Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I originally picked up Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West as part of my deep dive into the "Weird Western" genre. Although there aren't supernatural figures, per se, in McCarthy's novel, Blood Meridian is one of the goriest, most horrifying novels I've ever read. As much as the horror genre is synonymous with Stephen King and the paranormal, Cormac McCarthy proves in this novel that nothing is more cruel, vicious, or malevolent than mankind.
Blood Meridian is less of a straightforward narrative than a free-flowing treatise on trauma. The novel loosely follows the (mis)adventures of "the kid" - our antihero protagonist who teams up with a band of malicious marauders in the wild, wild west. Make no mistake, though: this isn't the winsome, whitewashed western of Woody, Bullseye, and Jessie. McCarthy's central mission in Blood Meridian is to illustrate (in explicit detail) the violence that permeated the American landscape of the 1800s. Callous cruelty abounds, with rampant racism and vicious acts of dehumanizing violence that would put any Marvel supervillain to shame. The first half of the novel is essentially a nonstop bloodbath of biblical proportions, with the historical Glanton gang rampaging through the southwest states and into the fringes of Mexico. Bloodshed ensues.
So. Much. Bloodshed.
Threaded throughout the pages of death and dismemberment is an eloquent, philosophical core that attempts to elevate Blood Meridian to literary heights. The book echoes several other "great American novels," most notably Moby-Dick or, the Whale and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . "The kid" shares some literary DNA with Huck, another orphaned young man with a deformed conscience; one of Glanton's mercenaries, the malicious Judge Holden, eventually emerges as the "white whale" of McCarthy's tale, haunting "the kid" from town to town like an unholy ghost made corporeal through his trail of scalped corpses. Though the only other Cormac McCarthy novel that I've read is No Country for Old Men , I think it's safe to assume that McCarthy ascribes to the Charles Bukowski/Chuck Palahniuk school of ambiguous, amoral antiheroes. These authors are less interested in tidy, tightly constructed story arcs than in messy, maddening narratives with frayed loose ends. In McCarthy's eyes, it's less important to tie up your novel with a bow than to blow it to pieces with a howitzer cannon.
It's hard to say that I "enjoyed" reading Blood Meridian, because only a sociopath (like Judge Holden, for example) would find amusement in the gory series of events transpiring in McCarthy's novel. At one point, Holden states that "War is God" - and most of the book's characters worship at this altar of altercation. That being said, McCarthy's prose can be incredibly insightful, thought-provoking, and piercing; in some ways, Blood Meridian is more a philosophical reflection on war, violence, and (im)morality than an adventure novel set in the wild west. While McCarthy periodically draws upon references to vampires, exorcisms, ghost armies, and primordial gods, these allusions are used to describe something even more frightening: human nature.
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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents should be required reading for all high school and college students. Although America has found itself in the throes of racial division since the nation's inception, Caste is simultaneously a timely and timeless examination of where we are as a country and how we arrived here. Over the course of her brilliant book, Wilkerson threads a thorough narrative of our nation in a heartbreaking, illuminating tapestry of American history. Caste is nothing short of a masterpiece, and I only hope that it sparks the millions of hard conversations we need to enact positive social change.
With her expertly (and exhaustively) researched book, Wilkerson examines slavery and its chilling legacy of brutality in the United States - ultimately culminating in the racial division that plagues us today. Wilkerson's central thesis is that America's racial hierarchy is simply the European incarnation of India's caste system: layers of social status arbitrarily ascribed to cross-sections of the population. Circling between histories of India, America, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson recounts the tragic history of racism and subjugation in the United States and abroad. Whereas India's caste system is based on the belief that ancestral names and occupations reflect one's position in the social order, America's own caste system is derived from a perceived value in one's skin tone. Since 1619, American soil has been host to generations of discrimination and violence that have dehumanized both perpetrator and victim, erecting invisible barriers between America's diverse populations. Caste is one writer's valiant attempt to battle that inhumane inheritance.
In the opening chapters of Caste, Wilkerson cleverly compares America to an architectural structure plagued by preexisting damage that threatens to destroy the entire edifice: "we in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even." With her sophisticated, insightful prose, Wilkerson discusses how racism is not a simple choice of the individual; rather, racism is a societal structure that conditions us to view each other with suspicion and disgust based on a few insignificant strands of DNA. Not to to minimize the gravity of Wilkerson's book, but it does share a thematic helix with Avenue Q's "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" - "Look around and you will find, / No one's really color-blind." The first step towards battling racism is to recognize that we all harbor (consciously or subconsciously) racist beliefs and ideas that have been inculcated through multitudinous signs, symbols, and signifiers broadcast into our brains via millions of interactions and observations. Like it or not, society has programmed us with faulty, manipulative code; it's our job to seek out the biased bugs in the script and combat them with wisdom and self-awareness. Unfortunately, as Wilkerson reminds us, it's a lifelong battle: "America is an old house," she writes. "We can never declare the work over."
In many ways, Caste is a "hard" book to read: the detailed descriptions of cruelty and violence (including in-depth discussion of lynchings, beatings, rape, and abuse) are horrifying. Likewise, the emotional challenge of facing one's own preexisting prejudices can be psychologically taxing. However, it's only through a clinical self-evaluation of our reflections that we can begin the acts of attrition that will lead us towards humility and healing. The first step to repairing the damage is to investigate its origins, and Wilkerson thoughtfully quotes Albert Einstein on the subject of racism: "If the majority knew the root of this evil, then the road to its cure would not be long." Sadly, as long as people fail to learn about the roots of racism, it will only prolong the path towards equality.
As Wilkerson states in the book's epilogue, "We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom." Despite the fact that society has brainwashed us and shaped us like unwilling clay, we can educate ourselves (with help from brilliant minds like Isabel Wilkerson) and assert our own agency. We have a duty to combat these programmed prejudices, in order to improve the world for subsequent generations. However, the author also reminds us that "unless people are willing to transcend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of loved ones and neighbors and co-workers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be numerically impossible, humanly impossible" to stand up against injustice. It's high time for us to do the hard work of improving the world. We should count ourselves lucky that we have Isabel Wilkerson to inspire us with her words.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.