My two friends had already been kicked off the ICE (Intercontinental Express) after the little porter had come by and found them without tickets. I had somehow escaped the wrath of the train agent, and now I was headed to Frankfurt alone, to the red light district and its whorehouses. I took a gulp from my premixed Jack & Coke and watched the little German towns as they breezed past. Transoms and mercury vapor lamps flashed in the night, graffiti-scarred railway platforms and slumbering Hessen villages.
This was to be our last Saturday together in Germany before deploying for a year-long tour of duty to Camp Victory, Iraq. Some of the soldiers had wives or girlfriends, and children. They would be spending these last solemn hours together with their families, the atmosphere in the cloistered living rooms heavy with the weight of their impending departure, and the knowledge that they might not come back. Assuming they did make it safely through the year, they could potentially return absent an eye, a leg, a testicle, or conceivably even a mind.
I thankfully had no such worries. I had arrived late to my unit in Germany. I had spent the last few months struggling to adjust to life in the Army, to mastering my Squad Automatic Weapon, to memorizing how to safely cauterize a wound and give a saline IV, or how to tie a tourniquet around a lacerated vein. When the weekends finally came and we were released from duty, I typically wandered around the cobblestone streets, unable to speak the language and usually too drunk to even make an attempt. Thus, there was no chance to meet real women, let alone get involved in some sort of lengthy courtship, only to have the same truncated by a tearful goodbye as I left her on the runway at Ramstein Airbase and walked into the mouth of a C-17 Hercules, flying off to Iraq…
I finished my drink and struggled against my thoughts. There was a steamy hiss and then a mechanical clang as the doors of the train opened. I stepped out into the Hauptbahnhof, a massive secular cathedral built in honor of Deutschland’s true religion, punctuality.
I ignored the Turks selling hash, sidestepped a verminous claque of cooing pigeons. An African couple pushed a stroller and walked mutely past me. Love…the word came unbidden. It was a sham. I had quickly learned that no marriage truly survived the Army. I had one friend whose wife worked at the bank branch on-base. She was in charge of their joint account, and while he had been on an 18-month deployment to Afghanistan, she had burnt through roughly $20,000 of his money on Amazon.com and Ebay. Love…Another buddy was so paranoid about his wife sleeping with other men that he had come home one evening, and due to some miscommunication had electrocuted his cable guy with a stun gun, shocking the poor bastard with several-thousand volts because he thought the man was screwing his wife.
As for the rest of my friends, they were not loyal enough to even be paranoid. They called themselves “geographical bachelors,” and they had long ago resigned themselves to the fact that their wives might cheat on them, and so they usually felt obligated to cheat first. Naturally, the ring came off of the finger every weekend.
I walked down Goethe Strasse, toward the neon tenderloin already glutted with tourists, drug dealers, and perverts. Clearly paying a whore for sex was more pragmatic than gambling on something as shifty and deceptive as love. I had never been with a prostitute before, but I was curious. Money for sex: so simple, and ancient.
Steam leaked from the wet sewers nestled among the cobblestones. The fetid air wafted up toward the glass fronts of the Shisha shops, and mixed with the smell of heavily-spiced Turkish schwarma meat. There were several houses of ill-repute on either side of the street. I walked up to the nearest one, an old Hussar-style building with mansard folds on the roof. Cars honked in the middle of the street, protesting the standstill traffic. And then, as I stepped inside, all became quiet.
The smell of pine-scented floor treatment filled my lungs. The light was a low-wattage maroon, making all of the shapes dark as my eyes struggled to adjust. Men poured past me on the narrow staircase as I struggled upward. The smell of cigarettes, body odor, and talcum powder comingled and formed the unmistakable musk of sex. I came to the first floor, where several doors on either end of the room were open and women stood, waiting. Muffled groans came from behind the closed doors.
Directly in front of me sat a woman in a latex corset with a mesh body-stocking underneath. Her hair was dyed black and her skin was pale. She held a riding crop in her hand which terminated in a cat-o-nine tails. Next to her was a sandwich board which listed the various services she offered: Lights discipline-Heavy discipline-Spanking. I had already gotten my fill of corporal punishment in the Army. I kept it moving, and men continued to walk around me. They stared at the women, who continued about their daily chores with studied indifference, as if they were a school of goldfish that had grown used to being watched while they swam in their tank.
Near the end of the hall, I saw a woman who piqued my interest. Her features were cold, distinctly eastern European. Her eyes were a wolfish, gelid blue and her expression was sullen. Something about her reminded me of an old girlfriend, from a past life before the Army had gotten hold of me and filled my head with thoughts of war.
“Wie viele?” I asked.
“Funfzig Euro,” she said.
I pulled out the bill and handed it to her. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was supposed to haggle, but I had no intention of doing so. It was certainly worth fifty Euro to bury my face in that hair, pant into the nautilus of her ear until I came, remembering for a drunken, sweaty hour that I was once a teenager and that I had been in love.
We walked into the room and she closed the door. The lights were already dim and I could see the balcony across the street, where a naked prostitute smoked a cigarette and stared down into the slum below us. There was a sound to my left, a light splashing. I turned to look and saw that the uncanny doppelgänger of my high-school girlfriend was already naked, and with one leg perched on the edge of the porcelain, she had begun to urinate into the sink.
I watched her until she finished, remarking to myself that Germany and America were two remarkably different nations. She finished up and went over to the bed, which could more properly have been called a mattress. She lay down, splayed in a glorious pose fit for a charcoal study. I began undressing, becoming increasingly self-conscious as I took off each undergarment, realizing that she held the advantage because she was already naked and scrutinizing me. It felt like I was stripping for her edification, and we both repressed a momentary smile.
I kicked off the rest of my clothes and headed over to the bed. She deftly worked a condom over my penis and we began. She was responsive, and warm, but I knew it would be some kind of sick betrayal to attempt to make genuine love to her. I pumped away, rubbing my nose into her hair and trying to recall that girl in high-school, chasing that sensation I knew I would never feel again, the one I had no right to anymore. She was as tight as a pharmaceutical bottle and I had to suppress a laugh, thinking that many a woman who would brand her with a scarlet letter had probably seen more action, and with less to show for it.
I came in short order and rolled off of her. She handed me a washcloth and I rubbed myself down. Voices from the hallway came to us now, a muttered babble of Turkish interspersed with German. She handed me a cigarette and lit it for me. I took a drag. Gauloises, Blonde. I had discovered them back in Darmstadt. In Germany there were still cigarette vending machines all over the place.
She smoked her own cigarette and tapped the mattress. “Good bed,” she said.
I wondered what her story was. Had she been impressed into this life, kidnapped by a Bulgarian Mafioso who sold girls to some sadistic pimp? I tried not to think of it, whatever kind of transaction it was that I had been complicit in, and what percentage of my soul it may have cost me to lay there with her on the mattress for five minutes. No matter how bad it was, I mused, it still wasn’t as horrific as marriage.
I suddenly stood up and went over to my pants. I dug into the pockets and came up with a ten Euro note. I gave it to her. Her eyes widened momentarily, and then she kissed me on the cheek. “Danke Schon.”
“Bitte schon.” I said.
Then I dressed and got out of there. A week later I was already in Iraq.
Editor’s Note: This tale does not take place on Thanksgiving, but it is about the orgy of violence called football, which, along with gluttony, dinner with unpleasant relatives, and celebrating our victory over the native peoples of this once verdant continent, is what Thanksgiving is really all about.
I am a native of Cleveland, Ohio, the half empty city on Lake Erie whose river, the Cuyahoga, was once so polluted it caught fire. I grew up a fan of the Cleveland Browns (the actual Browns founded by Paul Brown, not the Fake Browns that took their place) thanks to my idiot father, who, if he is still alive, is most likely standing in his front yard next to a Donald Trump sign wearing an American flag t-shirt that says on the back, “Burn This One, Hippie!” Honk if you love America!
Growing up a Cleveland sports fan means being perpetually enraged, mostly at the Browns and Indians for dashing your hopes on an annual basis.
This story does not take place in Cleveland. It takes place near Washington, D.C., in a hotel in Crystal City, Virginia. It is late summer 1991, and the Browns are in town to play the Washington Redskins (another Thanksgiving reference, of sorts) in a preseason game. Bill Belichick had just taken over as head coach, and Bernie Kosar was the quarterback, and had been for quite some time.
The Browns had had a couple of promising seasons in the 1980’s, winning just enough to tantalize (and thus enrage) me. Ask me about John Elway and the Denver Broncos, why don’t you? Watch me froth at the mouth.
As for me, I’d been in the Army for several years at that point. We’d moved to Florida when I was seven, and I had done my bachelor’s degree years in the mid-1980’s at the University of Florida, and had continued my football fandom there. I went insane and joined the Army in 1987. Ask me about Charley Pell and Galen Hall, why don’t you? Watch me froth at the mouth.
I was taking graduate courses in communication at a Crystal City hotel through the Army College Office’s arrangement with Oklahoma University. The university would fly the professors in for a week. I would read the course work over three weeks, take the course for four hours at night for a week in a hotel conference room, and then on Saturday and Sunday would spend the entire day at the hotel, with Sunday being the blue book exam. That counted for two semester hours. You got another semester hour from turning in a paper afterward.
Oh, and in case you’d forgotten, we’d just won a war with Iraq at that time. How do I know we’d won? We’d had a National Victory Parade–with tanks and planes and everything–earlier that summer. Civilians treated those of us in uniform differently after that. That’s when civilians started saying, “Thank you for your service.”
The first time someone said that to me while I was in uniform, I was waiting for a public conveyance outside of Fort McNair after a public affairs conference, sucking on a cigarette. I looked around, confused, wondering who she was talking to, realized it was me, and then blurted out defensively, “I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!” The civilian looked angry that I didn’t appreciate her gratitude. But I hadn’t done anything. I’d spent the entire war in northern Virginia. I probably did less during the war than before or after it. I’d watched it on TV like everyone else.
So in that context, let’s watch the soldier in his Class B’s (green shirt, dark green pants, shiny black plastic shoes, etc.) get on the elevator and realize that he’s standing next to Bernie Kosar, the longtime quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. Kosar was very tall, and the soldier is not. They nod at each other. And then:
Me (angrily): Why can’t you guys win? Just once?
Me: I mean, you won at Miami! Under Schnellenberger! I even saw you play! Wait… you sucked that night.
Me: I went to the University of Florida.
The Hurricanes under Kosar won the National Championship that year even though they got trounced in their first game of the season by the Florida Gators at Florida Field. I was there that night. It was my first Gators game in person. It was a pretty good year for Florida football. Lost to Georgia though. And then Charley Pell won the SEC for us the following year, which was vacated because… let’s not go into that.
The elevator dinged, and Kosar practically leapt out of it to get away from me. His restraint, in retrospect, was remarkable. Then again, the public relations part of his brain probably told him, “DON’T PUNCH THE SOLDIER IN HIS SWEATY, APOPLECTIC FACE.”
How did the Browns eventually do that season? They sucked. Suckity-sucked. So, lesson learned: Yelling at the quarterback in an elevator does not work.
That’s it. That’s the whole story. Enjoy your Thanksgiving everyone. God damn it.
- “Hawaiian War Chant,” by Martin Denny
- “I Like Girls,” by Porter Wagoner
- “Ruby Baby,” by Dion
- “Non Stop Flight,” by Artie Shaw and his Orchestra
- “Blue Yodel Number 9,” by Jimmie Rodgers
- “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” by Hank Williams
- “Barquita,” by Les Baxter
- “Attack El Robot! Attack!” by Calexico
- “Taboo,” by Arthur Lyman
- “Greenback Dollar,” by Nancy Whiskey
- “Game of Pricks,” by Guided by Voices
- “Wildwood Flower,” by the Carter Family
- “Dang Me,” by Roger Miller
- “Right or Wrong,” by Wanda Jackson
- “American Patrol,” by Glenn Miller
- “Harbor Lights,” by Dinah Washington
- “Boogie in Chicago,” by Louis Prima
- “I Ain’t Got No Home in this World Anymore,” by Woody Guthrie
- “Wreck on the Highway,” by Roy Acuff
- “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” by The Pogues
- “Mission,” by the Phenomenauts
- “Coronation,” by Martin Denny
- “Statement of Vindication,” by Bikini Kill
We’re proud to announce the latest from John Sheppard: Escape from Mondo Tiki Island: A Two-Fisted South Seas Adventure!
Escape from Mondo Tiki Island is a fast-moving, good-humored adventure tale filled with oddball twists and turns, taking place at the dawn of the Cold War on a tiny island in the South Pacific. The book features bombastic bad guys, beautiful island girls and a bewildered hero — and a host of near-fatal encounters with cybernetic chimps, a submarine, mad scientists and an exploding volcano — all set in a delightfully demented exotic locale. Welcome to the untold story of Russ Russo, a Yank sea ROUGHNECK! A LUNATIC has taken control of the raft… SEE WHO SURVIVES four days of SUN-SCORCHED TERROR! Learn the revealing truth about the half-savage daughters of the CHICAGO OUTFIT! See what happens when DESPERATE ISLAND MEN attempt to defile them! Who can defeat the CASTAWAY NAZI and his JAPANESE HENCHMEN? Blood flows like wine in the SHIP OF THE DAMNED where mad French scientists unleash their LOVE-STARVED APES in an orgy of gore! Forty-eight corpses… ONE HILL! Meet the Navy’s DEADLIEST frogmen who suckered a COMMIE PLATOON! Who will survive the wrath of the VENGEFUL ISLAND GOD when he vents his rage in a riptide of LAVA-FILLED HATE that only death can assuage?
Check it out now!
We’re proud to announce our latest release from Paragraph Line Books: Fiona Helmsley’s new collection, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.
I thought I wanted to be degraded, but I wanted to be degraded with love. You wanted me to talk during sex and what came out was, “You hate me.”
Sam D’Allesandro once wrote, “I like living with the danger of what you know about me,” and the candidness on display in Fiona Helmsley’s My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers takes an incredible amount of guts.
Beginning with an epigram from Anne Sexton’s With Mercy for the Greedy and ending with an essay on the virtues of Courtney Love, in-between, her stories and essays breathe new life into the idea that the things that we are ashamed of often make for the best stories.
Badly wounding her boyfriend in a fight over money for drugs, Helmsley leaves her beloved bloody, and the responsibility of getting him to the hospital on someone else. After plotting with a friend how to best get money for drugs, their decision to charge their friends for sex leads to devastating results.
Including essays on art and persona, the rejection of the word “victim,” and an imagined meeting between Joan Vollmer Burroughs and Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel, Fiona Helmsley’s My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers presents a gritty and moving portrait of life on the fringes at the turn of the millennium.
Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. In line with the trope of comparing talented women to more revered men, she’s been called “the Eugene O’Neill of halfway house culture.” Her writing can be found online at sites like PANK, and The Rumpus, and in anthologies like Ladyland and The Best Sex Writing of the Year. She can reached through her blog, whatfionaworetoday.tumblr.com.
I was recently invited to read at a “Noir at the Bar” event at the Meshuggah Café, in Saint Louis. The reading was hosted and arranged by Jed Ayres, the crime writer, and fellow readers included Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest, which was adapted by Harold Ramis into a film of the same name, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.
Being as this was my first time reading one of my books in public, before a crowd, I was quite anxious. I felt that I did reasonably well in my performance (selecting a chapter from one of my earlier, hardboiled crime novels, Rolling Country). After each of the invited writers had read, many books were signed and sold, and then our select group adjourned to the rooftop bar of the Moonrise Hotel, where I was staying during the course of my short visit to Saint Louis.
We discussed many topics that night, but mostly we talked about books, since writing them was our métier. Eventually, during the course of the evening, the subject turned to Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked Western magnum opus, Blood Meridian. For readers not familiar with the work, scholar Dana Phillips offers a more than adequate summary in the opening passages of his study, History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
“[Blood Meridian] is only very loosely centered around the character identified to the reader simply as ‘the kid’. Its opening pages offer a summary of the kid’s early life in the Tennessee hills, his flight to Texas in 1848, and his recruitment by a troop of filibusters, most of whom are slaughtered by a force of Comanche as their expedition makes its way into Mexico. The kid then joins up with Captain John Joel Glanton’s band of scalp hunters, who have a contract to provide the Mexicans with the hair of Apache raiders preying on isolated borderland villages and towns. Glanton and his men begin their own bloody campaign of depredations, which lasts for a year or two and several hundred pages. The kid is one of the few survivors of this campaign. The last chapters of the novel offer a compressed account of the final twenty-eight years of his life of wandering, and of his eventual death in an outhouse at the hands of his old comrade-in-arms, the seven-foot tall three-hundred pound hairless albino Judge Holden, a man of incredible savagery and great intellectual facility.” (Evans, 433-434)
Although generally ignored by critics, and selling in unimpressive numbers upon initial publication, the book has gone on to become something of a cause celebre in recent years. Part of the obsessive attention the book draws has something to do with the various interpretations suggested by the text. Phillips hints at the unwieldy, impossible-to-categorize nature of the book in the aforementioned essay:
“Blood Meridian is a very complicated book-although complication is not a quality often associated with the label Western…[R]eviewers attempting to map this novel’s outlandish aesthetic and moral territories resorted to striking but desperate oppositions. To them, the novel seemed a blend of Hieronymus Bosch and Sam Peckinpah; of Salvador Dali, Shakespeare, and the Bible; of Faulkner and Fellini; of Gustave Dore, Louis L ‘Amour, Dante, and Goya; of cowboys and nothingness; of Texas and Vietnam.” (434)
My own personal feelings about Blood Meridian are a bit more prosaic: I find the novel to be a pretentious, nearly-unreadable pastiche hybrid of every writer from Ernest Hemingway, to H.P. Lovecraft, to Norman Mailer. I concede this statement is harsh, and would thus like to qualify it by adding two caveats, the first being that I consider Cormac McCarthy to be far superior to me as a writer, and that, secondly, while I find Blood Meridian to be a grim, impenetrable slog, I have enjoyed some of Mr. McCarthy’s other books (including No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses) immensely.
It must also be said that, regardless of what one thinks of the man’s writing, McCarthy belongs to a small corpus of postmodern stylists who have eschewed all of the blandishments of fame, shunning the limelight and remaining publicly indifferent to all the encomiums showered on his work. On the continuum where authors can be plotted, from the most reclusive to the most shamelessly fame-mongering, Cormac McCarthy could perhaps best be contextually situated somewhere between J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon (the latter of whom did actually lent his voice to an episode of The Simpsons, something it would be unfathomable to imagine McCarthy doing). According to Dana Phillips:
“Throughout most of his career, which began in the mid-1960s, McCarthy had worked and published in obscurity. Promotional campaigns meant little to him; he refused the interviews, personal appearances, and academic sinecures that might have made his name more widely known sooner. And for many years his readership was limited to a small group of admirers mostly from the South.” (433)
Decorum alone, however, cannot excuse the stylistic excesses and abysmal lack of narrative fluidity that, in my opinion, comprise the bulk of Blood Meridian. The author Charles Portis, something of a recluse in his own right, not only ignores the praise heaped on him and his work, but the Arkansan also wrote what I consider to be a far superior Western, True Grit (adapted for the screen twice, first in a film starring John Wayne, and then in a later, more faithful adaptation, filmed by the Coen Brothers and starring Jeff Bridges).
Several of my fellow scribes at the rooftop bar that night took umbrage at my strong opinion of Blood Meridian. One, Jed Ayres (author of Fierce Bitches and Peckerwood), arched and eyebrow and said, “You don’t like epics, huh?”
I shook my head. The epic nature of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is not what I find risible about the book. In point of fact, I love epics, and, though the genre is most often associated with works of antiquity, I count at least two modern novels as epics, and number them among my ten all-time favorite reads, the first being Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and the latter of the two being Mitchell Smith’s Stone City.
In To Disenchant and Disintoxicate (sic): Blood Meridian as critical Epic, author Justin Evans categorizes Blood Meridian as an epic, but qualifies this statement by adding that McCarthy subjects (and perhaps subverts) the genre, by giving it the postmodern treatment:
“By analogy with critical theory, we can read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) as a ‘critical epic.’ It tries to make this most traditional literary form into a self-reflexive and self-critical but idealistic agent, one that respects the ideals of traditional literary forms but radicalizes them in order to criticize modern societies… [s]ince the epic has often been tied to the affirmation of social norms.” (405)
The extreme violence of the book, many have argued, is meant to be read as an allegory or metaphor for every Occidental form of violent dominance and subjugation (often with racist undertones or outright xenophobic justifications), from imperialism to Manifest Destiny, to, as previously mentioned by scholar Dana Phillips, American intervention in Vietnam.
The violence of the book is one of my central objections to Blood Meridian, though not because the gore serves as an allegory, criticizing the bloodshed inherent in the maintenance of Western hegemonic supremacy in global affairs. My problem with the violence is that its cumulative effect is to first inure the reader, and then ultimately to bore them, numbing them with the fugue-like repetition of descriptive passages detailing scalpings, hangings, and eviscerations, one after another. Much like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho or Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism, the horror is not delivered with the irregularity that gives a suspenseful tale of terror its power to shock. The book is just a narratively slack catalogue of abuses.
According to James Dorson, in his article Demystifying the Judge: Law and Mythical Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: “Since its publication in 1985, the extreme scenes of violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian have posed a central problem for critics.” (105). Dorson argues (or rationalizes) the violence not by “…either historicizing it in the context of American imperialism, or by naturalizing it as part and parcel of the human condition…” (IBID), but rather “[t]hrough a reading of Judge Holden’s character as a figure of the law… propos[ing] instead to read its violence as the result of a metaphysical yearning for meaning to brace us against the fear of the unknown.” (IBID)
The problem with the character of the Judge, though (the main antagonist in this fatalist epic) is that while he may be, for Dorson, a symbol for “a metaphysical yearning for meaning to brace us against the fear of the unknown,” he is not believable as a character; he is merely a cipher for the philosophical pontification that Dorson mistakes for profound meaning. Characters can work as symbols, but they must first stand inspection as flesh and blood creatures, as did, for instance Captain Ahab or Mr. Kurtz, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, respectively. Both men are violent, and arguably mad, but the creators of Ahab and Kurtz ably show, through slowly unfurling, revelatory passages, how these men arrived at their barbarized states.
Dorson, meanwhile, undercuts his own argument and inadvertently bolsters mine, when he writes, “There is no ‘atavistic egg,’ neither divine nor secular, that can explain or legitimate [the Judge’s] existence. There is no ground to base his rule upon, just ‘the shore of a void’ (111) from which all of his unfathomable malice arises.” (160) The Judge is about as real and complex as the villain in a slasher movie aimed at a teenage audience, although McCarthy is talented enough to cloak his character’s deficiencies in a literary patina that might distract the reader from realizing the Judge is not the creation of the 19th century’s bloody, Westward expansion, but is a boogeyman, created ex nihilo for the sole purpose of killing, like the numerous “baddies” Jason, Freddy, etc., who populate the exploitation genre once derisively referred to as “dead teenager movies.”
Dorson even echoes my sentiments on the subject of the more general violence of the novel, rather than that specific to the judge: “The sheer accumulation of atrocities and their matter-of-fact representation, characteristic of the novel, tend to break down any semblance of plot and make it difficult for readers to cognitively process the violence.” (IBID)
My own writing is quite violent. My latest novel, for instance, the Western, The Dove and the Crow, has already drawn mixed reviews from readers due to its gore and brutality. My previous published Western, Orphan Elixir, has also elicited revulsion in a number of people who have read the work, and have registered their disgust at various critical outlets, like Amazon.com and Goodreads. In defense of my own works, though, I should say that the violence in Orphan Elixir or The Dove and the Crow is leavened with humor and scenes of general tranquility. Blood Meridian, on the other hand, bludgeons the reader with redundant orgies of sadism, a cheerless litany that makes the book a chore to read.
The violence, which I have discussed at length, is not the only aspect of the novel that is desensitizing and renders the book virtually unreadable. It is, at a fundamental level, poorly written, in punishingly tumescent prose that alternates between the baroque and a kind of tone-deaf, affectless turgidity. The book is afflicted with what, after having encountered it many times in print, I have uncharitably dubbed “And-itus” (sic), a kind of writing in which a seemingly numberless stack of coordinating conjunctions denature the prose of any sort of rhythm or cadence. Here is a sample, quoted by Dorson:
“…riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them […] and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.” (IBID)
I lost count of the number of times the word “and” was used in the above passage, but the diligent (or obsessive-compulsively inclined) reader is welcome to do the tally. McCarthy’s prose, spellbinding when he’s in rare form (as in his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road), can be quite a thing to behold. In the case of Blood Meridian, though, the writing recalls Truman Capote’s pithy (but perhaps apocryphal) assessment of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” Kerouac, at least, had the twin excuses of attempting to create a literary style akin to jazz music, and the effects of an amphetamine bender, to absolve him of his redundancies. McCarthy has fewer excuses.
The only plausible apologia for this kind of excess is offered by the previously-quoted Justin Evans, who, sees such language as innate to the “formal devices of the epic” (406), a parataxis, “…the yoking together of words or phrases or even sentences by simple conjunctions like ‘and,’ rather than the use of subordinate clauses.” (IBID). It is little wonder, then, that the book has drawn comparison not only to the epics of Greek antiquity, but also to the Bible, which, regardless of one’s faith or which translation they prefer, does become quite soporific, especially in its recounting of who begat whom; replace the word “begat” with “scalped,” however, and it becomes even easier to understand why Blood Meridian and the Bible might deserve space on the same shelf.
When McCarthy isn’t stringing coordinating conjunctions together like a washerwoman hanging up laundry on a clothesline, he seems to be doing a pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft at his most misanthropically byzantine and eldritch. Dorson highlights this nearly-saurian stylistic tic in his essay, by singling out the following passage, which serves our purpose here nicely: “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.” (310)
This sort of writing can be effective in small doses, as in the case of Lovecraft’s short stories. Over the course of a novel of epic length, however, attempting to decipher the meaning of McCarthy’s words merely becomes a psychic endurance test. Along with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, I read Blood Meridian cover to cover, not because I enjoyed it, but because I hated it, and felt that by finishing the book I was somehow defeating an unseen, unfathomably alien intelligence that had lured me into a masochistic test of wills, from which I could only emerge victorious after reading my way through the gauntlet of senseless words laid across the page.
The hands on the clock seemed to draw to a standstill as I read the book, as “time [was] often slowed down to a repetitive and homogenous grind, where the action seem[ed] frozen into a gaudy fresco of massacres and mutilation.” (Dorson, 110)
And now, having read the book and written of it, I hope to never speak of it again. I will say, though, that in spite of my genuine loathing for Blood Meridian, I was somewhat excited to learn that it was being considered for film adaptation by two men, first Ridley Scott, and then later by Andrew Dominik. Both men eventually dropped out of the project for different reasons, Scott to pursue a then-unspecified project, and Andrew Dominik to helm an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about the ill-fated starlet Marilyn Monroe, Blonde, tentatively scheduled for a 2016 release and starring the lovely Naomi Watts, of Mulholland Drive fame.
How, the reader may wonder, after this scathing essay, could I be looking forward to a film adaptation of a book I despise? The answer is simple: My issue lies with the prose of McCarthy’s work, which, when converted into visual poetry (preferably by Aussie Andrew Dominik, who helmed the masterful adaptation of Ron Hansen’s Western, The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) might become a thing entirely separate from, and wholly superior to, the novel that serves as its source material.
It has been said that mediocre books make great films, and both Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, based respectively on inferior works by Peter Benchley and Mario Puzzo, lend more than a modicum of credence to this theory. It is, then, perhaps more than plausible that a great film can be salvaged from the wreckage of Cormac McCarthy’s bloated Western.
I would like to close this essay by saying that, despite the sometimes snarky, sometimes exasperated tone of this work, I by no means meant the assessment in the sulfurous spirit of, for instance, Mark Twain’s condemnation of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. When Twain vented his spleen (with, it should be added, a satiric scalpel far finer than mine), he meant to encompass the whole corpus of Cooper’s body of work. I, on the other hand, can only reiterate that, with the exception of Blood Meridian, I have enjoyed most of what I’ve read by McCarthy, that I consider him to be a far superior writer to me, and that, long after the three Westerns I’ve written have faded into the ether of memory, or sit stored and cached on some seldom-frequented server at the corner of the internet, people will be still talking about Blood Meridian, and Cormac McCarthy.
Dorson, James. Demystifying the Judge: Law and Mythical Violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 36, Aesthetic Politics-Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary (Winter 2013), pp. 105-121. Indiana University Press. Print.
Evans, Justin. To Disenchant and Disintoxicate (sic): Blood Meridian as Critical Epic. Modern Philology, Vol. 112, No. 2 (November 2014), pp. 405-426. University of Chicago Press. Print.
Phillips, Dana. History and the Ugly Facts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 433-460. Duke University Press. Print.
Joseph Hirsch is the author of The Dove and the Crow, a weird western.
Editor’s Note: Joseph Hirsch is the author of the recently released The Dove and the Crow.
Awhile back I was doing research for a project about a goddess who assumes human form, a woman may, in fact, have been responsible for the creation of the entire universe unbeknownst to the people in whose midst she walked.
One of the books I read in preparation for the project was The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religions of the Earth by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor. One of the images in the book, painted by Sjoo, was very striking, and was entitled “God Giving Birth.” It featured a hairless woman squatting, her bald head surrounded by celestial bodies, a child emerging from her womb.
As I read the book, and even as I wrote the “Goddess,” project previously mentioned, a question that some might regard as ridiculous kept springing to mind. Was there a woman whose beauty was powerful enough for me to realistically imagine not just a child, but the entire universe, emanating from her body?
I’ve asked myself the question repeatedly, and, scouring everything from personal experience to popular culture, two likely candidates spring to mind. One is a woman personally known to me, who I won’t embarrass by naming; the other is Anjelica Huston.
In her prime (or at least the beginning of my pubescence) she presented a beauty, power, and intelligence that was not just attractive, but somewhat terrifying. I remember watching her in the filmic adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel, The Witches. I especially remember the scene wherein she turned a boy into a mouse, and I remember wishing she’d turn me into her personal mouse.
Hers was (and is) a beauty which recalls the immortal words of the French poet Charles Baudelaire: “There are women who inspire you with the desire to conquer them and to take your pleasure of them; but this one fills you only with the desire to die slowly beneath her gaze.”
Guy Fieri, with his iced blond spikey hair and bowling shirt curling with licking flames, looked like a walking time capsule from the year 1994. His arms and neck were lobster-red, on account of his having made the trip in his ’68 ragtop Chevy with the top down. The sweltering Savannah sun dripped humidity as oppressive as thick molasses, and sphagnum dripped from the weeping trees that lined the gravel path leading to the plantation house.
A black woman, melanin deepened almost to cobalt by the sun, bowed as Mr. Fieri parked his car. She wore a French maid’s outfit. “Ma name is Delilah,” she said.
Guy smiled, and turned redder. He pointed a beefy forearm toward the woman and said, “I love that Georgia accent!”
“Thank ya, Mr. Ferry,” she said, mangling his last name, but charming him all the same. He was famous, the most popular chef with male viewers over at the Food Network, but sometimes people still screwed up his Italian surname when they tried it on for size. He slammed the car door on his ragtop, whose metallic black body was hot enough to hum from the force of the sun.
Another member of the staff appeared. This one was a liveried black man who resembled Uncle Ben, with a wide grin and shock of snowy hair. He stood next to one of the ionic columns fronting the estate, and said, “Ms. Deen will see you now, boss man.” His voice had as much twang to it as a finely-tuned banjo.
Guy stifled a bit of uneasiness, acrid bile swimming in his stomach, and managed a smile. Maybe it was those Extreme Fajita Flingers drenched in Ranch dressing that he ate earlier that were making his gut hurt right now, or it could have been the fact that he hadn’t had a chance to write down his Zing Zang Flank Steak slathered in Donkey Sauce recipe for Ms. Deen, but something was bothering him, deep within the clogged arteries of his heart.
He walked toward the front of the building, tweaked his diamond-studded shades, and said, “Let’s go to Flavor Town!”
The maid and the butler shared a conspiratorial laugh, before the butler said, “That’s what Miss Dean be intending to do, boss.” He opened the front door of the mansion with a white-gloved hand. “She’s about to take you to Flavor Town.”
“I’m ready,” Guy said, his voice gravelly as always, as if he was gargling rubbing alcohol and his glottis was on fire.
“Right this way.” The butler pointed a white glove toward the kitchen, where the rich smell of egg and frying cheese drew him, luring him into the trap that celebrity chef Paula Deen had set for him when she first extended him this invitation to her Savannah mansion.
Guy crossed the kitchen’s threshold, and what he saw horrified him, but it was too late to turn back. The door slammed shut behind him, and he heard the turn of a key whose click echoed as if this room of vulcanized counters, rosined wood, and marble were to be his tomb.
“Hey ya’ll!” Paula Deen’s rubbery double-chin jittered like a turkey waddle. The rest of her flesh, he saw, was not quite as sunburnt. Paula was naked, except for some strange device harnessed around her waist, which was cinched tightly and concealed the vast majority of her stretchmark-scarred, southern fried cellulite.
“Wait a minute,” Guy said, trying the knob of the door behind him again, to no avail. “This isn’t Flavor Town!” Celebrity Chef Paula Deen smiled, and she savored his fear like the sadistic mistress she was. She could smell the terror in the sweat that dripped from the gelled liberty spikes jutting from the chef’s platinum blonde cockscomb.
Paula turned so that she was facing him now directly now. Some sort of a confectionary phallus, a strap-on made from a frozen wedge of cheesecake, jutted from the leather and brass studded harness she wore around her waist.
“Sugar,” she said, accent dripping Georgia pride and hospitality. “I don’t know if you got taste buds in that sweet little ass of yours, but if so…” She walked until she was behind him, and shoved him up against the vulcanized kitchen range. “You’re going to Flavor Town. You’re going to Flavor Town, long and hard.”
“Wait a minute!” He held up a hand in protest, but Paula gripped his right forearm, and his other arm, and pinned both limbs against the tiled countertop.
The Georgian chef undid Guy’s belt in one swift motion, and his pants dropped to the floor. “Ain’t no ‘wait a minute,’ sugar.” She leaned closely into his right ear, bit the fleshy lobe, and her hot breath came in minty gusts that smelled like chilled Georgian julep.
“Rachael Ray’s more of a man than you are.” She wended her right hand beneath the fabric of his boxer shorts, which were patterned with licking tendrils of red flame, just like his trademark bowling shirt. “Ain’t gonna be no problem, is it, sugar?” She now licked the ear into which she spoke, and Guy, against his will, noticed his prostate slicking with volutes of ass milk, nature’s donkey sauce.
Paula slowly slid the middle finger of her right hand into Guy Fieri’s puckered sphincter. Guy let out his trademark growl, followed by a high pitched squeal counterpointed by the reflexive contraction of his anal muscles, as he accommodated Ms. Deen’s finger to the last knuckle.
“That’s it, sugar. Let Mama bring out the bitch in you.”
Guy leaned forward on the table, fanning his arms on the countertop, forming the wings of an invisible angel with his breaststroke, as Paula wriggled and writhed her finger in his ass until the wedge of frozen cheesecake slid into his sphincter, widening the orifice until the leather harness was flush against the flabby celebrity chef’s pimply ass.
She massaged his shoulders and whispered a compliment in his saliva-slicked ear. “You give up the balloon knot like a pro.”
“Dick me down!” Guy Fieri shouted, bucking up against the wedge of cheese, taking it like a newly-inducted catamite. “Take me to Flavor Town!”
“You know,” Paula said, casually as she bucked against him, the frozen cheesecake propagator moving on a trajectory smooth as Astroglide on eiderdown, now that Guy’s prostate was pumping like a newly-discovered oil patch.
“That bitch Barbara Walters said my Cookbook for the Lunch Box Set was something I should be ashamed of.” Paula worked her hips as if she was a schoolgirl hoola-hooping on a hot spring day. Her hips swept left and right, a loving orbit that made Guy insensate with pleasure and made it all the more difficult to hear the words she spoke as she sodomized him. “She wanted to know who was I to tell kids to have cheesecake for breakfast, chocolate cake and meat loaf for lunch.”
Paula pulled the wedge of frozen cheesecake from Guy’s ass, and there was a suctioning pop as the gourmet strap-on came free of the now-widened rectum. Guy reached his hands behind his back, pulled his ass cheeks apart in order to make it easier for Paula Deen to reenter him, at the moment of her choosing.
“I say better fat and happy than thin and sad.”
“Please!” Guy moaned. He wriggled his ass from left to right, one-half of an unfulfilled mating ritual, begging for that sweet cheesecake cock to couple with his rectum again.
“‘Please’ what, sugar?”
“Bang me till I have type two diabetes in my asshole!”
“You want that Diabetus?” She said, pronouncing the word like TV spokesman Wilford Brimley.
“I got to have that diabetes in my asshole!”
Paula grabbed a fistful of Guy’s liberty hair spikes, caked with gel and hard as dry spaghetti. She guided his face toward a saucepan of heavy chocolate syrup that was untouched on the countertop until now. She spoke derisively. “That uppity Negress Michelle Obama wants kids doing jumping jacks twenty-four hours a day. Southern kids is meant to be fat.”
She slammed Guy’s face into the saucepan, until it was coated in a thick layer of chocolate. “We do things different down here under the banner of the Stars and Bars.”
Guy attempted to speak, with his face submerged in the chocolate. Ebony bubbles exploded as he struggled to breathe. Paula pulled his head from the pan where he’d just endured the chocolate waterboarding. His face was now covered in thick candied chocolate, and, though the confection was far tastier than burnt cork, she thought this delectable blackface looked a site better than that of the famed minstrel, Al Jolson.
She licked the face of her newly-christened darkie, and as the Food Network‘s Guy Fieri experienced an earthshaking orgasm in his quaking prostate, which put him up in his tiptoes like a ballerina, he knew he was not only Paula Deen’s bitch, but her total and absolute slave now.