…the other contained a verse or two of Revelation—these words among the rest, which struck sharply home upon my mind: “Without are dogs and murderers.”
– Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
…and yet not alien none of it more than were their own hearts alien in them, whatever wilderness contained there and whatever beasts.
– Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
Theme: A book you read when younger but don’t remember.
This is Dallas’ pick for November (to clarify, she read Treasure Island as a child, NOT Blood Meridian, thank the Lord. I’m combining the two reviews because I’ve noticed some interesting parallels. )
Published approximately a century apart, Treasure Island and Blood Meridian are both adventure stories of a sort. Treasure Island is the straight-forward tale of a boy who meets a pirate, discovers a treasure map, and embarks on a famous journey to Skeleton Island, where he must contend with the scurrilous, crafty old Long John Silver and his obnoxious parrot. Blood Meridian is a western yarn, turned on its head to upend the heroic vision of the Wild West as a glorious world where heroes and villains are easily identifiable, and good and evil stay in their separate quarters. The protagonist of Blood Meridian is a 14 year old boy called “The Kid,” and the treasure that he seeks is of a more gory variety than that of Treasure Island. To be specific, he’s a member of a group contracted by the Mexican government to procure as many Indian scalps as possible.
Each story has a big bad: In Treasure Island, it’s the one-legged Long John Silver (now immortalized in a stomach-churning fast food chain), effortlessly charming and hilariously self-interested, he’ll feed you to the fishes if it saves his neck from the gallows, or speeds him closer to the treasure. His facility with a crutch borders on balletic, and yet in the end, his greed proves him easily confoundable. But shiver my timbers, the guy manages the last laugh in the end!
The Big Bad in Blood Meridian is a tall, mysteriously hairless man unsubtly named “The Judge.” The only educated man in the Kid’s group of vicious varmints, he spends half his time expostulating on the nature of mystery and morality and the other half doing fun things like drowning puppies and killing children. An unpleasant, manipulative psychopath, he makes the plainspoken cruelty of the others a relief by comparison.
The characters in both novels are archetypes; in Treasure Island, we are meant to side with the plucky hero, Jim Hawkins, cheering him (and by extension, ourselves) as his cleverness bests the pirates time after time. This tendency to identify with a protagonist works against the reader in Blood Meridian, however, because The Kid is no saint, an aimless wanderer who spills his own fair measure of blood for profit on his journey across the Mexican desert. In Blood Meridian, there is no one to root for because there seems to be nothing but evil permeating the bleak landscape. Men kill and rape and drink and fight and die. Plenty of them die for no reason.
Bloodshed is prominent. It’s an easier pill to swallow in Treasure Island, because the bad guys are trying to kill them and steal the treasure. But aren’t the so-called “good” guys trying to steal the treasure too? What really separates the pirates from the heroes? A pirate is an easy archetype to despise (unless they are of the Caribbean variety or named “Captain Morgan.”) It follows the similar western archetypes of Cowboys and Indians, a trope turned inside-out in Blood Meridian where no matter what side of the river you’re standing on, the actors are all capable of the vilest atrocities.
At this point, I have to take a detour to address language. The language of Treasure Island is straight-forward and fairly comprehensible despite the garbled language of seafaring men. Blood Meridian takes a more literary approach that melds the “manly” prose of Hemingway with a lyrical descriptive quality. Having never read a McCarthy novel before, it took me fully a third of the book to find a rhythm and parse a narrative out of the almost surrealistic nature of the prose (time and time again Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain came to mind). I won’t deny that McCarthy’s imagery is striking and sometimes beautiful, such as when he describes “the dusk where lizards lay with their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks and fended off the world with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates.”
Just try writing something that evocative with such simple words.
But I am slow to praise even as the blurb on the back reads: “brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West” because McCarthy’s skill at portraying violence is too good, lurid, voyeuristic, loving, even. If the novel is meant to demean the glorification of violence, it fails, because what it does instead is linger with fond eye on that perversity and sickness. In film, that’s called “torture porn” and many times (I Spit on your Grave and Last House on the Left comes to mind) it puts on a pedestal the violence it seeks to denounce.
I’m all for the gore. Bring it on. But don’t pretend that depicting a head recently liberated of its scalp in tender, loving detail is subversion. Show of hands: who here thinks Anton Chigurh is a total badass? Who really watches No Country for Old Men and remembers it as an epic meditation on the nature and ultimate condemnation of violence? Film critics, maybe. Most people remember Javier Bardem in a terrible wig carrying around a cattle gun and flipping coins. Everyone wanted to be that guy. Tommy Lee Jones who?
To be fair, the blurb may be doing a disservice to the novelist’s intentions, perhaps willfully misreading the message of the novel to assuage a kind of guilt that accompanies such a visceral, amoral story. Take this quote from a 1992 interview with McCarthy:
“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy says philosophically. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”
Irregardless, this book makes a strong case against nostalgia. The “good old days” weren’t really that great, and even adventures are overrated. We see the baggage The Kid carries around from his early days of bloodshed. Would it have been any better for young Jim Hawkins?
*Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
- Blood Meridian is fresh off Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books list that I’m working through. 29 down!
- Drinking game! Every time someone spits in Blood Meridian. You’ll be drunk by chapter 2! I’m not sure if that makes the experience of reading the book better or worse. I read a big chunk of it on a plane that smelled like vomit, so there’s that.
- According to IMDB, there are thousands of Treasure Islands, the definitive version, of course, being 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island.
- Blood Meridian has yet to be transformed into film. Is there a rule that if I’ve read a book, I have to see the movie? This has turned out badly for me so many times.