L'Amour's ranchers will ever approach. Larry McMurtry, I've been assured, shares similar perspectives, as do some one-off Western novels like Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy. It's just that they're no Blood Meridian.

Part of this has to do with McCarthy's insistence that his prose style be so mannered, as in this description of the Judge sitting in a saloon:
He was sitting at one of the tables. He wore a round hat with a narrow brim and he was among every kind of man, herder and bullwhacker and drover and freighter and miner and hunter and soldier and pedlar and gambler and drifter and drunkard and thief and he was among the dregs of the earth in beggary a thousand years and he was among the scapegrace scions of eastern dynasties and in all that motley assemblage he sat by them and yet alone as if he were some other sort of man entire and he seemed little changed or none in all these years. (p.338)
No point calling this style "Faulknerian." The right word is "McCarthyesque." Combine it with the madness, the torture, the murder, the scalpings, so very many scalpings, and you've got something utterly unmistakable as anything but a Cormac McCarthy novel. It's horrible, Blood Meridian. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, and at this point I can't imagine ever teaching it. But my students should read it anyway, and I plan to say exactly that if my proposal is accepted that'd see me teaching a course next year on Settler-Colonial Ecocriticism (i.e., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meets Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

Why steal books that take such an uncompromisingly dark view of America and its origins (or of North America more broadly, if you'd prefer to include Canada and/or Mexico in the analysis)? More to the point, why do so many of these books get stolen? It's weird. I mean, in some lights it's oddly reassuring that some books are desirable enough to be shoplifted consistently, and maybe one could be heartened that some readers are so attracted to such pungently anti-colonialist fiction, but mostly it's weird.

Read the damned book. You'll hate it, and you'll hate Cormac McCarthy. But Blood Meridian is a genuinely irreplaceable work, and that's a very rare thing.


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