Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cormac McCarthy Walk Into a Bar

Well, not a bar -- a book group. (Though this book group has convened in bars.)

My book group is unsure of what to read next. Perhaps we'll read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. There is debate about this, but since I'll be hosting, the final decision falls to me.

"McCarthy's a sick man," one of the guys remarked last we met. This wasn't an argument against reading the book. But similar sentiments are expressed by detractors: McCarthy seems "to relish the violence he so lavishly records" and "this is the fate of the stylist who stoops to gore."

It doesn't feel like stooping to me. For me, reading McCarthy -- Blood Meridian in particular -- inspires feelings like those I felt at the Francis Bacon exhibit at the Met in 2009. I walk nearly nervous, heart pounding, tableau to tableau. I am transfixed, revolted -- and reflected. Something of me is in there. Something of the troubled conscience, bloody hands and twisted guts of my civilization and me is in there.

I'm reading Blood Meridian again, even though my book group may not. I recently wrote the guys saying we could postpone the book -- maybe until February, when daylight is short and the cold is deep and we can match book with the mood of the season: grim. I gave a list of other possible titles. Not much response. They're leaving it up to me.

And now Ta-Nehisi Coates has published Between the World and Me. I caught his interview with Amy Goodman and drove to the closest town -- Montpelier, Vt. -- and bought the only copy I could find.

So upstairs on my bedside table is McCarthy, and downstairs by the couch is Coates. Somehow Coates' confessional letter to his 15-year-old son and this gruesome epic western novel have become companion texts.

"Racism dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth." This is Coates.

And this is McCarthy: "Slew them with clubs or knives... huts were afire... dragging victims out... hacking at the dying and decapitating those who knelt for mercy... a naked infant dangling... and bashed their heads against the stones..."

Coates too tells of "the bashing of children with stovewood," and "hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn." The power to destroy black and brown bodies, he asserts, is a foundational element of American civilization and whiteness. "The flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers." A rumbling refrain, he talks of plunder, and plunder, and plunder. "The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience..."

Blood Meridian is a story of such sentience, such plunder. The first time you encounter "nigger" is in the narrative voice, a chapter subheading, and thus all the more inherent in the being of the place, time and story. McCarthy's General Glanton may roam the land with an interracial band of mercenary killers, but the core hierarchy is in place and those to be murdered and scalped, whatever their tribe or nation, are "niggers."

McCarthy's prose paints the bloodletting in graphic almost fantastic shapes, like those Bacon paintings: riveting, revolting, reflecting. And I must not let the riveting storytelling trick me into thinking this is some tall tale. My nation and I are reflected. How much history is here? McCarthy doesn't endnote or preface. The responsibility to know falls to the reader. Full books now document the historical referents of Blood Meridian's characters, their violence and their antecedents.

But violence as American essence is not an uncommon assertion, nor is it the only intersection of these two texts. Each book is prominently concerned with the welfare of a 15-year-old boy, whether and how he can find his way in a dangerous land, in a godless universe. I don't compare the boys, only what they're told.

Coates the father speaks frankly to his son of "the chaos of history" and his own mortality, "the fact of my total end." He confesses no religious faith and grounds himself in the reality of his body, a physical universe. The "moral arc" of history, as he has known it, is "bent toward chaos" and terminates "in a box."

The Judge, Blood Meridian's main antagonist, whose voice easily blends with the narration, instructs the Kid, his own 15-year-old companion, "Your heart's desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery." "The order in creation which you see is that which you have put there."

The Judge -- supernaturally strong, learned and destructive -- would be himself the most powerful agent in ordering that world. And in this novel he is. War is his means of ordering. "War is god."

Such terms seem endorsed by the arc of this story. Only the Judge survives. And yet the hero of Blood Meridian -- deplorable though he is, and although he is ultimately destroyed by the Judge -- is the Kid, a boy who refuses to abide the Judge and his terms.

There is a man the Kid refuses to shoot in the back, weakened companions the Kid will not leave to die, principles to which the Kid adheres in defiance of the otherwise absolute dictates of self-preservation and war. This offends the Judge. "Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak." The Kid struggles against the Judge and his logic until the very end.

"Perhaps struggle is all we have," Coates writes to his boy, "because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope."

And if not hope, what then is the reward of this struggle? Coates tells his son that the struggle itself is its own reward. "That is the deeper meaning of your name -- that the struggle, in and of itself, has meaning." And he tells his son, "The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment."

In my life, in my body and country, this is not a terror that I have felt, or that either of my own sons are likely to feel. No such fear from which to be freed, this is my privilege and the awful imbalance. What reward then to me, or my sons -- or my white book group fellows -- from some such parallel interrogation and confrontation with the brutality of my country?

A loss of innocence, James Baldwin might say. Which may only be a starting point, but still is no small thing. To the 15-year-old boy in his own life, his nephew, James Baldwin wrote a letter in 1963. "One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death... But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."

I don't know what my book group should read next. Maybe McCarthy, maybe Coates, maybe Baldwin. We don't typically read non-fiction. All but one of us has young children, and their 15th birthdays will come quicker than we think. Maybe I'll choose a novel that fully centers on young people growing up in this country. James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk might be a good choice.