NOTE: I wrote this for our now-defunct Videogum book club, Bookgum. I’m trying to consolidate all my writing into one place, so this seems like as good a place as any. xo
Oh my goodness, so many things to notice about the book!
Disclaimer: I didn’t finish this sun blasted, salt caked, thirst crazed death march of a book. I’m a Care Bear and I just couldn’t handle it.
I am a very fast, voracious, ravenous reader, who usually just chomps through books, barely chews them and swallows them without tasting them, so the experience of having this book stick firmly and painfully in my craw, and refuse to be swallowed, gave me a lot to think about. Obviously the violence kept it from being a fluffy beach read. The people who told me this was “The Nanny Diaries meets Deadwood” were totally lying! The violence, relentless, like Shellbomber said, mixed with the white powdery desert dust into a barfy yuck mud, coating everything. I found it impossible to look forward to reentering this world. I hate this world. My mind recoils from the very possibility of a single person like these characters, much less an entire reality populated by them.
But Cormie Mac, like a big jerk, writes about easily the worst things I can imagine with a skill and grace and mysterious magic that had me LITERALLY gasping at least once per page. To have images of such horror and misery, even the miserable, hateful landscapes, described with such dizzying beauty was very disorienting. It’s like his writing is a smoothie that is half fresh squeezed apple-ginger-lemon juice and half broken glass and you can’t get the tasty juice stuff without getting a mouth full of blood. Is it worth it? Not for me, but I’m a Care Bear and I mostly read books about dragons. I’m basically the worst judge.
I think we can all agree that atrocities are committed everyday. Part of modernity is the luxury of a buffer between most people’s daily lives and brutality of the sort described in the book. But then you watch The Wire, which is allegedly a fairly accurate depiction of an area of a modern American city, and it feels like you’re watching a show set in a different kind of frontier, with their own bands of awful thugs who have been so hardened and desensitized to cruelty that it doesn’t seem to even register. Who cares if my livelihood feeds on the destruction of other people’s lives? Who cares if this kid I’m killing has a family that loves him, a grandmother who will wait up for him and then spend years crying herself to sleep over her loss? These tender truths don’t even register in world where there is no tenderness to be had.
I’m also reminded of a famous ethnography, written about life in the favelas of Brazil, called Death Without Weeping. The author, an anthropologist (ANTHRO MAJORS WHAT WHAT!!), describes the violence, the grinding poverty, the malnutrition, the fear, and the effect that this lifestyle has on the generations of people trying to live their lives there. The title refers to the way mothers don’t even bother to bond with any but the heartiest babies, because the chances of them living are so slim. These mothers foster no emotional connection with their babies, and when the babies die, they aren’t mourned. Most mothers just ignore babies that fail to thrive immediately, allowing them to weaken and die without any concern. This is a culture of people whose emotional bank accounts have balances so low that they can’t afford to invest in anything less than a sure thing.
While the world of Blood Meridian is basically my nightmare, populated by dead-eyed monsters with no remorse, and it makes me feel better to think about how brutal and lawless the Old West was but how that time has passed, I think about the cycles of violence, poverty and crime in the favelas or the inner cities of the United States, and I have to accept that that’s a lie. I have to accept that, as the saying goes, there but for the grace of God go I.
One of the things that Mans said, about how we weren’t offered the other side of the “All Life Has Brutality, All Life Has Not-Brutality” coin, made me think about those townspeople in Blood Meridian, just raising their goats or taking care of babies, as the guys shoot stuff and cut throats and be disgusting monsters. I kind of felt like Cormie Mac didn’t have to offer the other side of the coin explicitly because our lives are the other side. We live lives that are largely unremarkable on a grand scale, just quietly puttering along, while in the dark corners of our world, there is grand scale horror. Even our normal, non-favela, non-ghettos of Baltimore, non-dust caked Old West hellscape cities and towns have these back corners, neighborhoods or just houses where people are living lives that chew each other up and spit the bloody pulp out. It’s upsetting to think about, but a casual perusal of any local paper proves it. That fucking teenage mom who shook her baby to death for disturbing her game of Farmville? She’s basically a modern day Kid. We are disturbed by stories like that and wonder how that could happen, because things like that are mostly hidden and out of sight for us as we putter along in our sunny, mostly easy lives. But in Blood Meridian’s world, the light of the unforgiving southern sun is being shone on the monsters, while the non-monsters are the ones scuttling around like cockroaches, trying to live peacefully on the shady fringes of the awful world. It’s like Cormie Mac has created a perfect, disgusting inverse of the way we experience the modern world.