It crafted in his neck two narrow grooves and folding its wings over him it began to drink his blood | From Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

They walked on into the dark and they slept like dogs in the sand and had been sleeping so when something black flapped up out of the night ground and perched on Sproule’s chest. Fine fingerbones stayed the leather wings with which it steadied as it walked upon him. A wrinkled pug face, small and vicious, bare lips crimped in a horrible smile and teeth pale blue in the starlight. It leaned to him. It crafted in his neck two narrow grooves and folding its wings over him it began to drink his blood.

Not soft enough. He woke, put up a hand. He shrieked and the bloodbat flailed and sat back upon his chest and righted itself again and hissed and clicked its teeth.

The kid was up and had seized a rock but the bat sprang away and vanished in the dark. Sproule was clawing at his neck and he was gibbering hysterically and when he saw the kid standing there looking down at him he held out to him his bloodied hands as if in accusation and then clapped them to his ears and cried out what it seemed he himself would not hear, a howl of such outrage as to stitch a caesura in the pulsebeat of the world. But the kid only spat into the darkness of the space between them. I know your kind, he said. What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.

—from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian

Three Books

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Complete Tales & Poems by Edgar Allan Poe. Fat trade paperback by Vintage; most recent date indicates 1975 but that can’t be right. No designer credited.

You know Poe.

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Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston. 1983 trade paperback edition from Turtle Island. Neither designer nor photographer are credited.

A wonderful and weird trip to Jamaica and Haiti…and zombies!

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From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell. 2004 irregular-big trade paperback from Top Shelf. No designer/artist credited, but it’s clearly Campbell’s work.

One of my favorite scary novels ever. I reviewed it like a decade ago on this site. I found this postcard in it, a collage by the surealist Jacques Prévert:

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The postcard, from James Cooke, included this text, a quote of Cormac McCarthy’s horror novel Blood Meridian:

They entered the city haggard and filthy and reeking with the blood of the citizenry for whose protection they had contracted.

James won a postcard-based contest on this site like a decade ago, god love him.

 

 

The authentic American apocalyptic novel | Harold Bloom and Blood Meridian

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562

Harold Bloom’s esteem for Blood Meridian may have done much to advance the novel’s reputation since its publication, especially in pre-social media outlets, like Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook. His essay on the book, first published in his 2000 collection How to Read and Why and later included as the preface to Random House’s Modern Library edition, makes a strong case for Blood Meridian’s canonical status. Bloom begins, in typical Bloomian fashion–the anxiety of influence is always at work–by situating McCarthy’s book against other heavies:

Blood Meridian (1985) seems to me the authentic American apocalyptic novel, more relevant even in 2000 than it was fifteen years ago. The fulfilled renown of Moby-Dick and of As I Lay Dying is augmented by Blood Meridian, since Cormac McCarthy is the worthy disciple both of Melville and of Faulkner. I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian . . .

The Garden of Earthly Delights — Hell, Hieronymus Bosch, 1503-1504

Bloom goes  on to rate Blood Meridian over DeLillo’s Underworld, several books by Philip Roth, and even McCarthy’s own All the Pretty Horses. Indeed, Bloom proclaims Blood Meridian “the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” This doesn’t mean that Bloom is at home with the book’s violence; he confesses that it took him two attempts to read through its “overwhelming carnage.” Still, he makes a case for reading it in spite of its gore:

Nevertheless, I urge the reader to persevere, because Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood. Judge Holden is a villain worthy of Shakespeare, Iago-like and demoniac, a theoretician of war everlasting. And the book’s magnificence–its language, landscape, persons, conceptions–at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.

Bloom repeatedly invokes Melville and Faulkner in his essay, arguing that Blood Meridian’s “high style” is one of its key strengths (unlike fellow aesthetic critic James Wood, who seems to think that McCarthy is a windbag). The trajectory of Bloom’s essay follows Melville and Shakespeare, finding in Judge Holden both a white whale (and not so much an Ahab) and an Iago. He writes:

Since Blood Meridian, like the much longer Moby-Dick, is more prose epic than novel, the Glanton foray can seem a post-Homeric quest, where the various heroes (or thugs) have a disguised god among them, which appears to be the Judge’s Herculean role. The Glanton gang passes into a sinister aesthetic glory at the close of chapter 13, when they progress from murdering and scalping Indians to butchering the Mexicans who have hired them.

I think that Bloom’s great insight here is to read the book as a prose epic as opposed to a linear novel. Bloom intuits that Blood Meridian foregrounds a deeply tragic and ironic reworking of the great American myth of Manifest Destiny. While hardly a pastiche, the book is somehow a collage—a massive, deafening collage that numbs, stuns, and overwhelms with its layers of thick, bloody prose. The effect is akin to the apocalyptic paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Dense and full of allusion, paintings like The Triumph of Death and The Garden of Earthly Delights surge over the senses, destabilizing narrative logic. Like Blood Meridian, these paintings employ a graphic grammar that disorients and then reorients. They are apocalyptic in all senses of the word: both revelatory and portentously conclusive. And like Blood Meridian, they showcase “a sinister aesthetic glory” (to use Bloom’s term), a terrible, awful, awesome ugliness that haunts us with repulsive beauty.

[Ed. note–Biblioklept originally published a version of this post in September of 2010].

Judge Holden holds forth on war (Blood Meridian)

From Chapter XVII of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian

They grew gaunted and lank under the white suns of those days and their hollow burnedout eyes were like those of noctambulants surprised by day. Crouched under their hats they seemed fugitives on some grander scale, like beings for whom the sun hungered. Even the judge grew silent and speculative. He’d spoke of purging oneself of those things that lay claim to a man but that body receiving his remarks counted themselves well done with any claims at all. They rode on and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of gray-beards, gray men, gray horses. The mountains to the north lay sunwise in corrugated folds and the days were cool and the nights were cold and they sat about the fire each in his round of darkness in that round of dark while the idiot watched from his cage at the edge of the light. The judge cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was war.

The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.

The judge smiled, his face shining with grease.

What right man would have it any other way? he said.

The good book does indeed count war an evil, said Irving. Yet there’s many a bloody tale of war inside it.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

He turned to Brown, from whom he’d heard some whispered slur or demurrer. Ah Davy, he said. It’s your own trade we honor here. Why not rather take a small bow. Let each acknowledge each.

My trade?

Certainly.

What is my trade?

War. War is your trade. Is it not?

And it aint yours?

Mine too. Very much so.

What about all them notebooks and bones and stuff?

All other trades are contained in that of war.

Is that why war endures?

No. It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.

That’s your notion.

The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god. Brown studied the judge.

You’re crazy Holden. Crazy at last.

The judge smiled.

 

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.

A 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.

The Significance of the Number 8 in Blood Meridian

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“The Significance of the Number 8 in Blood Meridian is a compelling analysis by William Wickey. Wickey lists numerous examples of the number in McCarthy’s (anti)Western, and touches on the number as a motif connected to gnosticism, tarot, and more.

From the beginning of Wickey’s essay:

The first “major” example of eight occurs in Chapter V when Sproule and the kid stumble across a tree hung with dead babies in a mountain pass after the destruction of Captain White’s war party at the hands of The Comanches.

“The way narrowed through the rocks and by and by they came to a bush that was hung with dead babies. / They stopped side by side reeling in the heat. These small victims, seven, eight of them had holes punched in their under jaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky.” (57)

This grizzly scene sets the tone for subsequent uses of eight in the novel. Every major appearance of eight implies death.

A very similar description follows in the same chapter, describing a group of delirious Mexican soldiers that save Sproule and the kid’s lives by giving them water.

“The refugees stood by the side of the road. The riders looked burnt and haggard coming up out of the sun and they sat their horses as if they had no weight at all. There were seven, eight of them. They wore broadbrimmed hats and leather vests and they carried escopetas across the pommels of the saddles and as they rode past the leader nodded gravely to them from the captain’s horse and touched his hatbrim and they rode on. (63)

Only a few days prior, these eight horses carried the only mounted survivors of the Commanche attack. Their former riders, including the captain, are now dead, presumably at the hands of these Mexican soldiers, having just escaped death at the hands of the Commanches.

Read the whole article.

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.

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

It 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?