Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Book Review by In One Ear and Out Your Mother*

Which contemporary novels are we compelled to venerate above all others? Which books give us hope for the future of the form, exhibit most forcefully the backbreaking labor of ambitious authors to shatter the mold of aesthetic ennui and knee-jerk postmodernism which makes a mockery of "literary fiction," novels whose fervency and zest give back threefold what the reader puts in? In periods of readerly crisis and exhaustion, I can always turn to Ballard's *Crash*(1973) and *The Drowned World*(1962), DeLillo's *Libra*(1988), Clive Barker's *Imajica*(1991), Gene Wolfe's *Book of the New Sun*(1980-83), selected passages from *Gravity's Rainbow*(1973), Gibson's *Virtual Light* trilogy(1993-99), and perhaps with the greatest pleasure of all, *Blood Meridian*(1985) by Cormac McCarthy. These are all books that remit huge returns on their investments, becoming a vicarious collaborator in our sufferings, harvesting the anguish of the 20th century.

*Blood Meridian* clocks in at 337 pages, yet seems much longer, each chapter crammed with so much force and baroque ambition as to overwhelm the uninitiated reader, pummeling our sensibilities with its bloody license, its terror-networks of human splatter, its lines of lit glycerin, its miles of pain. Initially, Captain Glanton's regiment of scalp-hunters seem little more than bloodthirsty pilgrims of hate, an ignorance-cult borne of excess and syphilitic mind-rot. But more vitally, they are the war ensemble of Judge Holden's theology of martial gamesmanship, itself reducible to a few happy bylaws:
1. Men are born for games, and war is the game that swallows up stakes, rules, players, all.
2. There is no mystery to war, for war is god.
3. War is thus the truest form of divination.
Most brutal case of Hobbesian one-upmanship you will ever read....

I'll try and resist the obvious and reflexive comparisons of Judge Holden to Ahab and Iago and MacBeth and the Miltonic Satan. The word McCarthy himself uses in Chap. XXII (pg. 309) is "mutant," hypothesizing a creature specially adapted to the primeval wastelands of the American Southwest, a nomadic barrister of martial law incarnate, a pure demigod risen from some antediluvian vomit-bowl, one whose Mars-haunted spirit has internalized the whiteness of the whale, and is prepared to externalize this principle by whitening the West into a boneyard calcified by Judgement.

Clive Barker once remarked that he took it personally when something died, but the Judge takes this precept even further, convinced that nothing on this earth shall be permitted to die without his permission, without his blood-stamped ratification. His knowledge and his works are listed in the insanity provision of the criminal code, his running shadow itself half-way toward becoming an occult artifact. By the end of the novel, ageless and sleepless, he becomes less a mutant or demihuman than a pure principle or Intelligence, a roving nexus of judgement beyond origins or ends, Ares Unbound.

In my own experiences as a reader, the Judge is one of the few authentic father-figures I'd be willing to follow into the desert, a posthuman prodigy whose martial consciousness is lodged in the atavistic as much as in the epistemological, a true avatar of post-millennial ethics that must be reckoned with by all 21st-century readers. As Harold Bloom noted, *Blood Meridian* is far more important to us today than it was in 1985 (or even the 19th-century where it is set), helping us to calculate the number of the beast in, for example, the ruins of war-torn Kosovo, as in any future site of genocidal bombast....

The Kid is a recurring figure in McCarthy's fiction, an orphan and drifter fallen into bad company, yet vouchsafing some blurred trace of empathy in the bloodthirsty maw of Glanton's paramilitaries. It is this shred of "humanity" which the Judge condemns as a betrayal to the regiment, a heroic disloyalty to the Hobbesian principle of universal conflict, in the end providing an apologia for the Kid's penultimate, er, shall we say liquidation?

*Blood Meridian* is also a linguistic odyssey whose shadowy vocabulary recalls the work of certain SF fabulists who construct an alien language to reconnoiter their imagined worlds. (It is not surprising that McCarthy is such a revered figure in the vanguard of contemporary science-fiction; the novels of Jack Womack and William Gibson in particular simply wouldn't exist in their current form without his influence.) The difference is that most of McCarthy's "jargon" can be found in Merriam-Webster's, and the ambitious reader may want to prepare a glossary before embarking on this great novel; my own list includes: acacia, acequia, alcalde, almagre, aloe, anchorite, archimandrite, arroyo, artemisia, azotea, bagnio, baldric, bodega, boleta, bungstarter, bursar, cabildo, caisson, cartouche, chaparral, chattel, cholla, corbel, cordillera, coulee, crinoline, dorys, dragoon, egrets, enfilade, esker, fandango, farrier, felloes, filibuster, fulgurite, fusil, galena, guidon, gypsum, hackamore, holothurian, ilex, isomer, jacal, jakes, javelina, jornada, kiva, lazarous, lemniscate, littoral, malabarista, malpais, matraca, Monroe Doctrine, mortice, nopal, ocotillo, palmilla, paloverde, pannier, playa, plover, porphyry, presidio, pulque, pumice, purlieu, quirt, rebozo, remuda, revetment, sacristy, saguaro, sally-gate, scantling, scapular, scow, scree, scrog, selvage, slurry, solpuga, sotol, spall, specie, sutler, suttee, swale, switchback, tamales, tern, thrapple, tumbril, tyrolean, vedette, viga, vinegarroon, weskit, whang, wickiup, withers, yucca, and if you've read this far, it should be clear that I have no life to speak of...(!)

*lifted from Amazon without consent


Anonymous said...


I Think this is a brilliant essay on Cormac McCarthy. I have not read Blood Meridian, but I have read most of his other books, as you know. It is on my bookshelf, waiting...

Apart from the Border Trilogy, I especially like Suttree which is Cormac at his most compassionate (if that is not an oxymoron!).

I had to pause over the sentence: "There is no mystery to war, for war is god." Is not god or God an ultimate mystery?

Keep writing!


Alexander said...

Hey amigo,

Although I deleted most of my old Amazon reviews years ago in an orgy of self-loathing (including this one), I'm touched that you posted this on your blog.

A friend of mine googled my old In One Ear... pseudonym and directed me here. (You should have seen the trolling it inspired in the Comments section at Amazon, especially that line about Judge Holden being a "father figure.")

If you're on GoodReads, feel free to friend me at

All the best,
~Alexander (In One Ear Out Yo Mutha)