Review: “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Picador Books. 355 pages.

Some books you read because they are a lot of fun to read. Some books you read because you come away with a memorable message. And some books you read because, well, because you just have to.

I am a big Cormac McCarthy fan. My two favorites are probably The Road and No Country for Old Men, both what I consider the type of books that leave you thinking and breathless. And for years I had heard that McCarthy’s best book ever was Blood Meridian, a story set in 1850’s Texas and Mexico. I was warned that it was violent and bloody, and they were right. But I was determined to read the book, simply to discover what made people think it was McCarthy’s best.

I knew early on that McCarthy is not easy to read for many people. He has a singular style: sparse, very little punctuation, with a bleak look at the world. That was even more so in this book, a very bloody, very depressing, very stark view of the old west. Much of the book is based on the premise of a group of Americans who travel down to Mexico to collect bounty for Apache scalps. When they can’t find enough Apache scalps, they start collecting the scalps of other Indians, as well as Mexicans in villages they enter. From that dark point, the story spirals ever downwards.

Beyond the dark message–and a predictably dark conclusion–it is very dense reading. McCarthy adds vocabulary that is both antiquated and obscure to give a feel of the era and the characters (i.e. words like “bedight,” “caesura,” and “sproule”). There are very many run-on sentences that go on and on for close to a paragraph. And he frequently gives himself license to jump from past tense to present and then back to past in the same paragraph. In my book, it’s okay to break the rules when you are writing, but make sure you have a very good reason for doing so, and it better not confuse your readers in the process. I don’t know about the former–his critics seem to believe he is doing the right thing–but the latter, confusing the reader–me–is something he is guilty of.

I don’t write these comments lightly. I still like McCarthy’s work. I just don’t recommend this book unless you are a literary critic or an English lit student who is looking for a challenge. There’s a bleak message at the end–McCarthy doesn’t miss leaving a message–but it’s a difficult and depressing journey to get there.

I give it two stars out of five.