Wednesday, July 01, 2009

the last book I read

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.
We're in America, near the Mexican border, around 1850. The unnamed protagonist, known only as "the kid", has run away from home as a teenager, briefly joined an army expedition into Mexico, gone to jail, and ended up joining a gang of assorted bandits, ex-soldiers and other misfits roaming across the border country collecting the bounty on scalps, initially taken from Indians, but eventually from pretty much anyone who they come across. The gang take over a lucrative river ferry operation in Yuma, Arizona after further betrayal and slaughter; eventually this ends in a gruesome massacre by the local Indians. A handful of gang members escape (the kid among them) and continue to trek west across the desert, trying to avoid succumbing either to the brutal conditions or other gang mambers out to save their own hides.

It's not for the faint-hearted: the whole book from start to finish is a catalogue of the most appalling bloody violence, and none of this modern long-distance stuff without a clear view of the consequences either - lots of close-range shootings with bullet or arrow, graphically-described scalpings and axings and the like, not to mention the raping and defiling of the corpses. The bulk of the book describes the Glanton gang's murderous rampage across the country - mainly a series of encounters with other groups either out to further their own bloody ends, or just going innocently about their business, not that it matters, since they get waded mercilessly through regardless. I've not read many books more steeped and soaked in blood and gore, and I used to read Stephen King books pretty regularly. The biblical intensity of the violence is heightened by the writing: lots of formal and archaic language, as well as a ruthlessly detached and deadpan tone. It struck me as a bit like Hemingway - apparently William Faulkner is the usual point of reference, but I've never read any of his stuff so I'm afraid I wouldn't know. At no point are we treated to any sort of insight into the internal thought processes of any of the characters, nor indeed any sort of back-story for anyone beyond the couple of pages right at the start of the book which summarise the kid's journey from his Tennessee childhood to membership of Glanton's band of killers.

It's loosely based on real events as described in the memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain; in particular the gang leader John Joel Glanton was a real person. It's less clear whether the grotesque and almost supernatural character of Judge Holden was based on anyone who ever actually existed.

This is another one from the Time magazine top 100 list, and rightly: this is writing of great power, as long as you can cope with the relentless violence and nihilism. It's pretty dense, and the style means you won't race through it, but the brutal energy of it makes the bourgeois suburban concerns of some other books seem a bit silly.

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