Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, an Indian named Michael prepares a turtle soup for Suttree. First, catch the turtle. Then, kill the turtle, making sure to discard its head–

The Indian braced his feet and swung it up dripping from the river and onto the rocks and it squatted there watching them, its baleful pig’s eyes blinking. It was tied through the lower jaw with a section of wire and the Indian took hold of the wire and tugged at it. The turtle bated and hissed, its jaws gasped. The Indian had out his pocketknife and now he opened it and he pulled the turtle’s obscene neck out taut and with a quick upward motion of the blade severed the head. Suttree involuntarily drew back. The turtle’s craggy head swung from the wire and what lay between the braced forefeet was a black and wrinkled dog’s cunt slowly pumping gouts of near black blood. The blood ran down over the stones and dripped in the water and the turtle shifted slowly on the rock and started toward the river. The Indian undid the wire and flung the head into the river . .  .

Appetizing, no? Now that you’ve thrown the bloody head in the river (or your garbage can or wherever you throw turtle heads), it’s time to dress the beast–

Suttree laid the turtle on the rock and the Indian scouted about him until he came up with a goodsized stone.

Watch out, he said.

Suttree stepped back.

The Indian raised the stone and brought it down upon the turtle’s back. The shell collapsed with a pulpy buckling sound.

I never saw a turtle dressed before, said Suttree. But the Indian had knelt and was cutting away the broken plates of shell with his pocketknife and pitching them into the river. He pulled the turtle’s meat up off the plastron and gouged away the scant bowels with his thumb. He skinned out the feet. What hung headless in his grip as he raised it aloft was a wet gray foetal mass, a dim atavism limp and dripping.

Plenty of meat there, said the Indian. He laid it out on the rock and bent and swished the blade of his knife in the river.

Okay. Now that you’ve removed the shell and gouged away the scant bowels with your thumbs, it’s time to prepare the wet gray foetal mass.

Put him in a pot and cook him slow. Lots of vegetables. Lots of onions. I got my own things I put in.

Got it? Lots of onions. Slow cook that dim, limp, dripping atavism. The fact that the Indian has his “own things” that he puts in implies a call to the reader to experiment with the recipe. And how did Suttree like his turtle?

He spooned up a piece of the meat and cradled it in his mouth to cool it. He chewed it. It was succulent and rich, a flavor like no other.

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Brown and the Farrier | A menacingly comic vignette from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

A self-contained episode from late in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; this little vignette captures the book’s strange mix of menace and humor:

Noon he was red-eyed and reeking before the alcalde’s door demanding the release of his companions. The alcalde vacated out the back of the premises and shortly there arrived an American corporal and two soldiers who warned him away. An hour later he was at the farriery. Standing warily in the doorway peering into the gloom until he could make out the shape of things within.

The farrier was at his bench and Brown entered and laid before him a polished mahogany case with a brass nameplatebradded to the lid. He unsnapped the catches and opened the case and raised from their recess within a pair of shotgun barrels and he took up the stock with the other hand. He hooked the barrels into the patent breech and stood the shotgun on the bench and pushed the fitted pin home to secure the forearm. He cocked the hammers with his thumbs and let them fall again. The shotgun was English made and had damascus barrels and engraved locks and the stock was burl mahogany. He looked up. The farrier was watching him.

You work on guns? said Brown.

I do some.

I need these barrels cut down.

The man took the gun and held it in his hands. There was a raised center rib between the barrels and inlaid in gold the maker’s name, London. There were two platinum bands in the patent breech and the locks and the hammers were chased with scrollwork cut deeply in the steel and there were partridges engraved at either end of the maker’s name there. The purple barrels were welded up from triple skelps and the hammered iron and steel bore a watered figure like the markings of some alien and antique serpent, rare and beautiful and lethal, and the wood was figured with a deep red feather grain at the butt and held a small springloaded silver capbox in the toe.

The farrier turned the gun in his hands and looked at Brown. He looked down at the case. It was lined with green baize and there were little fitted compartments that held a wadcutter, a pewter powderflask, cleaning jags, a patent pewter capper.

You need what? he said.

Cut the barrels down. Long about in here. He held a finger across the piece.

I cant do that.

Brown looked at him. You cant do it?

No sir. He looked around the shop. Well, he said. I’d of thought any damn fool could saw the barrels off a shotgun.

There’s something wrong with you. Why would anybody want to cut the barrels off a gun like this?

What did you say? said Brown.

The man tendered the gun nervously. I just meant that I dont see why anybody would want to ruin a good gun like this here. What would you take for it?

It aint for sale. You think there’s something wrong with me?

No I dont. I didnt mean it that way.

Are you goin to cut them barrels down or aint ye?

I cant do that.

Cant or wont?

You pick the one that best suits you.

Brown took the shotgun and laid it on the bench. What would you have to have to do it? he said.

I aint doin it.

If a man wanted it done what would be a fair price?

I dont know. A dollar.

Brown reached into his pocket and came up with a handful of coins. He laid a two and a half dollar gold piece on the bench. Now, he said. I’m payin you two and a half dollars.

The farrier looked at the coin nervously. I dont need your money, he said. You cant pay me to butcher that there gun.

You done been paid.

No I aint.

Yonder it lays. Now you can either get to sawin or you can default. In the case of which I aim to take it out of your ass.

The farrier didnt take his eyes off Brown. He began to back away from the bench and then he turned and ran.

When the sergeant of the guard arrived Brown had the shotgun chucked up in the benchvise and was working at the barrels with a hacksaw. The sergeant walked around to where he could see his face. What do you want, said Brown.

This man says you threatened his life.

What man?

This man. The sergeant nodded toward the door of the shed.

Brown continued to saw. You call that a man? he said.

I never give him no leave to come in here and use my tools neither, said the farrier.

How about it? said the sergeant.

How about what?

How do you answer to this man’s charges?

He’s a liar.

You never threatened him?

That’s right.

The hell he never.

I dont threaten people. I told him I’d whip his ass and that’s as good as notarized.

You dont call that a threat?

Brown looked up. It was not no threat. It was a promise. He bent to the work again and another few passes with the saw and the barrels dropped to the dirt. He laid down the saw and backed off the jaws of the vise and lifted out the shotgun and unpinned the barrels from the stock and fitted the pieces into the case and shut the lid and latched it.

What was the argument about? said the sergeant.

Wasnt no argument that I know of.

You better ask him where he got that gun he’s just ruined. He’s stole that somewheres, you can wager on it.

Where’d you get the shotgun? said the sergeant.

Brown bent down and picked up the severed barrels. They were about eighteen inches long and he had them by the small end. He came around the bench and walked past the sergeant. He put the guncase under his arm. At the door he turned. The farrier was nowhere in sight. He looked at the sergeant.

I believe that man has done withdrawed his charges, he said. Like as not he was drunk.

 

(Probably not) All of the similes in Blood Meridian

thunderIt was like…

like a wild animal

ribs like fishbones

like thin red leeches

they drank like dogs

It was like a sermon

true as a spirit level

like a string in a maze

He was bald as a stone

like rival bands of apes

silently as a bird alighting

mute as a tailor’s dummy

men or creatures like them

they buried their stool like cats

like effigies for to frighten birds

Yonder sun is like the eye of God

They rode either side like escorts

dark falls here like a thunderclap

The men looked like mud effigies.

like an army asleep on the march

their chins in the sand like lizards

like some naked species of lemur

something like a pound of powder

like a man beset with bees or madness

black waters all alight like cities adrift

like beings for whom the sun hungered

great steady suck­ing sounds like a cow

fingers spiderlike among the bolls of cotton

the fires on the plain faded like an evil dream

abdomens like the tracks of gigantic millipedes

leather wings like dark satanic hummingbirds

us behind him like the disciples of a new faith

he come along and raised me up like Lazarus.

jerking and lurching like a deputation of spastics

holding the coins cupped in her hands like a bird

the mules clambering along the ledges like goats

they labored on sideways over the sand like crabs

shambling past the fires like a balden groundsloth

whores call to him from the dark like souls in want

Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes

A hardlooking woman with a wiry body like a man’s.

They were shambling along the road like dumb things

our mother the earth as he said was round like an egg

The watchers looked like forms excavated from a bog.

is voice passed from him like a gift that was also needed

the old man sitting in the shrubbery soli­tary as a gnome

the parasol dipping in the wind like a great black flower

in his sleep he struggled and muttered like a dreaming dog

dragging themselves across the lot like seals or other things

an old anchorite nested away in the sod like a groundsloth

blackened and shriveled in the mud like an enormous spider

the kid behind him on the mule like something he’d captured

he had codified his threats to the one word kill like a crazed chant

the squatting houses were made of hides ranged like curious dorys

little cloven hoof-prints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going

a watered figure like the markings of some alien and antique serpent

The shadows of the smallest stones lay like pencil lines across the sand

the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus

the tent began to sway and buckle and like a huge and wounded medusa

he comes down at night like some fairybook beast to fight with the sailors

the blackened rings of the burnedout fires lay in the road like bomb-craters

Buzzards shuffled off through the chaff and plaster like enormous yardfowl

he naked bodies with their wounds like the victims of surgical experimentation

a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise

Then he waded out into the river like some wholly wretched baptismal candidate.

the barman labored over the floor toward him like a man on his way to some chore

He looked like a great clay voodoo doll made animate and the kid looked like another.

the burnt tree stood vertically in the still dawn like a slender stylus marking the hour

he looks like a raggedyman wandered from some garden where he’d used to frighten birds

the bloody stump of the shaft jutted from his thigh like a peg for hanging implements upon

The wagons drew so dry they slouched from side to side like dogs and the sand was grinding them

They crossed a vast dry lake with rows of dead volcanoes ranged beyond it like the works of enormous insects. Continue reading “(Probably not) All of the similes in Blood Meridian”

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is a perfect novella

With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.”  I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.

The opening lines hooked me:

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.

The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.

Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:

Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.

Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:

The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.

The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.

Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published this review in May of 2012].

Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem,” a meditation on language and consciousness

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The science magazine Nautilus has published Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem.” This is the first piece of nonfiction that McCarthy has published. It’s a fascinating essay that takes its name from a dream of Friedrich August Kekulé, “father of organic chemistry.” Kekulé dreamed of an ouroboros, an unconscious insight that led him to “discover” the ring-structure of the benzene molecule. (Thomas Pynchon writes about Kekulé’s dream in Gravity’s Rainbow, by the way).  Anyway, it’s a nice piece on a complex subject, and it’s fun to watch McCarthy move from lucid, transparent, and direct prose into wry fragments that are, well, more McCarthyesque. From the essay–

The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

We dont know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a bunch of literary recipes and a painting

Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1688
Merry Family, Jan Steen, 1688

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Roberto Bolaño’s Brussels Sprouts with Lemon

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding

It was September now (Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree)

It was September now, a season of rains. The gray sky above the city washed with darker scud like ink curling in a squid’s wake. The blacks can see the boy’s fire at night and glimpses of his veering silhouette slotted in the high nave, outsized among the arches. All night a ruby glow suffuses the underbridge from his garish chancel lamps. The city’s bridges all betrolled now what with old ventriloquists and young melonfanciers. The smoke from their fires issues up unseen among the soot and dust of the city’s right commerce.

Sometimes in the evening Suttree would bring beers and they’d sit there under the viaduct and drink them. Harrogate with questions of city life.

You ever get so drunk you kissed a nigger?

Suttree looked at him. Harrogate with one eye narrowed on him to tell the truth. I’ve been a whole lot drunker than that, he said.

Worst thing I ever done was to burn down old lady Arwood’s house.”

“You burned down an old lady’s house?

Like to of burnt her down in it. I was put up to it. I wasnt but ten year old.

Not old enough to know what you were doing.

Yeah.–Hell no that’s a lie. I knowed it and done it anyways.

Did it burn completely down?

Plumb to the ground. Left the chimbley standin was all. It burnt for a long time fore she come out.

Did you not know she was in there?

I disremember. I dont know what I was thinkin. She come out and run to the well and drawed a bucket of water and thowed it at the side of the house and then just walked on off towards the road. I never got such a whippin in my life. The old man like to of killed me.

Your daddy?

Yeah. He was alive then. My sister told them deputies when they come out to the house, they come out there to tell her I was in the hospital over them watermelons, she told em I didnt have no daddy was how come I got in trouble. But shit fire I was mean when I did have one. It didnt make no difference.

Were you sorry about it? The old lady’s house I mean.

Sorry I got caught.

Suttree nodded and tilted his beer. It occurred to him that other than the melon caper he’d never heard the city rat tell anything but naked truth.

Another vignette from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree—a transition scene perhaps, but one that draws Suttree and Harrogate closer, even as it underlines their differences.

In my review of Suttree a few years back, I argued that the novel is a grand synthesis of American literature, brimming with literary allusions. I singled out Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” as the basis for a later scene with Harrogate, so I can’t help but think of Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” here.

A Blood Meridian Christmas

Cormac McCarthy’s seminal anti-Western Blood Meridian isn’t exactly known for visions of peace on earth and good will to man. Still, there’s a strange scene in the book’s final third that subtly recalls (and somehow inverts) the Christmas story. The scene takes place at the end of Chapter 15. The Kid, erstwhile protagonist of Blood Meridian, has just reunited with the rampaging Glanton gang after getting lost in the desert and, in a vision-quest of sorts, has witnessed “a lone tree burning on the desert” (a scene I argued earlier this year was the novel’s moral core).

Glanton’s marauders, tired and hungry, find temporary refuge from the winter cold in the town of Santa Cruz where they are fed by Mexicans and then permitted to stay the night in a barn. McCarthy offers a date at the beginning of the chapter — December 5th — and it’s reasonable to assume, based on the narrative action, that the night the gang spends in the manger is probably Christmas Eve. Here is the scene, which picks up as the gang — “they” — are led into the manger by a boy–

The shed held a mare with a suckling colt and the boy would would have put her out but they called to him to leave her. They carried straw from a stall and pitched it down and he held the lamp for them while they spread their bedding. The barn smelled of clay and straw and manure and in the soiled yellow light of the lamp their breath rolled smoking through the cold. When they had arranged their blankets the boy lowered the lamp and stepped into the yard and pulled the door shut behind, leaving them in profound and absolute darkness.

No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam’s flank.

The “shroud of palest fire” made of sparks is a strange image that seems almost supernatural upon first reading. The phenomena that McCarthy is describing is simply visible static electricity, which is not uncommon in a cold, dry atmosphere–particularly if one is removing wool clothing. Still, the imagery invests the men with a kind of profound, bizarre significance that is not easily explainable. It is almost as if these savage men, naked in the dark, are forced to wear something of their soul on the outside. Tellingly, this spectacle upsets both the mare and her colt, substitutions for Mary and Christ child, which makes sense. After all, these brutes are not wise men.

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s a bunch of literary recipes and a Bosch painting

Enjoy Thanksgiving with this menu of literary recipes:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Twelve Ways

Gordon Lish’s Chicken Soup

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

Ian McEwan’s Fish Stew

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

Ernest Hemingway’s Absinthe Cocktail, Death in the Afternoon

Vladimir Nabokov’s Eggs à la Nabocoque

Thomas Pynchon’s Banana Breakfast

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

Robert Crumb’s Macaroni Casserole

Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Charles Dickens’s Own Punch

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

Willam Faulkner’s Hot Toddy

Christmas Bonus:  George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding

He says that he will never die (Blood Meridian)

And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

The last paragraph (excepting the epilogue) of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Seven quick thoughts:

  1. I’ve read Blood Meridian more times than probably any book but I still don’t know what it means.
  2. Hats, bears, coins, shadows, dancing.
  3. The judge is a metaphysical entity, but what?
  4. I think McCarthy’s is pointing to something past the devil.
  5. The kid definitely dies at the end.
  6. But how definitely—no body, no corpse?
  7. I’ll read it again, of course.

His grandaddy was killed by a lunatic and buried in the woods like a dog (Blood Meridian)

In Ch. 23 of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian our protagonist the kid—now the man but always the kid—has cause to kill a kind of postfiguration of himself, Elrod, an ornery youth who attempts to murder the kid in the dark of night:

I knowed you’d be hid out, the boy called.

He pushed back the blanket and rolled onto his stomach and cocked the pistol and leveled it at the sky where the clustered stars were burning for eternity. He centered the foresight in the milled groove of the framestrap and holding the piece so he swung it through the dark of the trees with both hands to the darker shape of the visitor.

I’m right here, he said.

The boy swung with the rifle and fired.

You wouldnt of lived anyway, the man said.

When Elrod’s traveling companions come to fetch his body, we get this microbiography:

They come out here from Kentucky mister. This tyke and his brother. His momma and daddy both dead. His grandaddy was killed by a lunatic and buried in the woods like a dog. He’s never knowed good fortune in his life and now he aint got a soul in this world.

The line about the grandfather “killed by a lunatic and buried in the woods like a dog” instantly recalled for me the judge’s tale about the harnessmaker in Ch. XI. The tale begins thus:

In the western country of the Alleghenies some years ago when it was yet a wilderness there was a man who kept a harness shop by the side of the Federal road. He did so because it was his trade and yet he did little of it for there were few travelers in that place. So that he fell into the habit before long of dressing himself as an indian and taking up station a few miles above his shop and waiting there by the roadside to ask whoever should come that way if they would give him money. At this time he had done no person any injury.

And climaxes thus:

As they walked out they spoke of life in such a wild place where such people as you saw you saw but one and never again and by and by they came to the fork in the road and here the traveler told the old man that he had come with him far enough and he thanked him and they took their departure each of the other and the stranger went on his way. But the harnessmaker seemed unable to suffer the loss of his company and he called to him and went with him again a little way upon the road. And by and by they came to a place where the road was darkened in a deep wood and in this place the old man killed the traveler. He killed him with a rock and he took his clothes and he took his watch and his money and he buried him in a shallow grave by the side of the road. Then he went home.

The judge’s story goes on a bit longer, but the remarkable moment is when he finishes, all the men of Glanton’s company claim to know the story, but in variations—part of the book’s dark take on the Emersonian oversoul. (Later in the same chapter: “What is true of one man, said the judge, is true of many”).

To return to Elrod (the name means something like God rules): I’ve always read the kid’s killing him as foreshadowing to the kid’s own final encounter with the judge later in the same chapter. Maybe the grandfather-lunatic-burial is just another one of the judge’s damn riddles, but it’s got me perplexed. Maybe best not to look for too much order in the dance?

Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end (Blood Meridian)

In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing. In the white and empty room he stood in his bespoken suit with his hat in his hand and he peered down with his small and lashless pig’s eyes wherein this child just sixteen years on earth could read whole bodies of decisions not accountable to the courts of men and he saw his own name which nowhere else could he have ciphered out at all logged into the records as a thing already accomplished, a traveler known in jurisdictions existing only in the claims of certain pensioners or on old dated maps.

In his delirium he ransacked the linens of his pallet for arms but there were none. The judge smiled. The fool was no longer there but another man and this other man he could never see in his entirety but he seemed an artisan and a worker in metal. The judge enshadowed him where he crouched at his trade but he was a coldforger who worked with hammer and die, perhaps under some indictment and an exile from men’s fires, hammering out like his own conjectural destiny all through the night of his becoming some coinage for a dawn that would not be. It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at contriving from cold slag brute in the crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end.

From Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. 

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood MeridianI’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].


It may be art.

Damn McCarthy.

I find him boring.

unrelenting nihilism

The story is thin at best.

Are we supposed to enjoy it?

I felt abused by Blood Meridian

not a traditionally enjoyable book

this book is simply just not “all that”

wordy, over the top speechy dialogue

endless streams of dependent clauses

I am a devout fan of Cormac McCarthy.

The characters are not really sympathetic

He is obviously a sick man psychologically.

all about violence and no plot what so ever.

if I was a trained geologist I might like it better.

too many words that are not in standard dictionary

I guess people think he is cool because he writes so violent.

This one guy peed on some clay stuff to create a bomb like thing

murder, slaughter, killing, massacre, beating, stabbing, shooting, scalping

It consists of a series of almost unconnected scenes of unspeakable violence.

Esoteric words, eccentric expressions, pedantic philosophizing, arcane symbolism

I have to believe that he must be embarrassed to have this book back on the market.

A bunch of guys ride around Mexico killing everyone they come across for no particular reason

If you’re a fan of babies, quotation marks, and native americans, then avoid this book like the plague.

The reception he has had shows how tone deaf America has become to moral values, any moral values.

This book was written long before McCarthy had mastered the style that has brought him so much fame and credit.

the unrelenting amount of violence and cruelty in Blood Meridian strikes me as having crossed the line to pornography

It seemed like Cormac McCarthy wrote this with a dictionary in his lap trying to find words that he had never used before

Many of the words have to have been made up or are contractions of words and/or non-words, including much Spanish dialogue

Eliminate five words from the English language (“They rode on” and “He spat”)and this book would have been about 25 pages long

In this book, one sees him trying hard to hone his now-extraordinary powers of observation and description, and failing badly.

The standards for writing have clearly fallen far if all the praise heaped upon this inchoate, pompous mess of a novel is to be taken seriously.

Everything died: mules, horses, chickens, plants, rivers, snakes, babies, toddlers, boys, girls, women, men, ranchhands, bartenders, cowboys, good guys, bad guys…

I dont think the writer knows very much about AMERICAN history, the way he makes all the scalping get done by the AMERICANS and never by the indians, nor do I think he a PATRIOT

Wherein a company of men wander northern Mexico and the West killing, maiming, raping, and/or torturing everyone they meet, all described in gory, endless detail, led by the symbolic characters Glanton and his advisor, ‘the judge’, and supposedly illustrating that war and bloodletting are the only things that count, and the rest of life is just a meaningless dance.

Some kid with a few guys and a spattering of mans rambling through some part of the US or Mexico or a post-apocalyptic Australian desert seeing scores of gruesome, pointless scenes of violence, inhumanity, and death.

Holden is the sort of overt child defiling character who in real life wouldn’t last a month in a state penitentiary, because someone would rightly dispatch him as soon as possible.

Self-consciously faux-baroque linguistic stylings make this fetus-hurtin’ Treatise a feast for weakest link readers fascinated by the mark of the beast.

This book has some wonderful flowery language, and some beautiful descriptions of the southwest countryside.

They say that this book contains BIBLICAL themes, but I’ve read it and I don’t see how that could be so.

The author seems as if he is somehow trying to make some kind of “statement” about AMERICA

In a well ordered society McCarthy would be serving a life term or he would not exist at all.

there are times when it even seems as though English were not McCarthy’s first language

this book cannot be called a novel because it does not have character development

Would you let Cormac McCarthy look after your child for the night?

McCarthy is the most evil person because he is a talented writer

the author likes to use pronouns without establishing a subject

Who are the good guys and the bad guys, everyone is bad.

read Lonesome Dove instead, it’s a hundred times better

rampant nonstop mindless violence and depravity

I can’t dislike a book more than I dislike this one

This is a great writer being lazy and skating

good if you enjoy violence and nonsense

Theres lots of scalping of indians

Was there a quota on similes?

this booked scarred me

sociopath killers

It’s pure bunk.

a moral blight

utter trash

Ugh

Inversions without end (Blood Meridian)

As they rode that night upon the mesa they saw come toward them much like their own image a party of riders pieced out of the darkness by the intermittent flare of the dry lightning to the north. Glanton halted and sat his horse and the company halted behind him. The silent riders hove on. When they were a hundred yards out they too halted and all sat in silent speculation at this encounter.

Who are you? called Glanton.

Amigos, somos amigos.

They were counting each the other’s number.

De donde viene? called the strangers.

A donde va? called the judge.

They were ciboleros down from the north, their packhorses laden with dried meat. They were dressed in skins sewn with the ligaments of beasts and they sat their animals in the way of men seldom off them. They carried lances with which they hunted the wild buffalo on the plains and these weapons were dressed with tassels of feathers and colored cloth and some carried bows and some carried old fusils with tasseled stoppers in their bores. The dried meat was packed in hides and other than the few arms among them they were innocent of civilized device as the rawest savage of that land.

They parleyed without dismounting and the ciboleros lighted their small cigarillos and told that they were bound for the markets at Mesilla. The Americans might have traded for some of the meat but they carried no tantamount goods and the disposition to exchange was foreign to them. And so these parties divided upon that midnight plain, each passing back the way the other had come, pursuing as all travelers must inversions without end upon other men’s journeys.

The last few paragraphs of Ch. IX of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. The inversion here points towards the novel’s palindromic structure (I would link that phrase “palindromic structure” to Christopher Forbis’s essay “Of Judge Holden’s Hats; Or, the Palindrome in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian“—only I can’t seem to find it online anymore).

Fabled horde, legion of horribles | Blood Meridian riff

The captain watched through the glass.

I suppose they’ve seen us, he said.

They’ve seen us.

How many riders do you make it?

A dozen maybe.

The captain tapped the instrument in his gloved hand.

They dont seem concerned, do they?

No sir. They dont.

The captain smiled grimly. We may see a little sport here before the day is out.

The first of the herd began to swing past them in a pall of yellow dust, rangy slatribbed cattle with horns that grew agoggle and no two alike and small thin mules coalblack that shouldered one another and reared their malletshaped heads above the backs of the others and then more cattle and finally the first of the herders riding up the outer side and keeping the stock between themselves and the mounted company. Behind them came a herd of several hundred ponies. The sergeant looked for Candelario. He kept backing along the ranks but he could not find him. He nudged his horse through the column and moved up the far side. The lattermost of the drovers were now coming through the dust and the captain was gesturing and shouting. The ponies had begun to veer off from the herd and the drovers were beating their way toward this armed hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones, and some among the company had begun to saw back on their mounts and some to mill in confusion when up from the offside of those ponies there rose a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers bearing shields bedight with bits of broken mirrorglass that cast a thousand unpieced suns against the eyes of their enemies. A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brim tone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Oh my god, said the sergeant.

  1. The legion of horribles passage comes near the end of Ch. IV of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and is probably the passage I see cited most often from the book—which makes sense: It comes early enough in the novel and doesn’t really need much context—other than its own language—to mean. And of course its language—well, that’s the occasion, yes? The passage condenses the book’s violence into a baroque and surreal fevered dream (to steal a phrase from the passage). We have here an ornate parcel, a prefiguration of ecstatic violence.
  2. I remember the first time I read this passage. It was 2008, very late at night, and it just sort of short circuited whatever brains I had left. I had to go back and start the novel again, hit reset.  I’m revisiting Blood Meridian (I’ve reread it at least once every year since I first read it, a common practice of many of its fans I’ve realized over the years) after having just revisited Suttree. Blood Meridian always seems funnier and darker, and somehow—how?!—more violent.
  3. The legion of horribles passage is not acutely violent in and of itself; rather it stages the violence that explodes in the next few paragraphs, a dizzying, overwhelming violence. Scenes of rape and murder.
  4. I claimed in my first paragraph that the passage doesn’t require context, but here’s some anyway: We have there at the beginning Captain White and his sergeant. White—appropriately named—plans to lead his unauthorized band of irregulars into Mexico to loot and spoil and steal. He’s recruited the kid, the would-be protagonist of Blood Meridian. With its vile nativism, xenophobia, and racism, Captain White’s recruitment monologue (which doesn’t really persuade the kid as much as the simple promise of a horse, rifle, and saddle) wouldn’t be out of place in American politics today. White’s racism makes his initial impression of the fabled horde that will kill all but a handful of his men—and, spoiler, behead him—all the more ironic/moronic: “We may see a little sport here before the day is out,” he grimly jests. This seems to me almost the set-up to a punchline, with a long excursion into a description of the advancing “horde from hell” as the meat of the joke (Joke!?), with the final punchline/payoff in the sergeant’s dry horrified realization: “Oh my god.”
  5. In Suttree, McCarthy synthesizes American literature; in Blood Meridian, he’s condensing something more primal. Myth and history, time and space, whorled into blood and violence.
  6. We can see this condensation of myth and history in the very language of the legion of horribles passage. McCarthy offers a nightmare vision of time collapsed into a single violent, overwhelming space—and as I go now to pull an example, I find that there are too many, that the passage is all example, all detail, all image.
  7. Or, okay, hell, just one image then—the “armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust”—there, that’s it, that’s all of it, history, myth, violence.
  8. Or just the words themselves, the diverse diction, culled from so many roots and tongues (attic, biblical)—and the compounding of words (bloodstained, weddingveil, headgear, cranefeathers, rawhide, pigeontailed, etc.), the compression and synthesis of words, the force of the words. The onomatopoeia. The barbaric yawps.
  9. What happens next? Okay, I’d say, Read the book—but I’ve already told you—the horde eviscerates White’s men. The kid survives, somehow, and the first section of Blood Meridian seems to end—as if this fabled horde, this legion of horribles were merely a preamble to the darker violence to come—a preview of the Glanton Gang and their sinister commandant Judge Holden.

Does Suttree die? | A riff on Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree

Does Suttree die?

At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, I mean?

Look, before we go any farther, let’s be clear—this little riff is intended for those who’ve read the book. Anyone’s welcome to read this riff of course, but I’m not going to be, y’know, summarizing the plot or providing an argument that you should read Suttree (you should; it’s great)—and there will be what I suppose you’d call spoilers.

oarsman2
Oarsman is a sculpture by David Phelps, located at the northwest corner of Gay and Church Streets in Knoxville, TN. This photo is by Wes Morgan, part of his Searching for Suttree series.

So anyway—Does Suttree die at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree?

This question percolated in the background of my brain as I revisited Suttree this month via Michael Kramer’s amazing audiobook version (I also reread key sections—especially the last), in large part because of comments made on my 2010 review of the novel.

The first comment suggesting that Suttree dies at the end of the novel came in 2012 from poster “Jack foy,” who suggested that Suttree “has died in the boat and that it is his corpse cariied [sic] from there and his spirit and not his body hitching a ride at the finale.”

Earlier this year, a commenter named Julie Seeley responded to Jack foy’s idea; her response is worth posting in full:

I kind of agree that Suttree dies at the end also–or at least there are a lot of indications that the ending is meant to be ambiguous. Suttree reflects on his life, saying something to the effect of “I was not unhappy.” He visits his own houseboat and finds the door off and a corpse in his bed. A driver picks him up and says, “Come on,” even though Suttree had never even stuck out his thumb to hitch-hike It feels oddly similar to Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” All of the scenery whizzing by faster and faster does feel like (sorry for the cliche) his life sort of flashing before him. This was a thought-provoking novel that I am looking forward to reading again soon.

Julie Seeley’s analysis is persuasive and her connection to Dickinson is especially convincing upon rereading the book’s final paragraphs. In my Suttree review, I argued that the book is a synthesis of American literature, tracing the overt connections to Faulkner and Frost, Poe and Cummings, Ellison and Steinbeck, before laundry listing:

…we find Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams, to name just a few writers whose blood courses through this novel (even elegant F. Scott Fitzgerald is here, in an unexpected Gatsbyish episode late in the novel).

Revisiting Suttree this month I found myself again impressed with McCarthy’s command of allusion and reference. Its transcendentalist streak stood out in particular. (Or perhaps more accurately, I sensed the generative material of the American Renaissance writers filtered through the writers that came before Suttree). But one American Renaissance writer I failed to name in my original review was Dickinson’s (near) contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work of course filters through all serious American novels. There are plenty of echoes of Hawthorne in Suttree—Hawthorne’s tales in particular—but it’s the way that Hawthorne ends his tales that interests me here. Like the dashes that conclude many of Dickinson’s poems (including “Because I could not stop for Death”), Hawthorne’s conclusions are frequently ambiguous. Like the conclusion of Suttree.

So: Does Suttree die at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree?

Well, wait. Let’s go back to the beginning. Of the novel, I mean. Like I said, I’d had this question buzzing around in the back of my head as I revisited the book.

So, the beginning. Well, I’d forgotten that Suttree had a twin brother who had died at birth. The twin resurfaces a few times in the text, and there’s even a scene in the musseling section featuring a set of twins. Does Suttree’s twin brother’s death in infancy prefigure Suttree’s own death? How could it not? But—at the same time—hey, it’s ambiguous if Suttree dies; should I have stated my answer to my own damn question earlier?—hey, at the same time, the twin brother’s death is not Suttree’s death sentence, right? It simply introduces a motif—the dead body. Continue reading “Does Suttree die? | A riff on Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree”

He dreamed (Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree)

He dreamed of a race at the poles who rode on sleds of walrus hide and rucked up horn and ivory all drawn by dogs and bristling with lances and harpoon spears, the hunters shrouded in fur, slow caravans against the late noon winter sunset, against the rim of the world, whispering over the blue snow with their sledloads of piled meat and skins and viscera. Small bloodstained hunters drifting like spores above the frozen chlorine void, from flower to flower of bright vermilion gore across the vast boreal plain.

A feverdream from late in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree. Finished the book again this afternoon, via an Michael Kramer’s audiobook—and lots of rereading. I’ve read the last 20 or so pages three times now, and have some thoughts that may coalesce into a riff around the book’s ending (Does Suttree die?).

Last time I wrote at length about Suttree, I focused on how McCarthy synthesizes so much of literature—particularly American lit—in this novel. The passage above is just one minute but shining detail in a baroque masterpiece bristling with such moments. And while it taps into a sort of primeval American past, it also seems to point outward—maybe to McCarthy’s next novel, Blood Meridian, but also to, I don’t know, William Vollmann’s novel The Rifles.