Saturday, February 3, 2007

Real West

Two indispensable books about the American West both have the word "blood" in the title: Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America by Charles Bowden (North Point Press, 1995), and Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West (Vintage, 1985) by Cormac McCarthy. These are books beyond revisionism, where a moral imperative has seized the writer with a compulsion that seems like it might overrule death itself. We all know, after all, that the North American continent was "settled" by Europeans in a long campaign of murder and rapine, and we all know (don't we?) that the real history of human cruelty is more than anything anyone might imagine. So what does the obsessively unflinching writer have to offer us, if we already know this, if we already can fill in the blanks in the backcountry in our own troubled minds? The obsessive writer can offer us an awful lot. This is the only book I've ever read by McCarthy, although his The Road is in my Stack (of books to be read) and I may go back to the earlier westerns on the strength of his writing. He overwrites by any sane standard, but like Jacques Derrida (hah!) he does it so well that what would be (is) merely silly from a different writer is compelling and persuasive in his hands. He's a poet's novelist, forcing the reader to write down a list of words to follow up, names of scrubby bushes, Latinate adjectives and long-forgotten verbs. I don't care much for violence in literature, and McCarthy is as violent a writer as you're likely to find (one English professor told me he'd sworn McCarthy off once and for all after Blood Meridian). The sadism comes long and hard. But this story, of a bunch of desperadoes on a long trail of pillage and despoilation along the Mexican borderlands in the mid-eighteenth century, is dead-on necessary, hammering home a lesson that we all still do need to learn, about not only the West but above all about the Myth of the West. Which brings me to Mr. Bowden, another subversive with a long list of books and a longer list of grievances. This non-fiction meditation looks not only at the history of violence underneath the history of romance, but also takes us deep into the street life of today, the druggies and smugglers and poor Indians (Eastern readers with delicate sensibilities: out west they call themselves "Indians," mostly) still there, in Tucson and Reno and Pueblo, some still waiting for the USA to pass away and leave them as the Navajo elders prophesied, others marking time to leave this world themselves. An Indian gambler tells Bowden that he can't stand to leave the casino while he has any money left: something more could still happen. Bowden's own obsessions keep him with the rough trade in the oil fields, in the Mexican factory towns, in the merchant marine. Whatever grips him, it won't ever let him walk away. The monster that grips these two endlessly moralistic writers is history. You try to do right in a wrong world until you die. Then you can't to it anymore. And that is life.

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