Once upon a time (but not very long ago), California was a very different place than it is today. Griffins roamed the foothills, great birds the size of bulls soared over the mountains and beaches, and nobody bothered much with any work that couldn’t be accomplished on horseback.
So begins the blurb on the front dust jacket flap of the first (and nearly only) edition of California Bloodstock by Terry McDonell. It’s a first and only novel, and apart from a Dell paperback edition and another edition put out by Vintage in 1989, this book is long out of print. McDonell is primarily a sports writer and television writer, and wrote no other fiction that I’m aware of, which is a shame. (A book of his poems came out in 2010.)
Anyway the blurb is kind of misleading; there are no griffins or rocs in the story. It is a rambling story of California just before the gold rush, with a cast of incredible characters of the sort that occur only in tall tales and true history. Some of the minor characters include real people like Lansford Hastings, legendary figures like Zorro, and improbable characters entirely of McDonell’s creation like Joaquin Peach and His-Own-Ghost (an albino Walla Walla shaman).
The story is, on one level, a fairly straightforward tale of revenge, but it is a journey that takes many cul-de-sacs and introduces many minor characters in great picaresque style. The chapters are broken up into very short sections, often less than a page long, which makes the story feel even more episodic, like a tale being told at intervals during a long trip or in a newspaper serial. McDonell is not aiming at high literature but still achieves something far more interesting than simple genre fiction.
If I had to compare it to anything, I guess it calls to mind aspects of George MacDonald Frasier’s The pyrates (as a satirical yet loving salute to a genre) and Flashman novels (as a very funny historical novel), but at the same time there are episodes of brutality and slaughter that would be at home in place in Blood Meridian.
In fact I just finished McCarthy’s riveting and disturbing Blood Meridian a week or so before picking up California Bloodstock. It was almost too much to write about (apart from just being too busy to write up a review anyway). I’d just want to mention that Blood Meridian is aiming at high literature and is also a sort of mixture of horror and western. It is a picaresque that does not introduce any really likable characters. It is based on real events (apart from the two central, and unforgettable characters, the judge and the kid).
I understand movie rights have been optioned for Blood Meridian and I can’t begin imagine what the audience for that would be. Fans of westerns don’t need another revisionist western. (Harold Bloom called Blood Meridian the “ultimate western” – ultimate as in, the last one: no more westerns need ever be written.) Fans of gore and torture would be bored by anything remotely faithful to the novel, as there are long meditative passages. Fans of serious literature and/or film-making would find on-screen depictions of the gruesome events of the story a very high price to pay just to see how some of the fine passages of dialogue and descriptions of settings are brought to the screen, and how actors might tackle the satanic roles an adaptation might offer. If I hadn’t just read Empire of the Summer Moon before reading Blood Meridian, I don’t think I would have been ready to read this unrelentingly dark picture of mankind. In fact Blood Meridian also made me completely lose interest in any kind of Western themed gaming. It would be hard to play Boot Hill or GURPS Old West while echoes of that novel stir in my memory — I think it would be like reading The Road (or watching When the wind blows) and jumping into a Gamma World campaign.
Remarkably enough, California Bloodstock has rekindled my interest in the western genre once again, which is probably the heartiest recommendation for it that I can give. Also: it would make a much better movie than Blood Meridian, in the sense that it should make something entertaining and enjoyable to watch.