Monday, December 7, 2009

Book 31: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

I read this book in Providence in the first apartment I shared with a woman.

My time was split into various separate realms. By day I traipsed around New England in a brightly colored van and entertained school children. I was working for a theater troupe I'd seen when I was a child and I still believe it is this job that prepared me to be a professional actor. I defy anyone to grab and maintain the attention of 400 kids between the ages of 4 and 11. It is roughly equivalent to using charades to tell someone how to put together an Ikea bookcase.

My second job was as a caretaker in a chain of group homes for adults with developmental and emotional disability. Compared to this my day job was a piece of cake. I have a scar on my cheek from a headbutt, several more scars on my fingers from scratches, and the lingering ramifications of Lyme's Disease which I contracted while cutting down trees on a private construction site.

This job, while psychically stressful and physically taxing, was also how I met my band. After a false start as One Man Out with a giant ex-con for a drummer, we switched drummers and became The Mahoneys. We rehearsed weekly in our drummers basement. I have the live album recording to prove it.

I had just read 'Wise Blood' by Flannery O'Connor and thought a second blood book would fit nicely. I was writing songs by the boatload and they were packed with violent religious imagery and 'Blood Meridian' seemed just the ticket to provide more grist for that particular grisly mill.

Even still the book was almost too much for me to bear.

One passage has haunted me forever and I almost had to stop reading the book once it arrived. McCarthy limits his punctuation to commas and periods, no quotation marks around dialogue, question marks and exclamation points seem almost like Renaissance paintings when they appear.

A wagon train is attacked by Indian warriors. In what seems like one unending sentence McCarthy shows every corner of this massacre. Scalping babies, sodomizing corpses and living victims, it is a mini apocalypse.

I felt as if time had stopped for me. I lay frozen in bed, unable to process the images that he had inserted into my brain. I was terrified. But worse than that, the passage seemed to have made my soul unknowable, unreachable, cut off from even the most basic sense of self.

Somehow I managed to stave off this madness in order to perform 'From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler' in Portsmouth or Westerly or Needham the next day, but I knew that I wouldn't be rid of that scene until I'd strapped on my own axe.

The band filed into the basement and it was as if we tore a rip into the fabric of our everyday lives. I rushed headlong at these songs as if I were fleeing one of McCarthy's apparitions bent on murder. There was a leanness to our sound, and a gnarled melodic propulsion that felt like an aircraft carrier crossing the Mojave pushed at my back as I swallowed the microphone.

We only played out a handful of times, first at 3's in Newport, at a company fundraiser, then at the Ocean Mist, and finally, aptly enough, at the Last Call Saloon...but those basement concerts were relentless. Like the carnage McCarthy describes, our music was lost to the eye of history, only carrying emotional weight to those who were actually present, not entering any larger cathedral for a benediction or condemnation. But for the warriors who were determined to exact revenge on those who would take their homeland, for the innocent children caught up in a moment beyond their capacity to understand, for my band mates who gave everything they had down in that hidden arena...

We were there. We know what happened.


Sheila O'Malley said...


That book was unbearable.

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