Daily Archives: March 10, 2015

Warning: do not read this book

mccarthy cover

Dude. Definitely don’t read Blood Meridian.

I am telling you, do not read that book. That book will get inside your head and mess you up. And worst of all, you’ll have no idea what is happening – not to you AND NOT EVEN IN THE BOOK. I have been reading and re-reading it since 2009 and I am still fuzzy on even the most basic of plot details.

Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece is difficult to read for two reasons.

(I am leaving out the obvious reasons that apply to all of McCarthy’s books: he doesn’t use punctuation; you can never really tell who is speaking; many of the most important characters are never given any back story; there is no mention of what anyone is thinking or what their motivations are; dialogue is often written in Spanish without any translation.)

First, it is the most violent and repulsive thing probably ever written. Second, it’s written by Shakespeare. Well, Shakespeare but he’s an existentialist cowboy serial murderer.

And that’s why it will get in your head. The material is vile but the language is beautiful. It is definitely the kind of book you’ll have to hide in the freezer before bed time. But you’ll find yourself reading lengthy passages to anyone who will listen! It’s messed. Here is a sentence. I picked it completely at random.

“The dead lay awash in the shallows like victims of some disaster at sea and they were strewn along the salt foreshore in a havoc of blood and entrails.”

WHAT THE HECK IS HAPPENING IN THIS SENTENCE??? Nobody knows. But it’s horrible and beautifully written and I want to read more sentences just like it. That’s the problem. Every sentence in this book disgusts you but you want to read more and then you feel disgusted with yourself for wanting to read more.

But the gore-geous rendering of violence (see what I did there?) is nothing compared to the judge. Judge Holden is the bad guy. I guess. Everyone in this book is so awful it’s hard to say who the bad guy is. The novel is about a bunch of cowboys that ride to Mexico to scalp Indians (and, eventually, anybody) in 1849. But it turns out the Yumas and the Maricopas were schooling people in scalping long before these guys show up.

So pretty much all of the characters are scum; but the judge is definitely the antagonist by the end of the story. However, everything he says is just out of this world brilliant. He’s certainly evil. I can’t even bring myself to detail some of the horrific things he does in the book. But then there’s passages like this:

“They posted guards atop the azotea and unsaddled the horses and drove them out to graze and the judge took one of the packanimals and emptied out the paniers and went off to explore the works. In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God don’t lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.”

I KNOW! RIGHT?!? Pretty much every scene with the judge is that badass. By the end of that passage you don’t even care what an azotea or a lobation is. Here are a few more of his quotes:

“Notions of chance and fate are the preoccupation of men engaged in rash undertakings.”

“… and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way.”

“Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.”

And the problem is, after a while, this starts to make sense (!) But it is impossible to make sense of. That is why McCarthy is never spoken of without mention of other works. (The cover of my copy of Blood Meridian compares it to Melville, Faulkner, Dante’s Inferno, The Iliad, and the Bible. Just on the cover!)

No one can assimilate him into a worldview. They can’t speak of him on his own terms. Academia and reviewers have never been able to talk about this book without comparing it to Milton, Dostoyevsky, or Shakespeare. You would think this means Cormac McCarthy is great, that he is a great writer – but that’s not what it means at all.

It means there is no way to interpret him comfortably without using accepted categories to pacify his bizarre trek into the absolute depths of everything that is revolting about human nature. He has no predecessors. You can add up Milton and Shakespeare and Homer and Dante and Dostoyevsky and King James and throw them into a giant literary stew and you would never get a passage like this:

“Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses with eyes walled and teeth cropped and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws and their shields winking in the dust and up the far side of the ruined ranks in a piping of boneflutes and dropping down off the sides of their mounts with one heel hung in the withers strap and their short bows flexing beneath the outstretched necks of the ponies until they had circled the company and cut their ranks in two and then rising up again like funhouse figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.”


Don’t read this book, man. I’m telling you. You’ve been warned.

–David Smith

Being observant

dale mug

In my current Carnegie class there is a young man who is a strictly observant Jew – he is never without his yarmulke and his first 3 talks were about his year in Israel. The first  talk was a little tense as he chose to speak about a Palestinian protest on the Temple Mount, in a class with several Muslim men. The most senior Muslim man is also very observant and has to slip out of class to pray as the sun sets – “I’ll pray fast!!” he laughed last week as he ducked out the door.

Last night, he and the young Jewish man wound up on the same panel for our most raucous exercise. It was a delight to watch them encouraging and cheering for each other, high-fiving and laughing like crazy. They both won awards – voted by the class, not by me – and I drove home with the happiest feeling. Canada is awesome.