“Blood Meridian,” by Cormac McCarthy, 2010 Modern Library Edition, 349 pages, $23.


This is the 25th anniversary edition of this popular book, one which I certainly must have read before (some of it is familiar).

But enough time has elapsed that the book seemed new to me, and one cannot gainsay its attraction. I am not proud of the fact that I found the book enthralling, since its principal attraction is the overwhelming carnage that McCarthy portrays.

The story involves a changing band of murderous wanderers who travel and encamp along the Texas/Mexico border in the mid-19th century.

The Kid is the center of attention, but Glanton and Toadvine and the ex-priest Tobin and Judge Holden are movers and shakers in the gruesome travels.

They attack everything that gets in their way or even gets in their sights, and the reader is treated to killing of other humans in every form imaginable: burning, scalping, shooting, stabbing, choking, hanging, trampling by horses … the mind reels at the ingenuity of the murderous band.

They are traveling for no good reason other than that there is nothing else to do, and they take actual pleasure in their evil deeds, including back-stabbing each other.

Where in literature can one find more despicable outlaws or more ingenious killers? One would be shocked if it weren’t for the fact that not one of the band shows remorse or even reluctance at the murderous performance.

But that is only one of the attractions of this book. The author writes in an absolutely distinctive style, making verbs out of other words and long sentences that bring close to the reader the actuality of this grim narrative of killing and plunder.

Here’s an example of his style: “Flies clambered over the peeled and wigless skulls of the dead and flies walked on their shrunken eyeballs.”

Or try this: “…he put the pistol to her head and fired. … A fist-sized hole erupted out of the far side of the woman’s head in a great vomit of gore and she pitched over and lay slain in her blood without remedy.”

These examples are representative of what you can expect from reading McCarthy’s masterpiece, but you must master the excitement anyone feels at such horrible and frequently occurring events.

One reads on, repulsed by the awfulness of the narrative but impatient to discover the next appalling scene.

McCarthy invents words with ease. Do you recognize any of these, chosen at random and found on only a few adjacent pages: coulee, carreta, sotols, rebozo, ornadas, kerfs, trapdykes?

One surmises meaning from context, but it’s almost like interpreting a foreign language. Plenty of Spanish is interspersed in the text, and, once again, the meaning comes from the context and everyone’s familiarity with rudimentary Spanish in this part of the country.

“Blood Meridian” will shock and appall you, but you will recognize the genius of a man who has invented a whole new kind of language and brought the old west to life in a thoroughly memorable way.

If that’s the way it really was, we should be thankful to have lived in a different, more civilized time.

Melvyn Schreiber is a physician at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Melvyn Schreiber’s essays are now available as a paperback book (without the book reviews and opera reviews). If you want one, send $15 to him at 12 E. Dansby, Galveston, TX 77551, and he will mail a copy to you. It’s not heavy enough to press your trousers with, but it may please you in other ways.

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