Blood Meridian

Author: Cormack McCarthy
Published: 1985

Mood: If you’ve been staying up way too late reading every night and need a book that will make you dread reading so much that you just turn off the light and go to sleep.

I AM SO F*CKING GLAD TO BE DONE WITH THIS BOOK.

This was my first novel by Cormac McCarthy, and it will likely be my last. You’d have to pay me a lot of money to go through this again, or buy me a horse or something. A good horse too; like one that’s bomb-proof, well-mannered, and knows a few tricks. The kind of horse that costs five figures – this book was that f*cking awful. I only finished it for the review.

I get the sense that you can only love or despise McCarthy’s writing. I can’t imagine someone wading through 353 pages of his cumbersome prose and then being like, “sure, it was okay.” 

Allow me to explain, so I’m not just being a total dick about it. There are certain types of readers who would enjoy Blood Meridian:

  • People who already like Cormack McCarthy 
  • People who want to be able to SAY that they like Cormack McCarthy because he earns a lot of praise, and his work is incredibly tedious so I guess it would make you seem smart if you could name-drop it in certain circles
  • People who are well-versed in theology

There are about a gazillion types of readers who should STAY FAR, FAR AWAY from Blood Meridian. To name a few:

  • People who need quotation marks and attribution to understand which f*cking character is talking, especially in scenes where five or more people are talking. McCarthy doesn’t use quotation marks, rarely uses apostrophes, and takes creative liberties with commas and periods.
  • Atheists who have zero concept of religious texts and would only know that Blood Meridian was supposed to be a commentary on religion vs. science if someone told them. At one point I thought maybe the Judge and the fool were a tarot reference. But after finishing the book I Googled it, and found tons of articles talking about its “dark religious vision”… which I hadn’t got at all. 
  • People who have only a passing grasp of Spanish and wouldn’t expect a book to need subtitles. Lots of minor characters speak Spanish, and important information is exchanged but no context given. Not providing subtitles worked in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez to leave the viewer as uncomfortable as Sr. Cortez, but in a book that’s already using extremely dense language and confusing punctuation, frequently switching to Spanish is waaaaaaay too much!
  • People who love animals, because McCarthy’s grisly descriptions of animal slaughter are many and merciless (the same is true for humans, but if you’re reading a story about Native American genocide you kind of know that’s coming).

In case you somehow need more convincing to choose a different Western novel, or you love Cormack McCarthy and want to get all wound up about my opinion, I will go on.

photo of the book Blood Meridian

Most of Blood Meridian takes place sometime in the late 1840s, during the American Indian Wars. The protagonist of sorts, known only as ‘the kid’, is a runaway who has no real personality and likes fighting. 

He joins up with a gang of mercenaries led by John Joel Glanton and the mysterious Judge Holden, both of whom were real people. They accept money from Mexican states to fight off the Apache and Comanche tribes warring with them over land, collecting scalps as receipts. But the posse likes the violence so much that they start collecting any and every scalp, obliterating peaceful villages and towns for fun. 

That’s really it. That’s all I got from the plot, if you can call it a plot. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

It started out as challenging reading simply because of the language. It’s like a literary shit mix – you know that ‘drink’ your friends made by skimming a little bit from every single bottle in their parents’ liquor cabinet, and it made everyone sick?

The characters speak in plain language appropriate for the time, but the descriptive passages are littered with $4 words that left me confused and frustrated – and I’m a f*cking writer. I have two university diplomas, one of which is for writing, but I was LOST. I got held up every couple of sentences by unfamiliar words that I had to skip, since I wasn’t about to stop reading to Google five words per page. 

So you have plain, rough language, fanciful SAT vocabulary, and then the aforementioned Spanish dialogue and random use of punctuation. A singular sentence on one page was 334 words long, while others were clipped like a choppy Shatner parody.

There was NO FLOW. 

You could persevere if you were really into the characters; too bad that was also completely impossible. It has nothing to do with their bloodlust – The Winter Family is a fantastically gory Western novel that’s also filled with riveting people. But McCarthy’s characters are either short-lived or hollow, or both.

The kid is supposedly the main character, but after the first few chapters he’s barely a background actor. You forget he’s there until he suddenly says something inconsequential, and then he’s gone again until the last 100 pages. 

The end of the book did seem more readable, and the action was more interesting – that is, there was a lot MORE action, rather than page after page of self-indulgent scenic descriptions. But by the time I got there I had no interest in the remaining characters or ‘plot’, so it was too little, too late. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

If I was meant to learn a lesson about violence, or America’s bloody history, or mankind’s depraved nature, or theology… all of that was lost because the language and characters failed me on every level. Like, I know that events like these really did happen and that they were atrocious. But the writing was so overly complicated that I couldn’t even feel truly horrified, if that makes sense. The book talked so much that I tuned out, and ended up kind of numb. 

After all that, I don’t even know how it f*cking ended. I looked it up to try and understand how I’d spent the last 3 weeks of my life, and it seems like even the New York Times wasn’t sure.

Some reviews have called it poetic and significant. It’s also been called the ultimate Western, and one of the greatest works of American literature. My brain recoils at all of those labels, but then again, I’m CLEARLY not who this kind of book is meant for

If you like Cormack McCarthy, that’s cool but I legit do not understand your brain.