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Cormac McCarthy is probably enjoying his seventies (an irony considering one of the themes of No Country for Old Men): the popularity and recognition for his work has never been greater.
Blood Meridian, subtitled 'The Evening Redness in the West', was first published in 1985. And although admired initially it has slipped away compared to McCarthy's other works.
In 2000, All the Pretty Horses was made into a film; No Country for Old Men was adapted in 2007, directed by the Coen Brothers of course; The Road opened on November 2009. And a film adaptation of Blood Meridian is meant to be planned for a 2011 release. But it's with a slight sadness that I discovered the latter's fate: I doubt I'll watch it. And every reason I won't is another reason you should read Blood Meridian, McCarthy's finest book.
We are in the Wild West. The story is 'based on historical events' which occurred on the border between Texas and Mexico around the 1850s. But this is not the Wild West as Hollywood portrays it. Hollywood could never have re-described the frontier mythology in the way that McCarthy manages to in the space of 350-or-so pages.
It charts the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen year old Tennessean, who becomes swept up with a band of scalp-hunters. This group - this pack - of murderers, ex convicts, (like the French Foreign legion), seem to live only for violence - mainly against Indians, but nobody is off-limits. There are no heroes. Even the Kid commits acts of pitiless violence.
The plot is episodic - Quixotic in it's arbitrariness; Don Quixote if the Don was the Devil. Violence begets violence, violence as its own reward, absurd and purposeless. This non-stop barrage is described poetically and explicitly: and no, those qualities are not mutually exclusive. But generally the plot is impossible to describe succinctly thanks both to its episodic nature and because anything I say will spoil several violent surprises.
The leader of the group is Judge Holden: a huge (pushing seven feet tall), hairless being; very intelligent, talented in the arts, speaks several languages. With him we are meant to feel a supernatural presence - the sense that no man in this context could have been so cultured, yet so barbaric. Is Holden the devil incarnate? We are never told. But certainly the notion fits.
Incidentally, any reader who needs to actually like a novel's protagonist, or who needs a strong sense of empathy with the events in a story, should not bother with this book! I can never understand such a reductive attitude to humanity, and therefore to art. But I understand that some people read chiefly for holiday escapism - so consider yourself warned.
The essential quality that makes this story successful is the medium in which it's told. The power of its linking the American Dream, the Western genre and the correcting of history as commonly understood is essentially a literary conceit, not a cinematic one.
I would go as far as saying the vast majority of great literature actually translates poorly to film with anything like direct correspondence. Literature focuses on the innovative use of language and, if you accept that definition, can't be filmed without a radical change of emphasis, often to the detriment of the work.
It was inevitable Blood Meridian would be filmed, the violent story in the baron landscape is inherently cinematic in the way that all Westerns are. But that is not really where the story exists: it's not what happens, but how we are told about what happens which makes Blood Meridian such an important book. Here's a beautiful and typical passage of description, which I picked out almost at random:
'...they rode with their faces averted from the rock wall and the bake-oven air which it rebated, the slant black shapes of the mounted men stencilled across the stone with a definition austere and implacable like shapes capable of violating their covenant with the flesh that authored them and continuing autonomous across the naked rock without reference to sun or man or god.' (p146)
I have not missed any punctuation out; this is a typically long sentence. The black river of prose - the biblical high style - is entirely necessary; it's no mere affectation. Without it, the story would have almost no meaning and it would descend into the circus of gore which the film will inevitably be. The above passage would translate onto film as a group of men ascending a mountain pass on horse-back in the baking sun - and that's it. Everything would be lost: the references to atavistic cultures; the relentless biblical force and confidence of the prose; the Faulknerian tumbling momentum of description, always verging on the metaphysical but being reined back to the moment. Compare it to this from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury:
'The day dawned bleak and chill, a moving wall of gray light out of the northeast which, instead of dissolving into moisture, seemed to disintegrate into minute and venomous particles, like dust that, when Dilsey opened the door of the cabin and emerged, needled laterally into her flesh, precipitating not so much a moisture as a substance partaking of the quality of thin, not quite congealed oil.'
(-The Sound and the Fury: April Eighth, 1928)
And now from the King James Bible:
'And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.' (Genesis, Chapter I)
The comparisons are clear and unavoidable: Blood Meridian is written by Faulkner's heir apparent, and like the Sound and the Fury, it's filtered through the power of the Bible (Yes, I'm an atheist too, but...)
McCarthy forces you to watch the violence that occurred at the time and what it says about America's past and present. The Wild West is such an important part of the American psyche, with its brash confidence and its 'civilising the natives' approach to democracy, that Blood Meridian is even more powerful read in 2010 than when first published in the eighties, with Ronald Reagan (an ex-actor in Westerns) as the country's sheriff in the midst of the Cold War.
If you think you might fancy going to see Blood Meridian if and when it emerges in the cinema, I urge you to read it first. If you don't you'll be sacrificing an immeasurable amount of the quality of the work and you may end up thinking the book isn't worth reading. That would be a shame bordering on a tragedy.
In fact, Blood Meridian is essential reading for anyone interested in American literature. It redefines the Great American Novel with the epic insight of Melville, and the fluid power of Faulkner.