Monday, February 25, 2008

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy is having quite the moment. An extended moment. First Oprah picked his dark, post-apocalypse novel The Road for her book club. And at the Oscars on Sunday the camera picked McCarthy out of the audience, standing and applauding the Coen brothers as they accepted the Academy Award for Best Picture for No Country for Old Men (based on McCarthy's novel).
It is all a bit much for members of the Cormac cult. He used to belong to us! You can't possibly understand him like we old fans do! It resembles what happens when your fave obscure indie rock band rockets to stardom. It's so hard to share.

Success, after all, can be a mixed blessing for musicians as they are pushed and pulled between indie cred and the pressures of commerce. It killed Kurt Cobain. But McCarthy is completely unfazed by success. A real American outsider, McCarthy is entirely dedicated to his art. His early books were written when he quite literally had no money. He doesn't teach and his books until recently never sold more than a few thousand copies. He is an infamous recluse, insisting that people read the works and leave the writer alone.

Given the extreme violence and grim pessimism of his novels, plus the total lack of information on him (only 3 interviews in over 40 years!), I think many of us Cormac acolytes have conflated him, at least a bit, with his epically evil villains - notably Anton Chigurh from No Country... and the Judge from Blood Meridian. So there's been a bit of whiplash this year, first seeing McCarthy interviewed - on television! - by Oprah, and then there he is at the Oscars sitting with his young son looking like a kindly grampa. Clearly McCarthy is closer to the uber-father of The Road, fiercely defending his son from the degradations of the cannibals and criminals of the fallen world.

But those implacable Old Testament villains are unforgettable. And those who find Chigurh a frightening figure should pick up McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian and make the acquaintance of Judge Holden, aka "the Judge". Like Chigurh, the Judge tends to philosophize in between his killings, holding forth on war and violence and mankind. I was haunted by the Judge for days after finishing Blood Meridian.

The Atlantic called Blood Meridian “the most beautifully written, unrelievedly ghastly chronicle of violence, carnage, torture, rapine, plunder, murder and every other conceivable variety of barbarism to be found anywhere in our literature”. And a true 20th century masterpiece. It was the first of McCarthy's American West novels, a story based on true events along the US-Mexican border in the 1840s. The novel follows a 14-year-old called only ''the kid'' who joins an outlaw gang hired by a Mexican governor to bring him Apache scalps. The gang are led by a seven foot tall albino monster of a man - the Judge.

I can't possibly do the book justice - just go read it! And read it before a film version massacres it. Yes, the Coens did an unbelievable job with No Country... but Blood Meridian is really unfilmable, and it is Hollywood spectacle-maker Ridley Scott who holds the film rights.

A handy option - the Library has The Road, No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian all available (free) for download to your computer or MP3 player as eAudiobooks.

Check out the 1992 NY Times interview for some of the classic few details of McCarthy's life. The Oprah interview is available on Youtube. Just recently another interview/profile popped up, this time in the December 27-January 10 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, available from the author's website. And finally, Time Magazine had an odd little piece with McCarthy chatting with the Coens (picture below accompanies the piece).