Let me first say that I had, for absolute ages, been searching for a book that would give me an intense, emotionally engaging reading experience. For something like a year and a half, I had been reading books that I enjoyed, that I thought were good, great, not so good, admirable in various ways, etc. But nothing that held me and would not let me go. I was starting to worry that I had lost the ability to get all tangled up in a story or to fall in love with a character. So I was glad, especially at first, to find myself drawn so powerfully into this book. And that intensity can be a little bit addictive--last night, when I put the book down, I didn't want to feel anything more in response to it; this afternoon, I feel an urge to crack it open again and transport myself back to some of my favorite scenes. Either that or to find something that can replace it, another book that can make me feel so much.
So: As Meat Loves Salt is the story of Jacob Cullen, and Jacob Cullen is messed up. He has violent fits of rage that he can't control, nightmares, spasms of intense jealousy and possessiveness, serious issues about women, about religion, about his younger brother--the list could go on. He believes himself superior to nearly everyone he meets, yet also suffers huge amounts of insecurity. He does bad things. Some of them are really bad. He seems compelled, again and again, to destroy anything that he loves. In a modern context, he might be considered a sociopath, but this isn't a modern context--it's the middle of the seventeenth century, so Jacob is simply a "bad angel," a hurt and hurtful man who is simultaneously full of pride and self-loathing. He is also our first-person narrator, and I am certain that spending nearly 600 pages inside his head did much to contribute to the intensity of the book. I know I would not find Jacob likeable in any way were I to spend time with him, yet I found him a powerfully compelling character. I spent much of the book wanting to love Jacob, to slap him, to teach him, to shout at him, to redeem him.
Jacob begins the book as a manservant, then flees and ends up in Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. In the army, Jacob finds himself drawn to a man named Ferris. Eventually they leave the army together and go to London to live in Ferris's house with his aunt. The relationship seems platonic at first, but it soon becomes clear that something more is going on. There was a long stretch of will-they-or-won't-they tension, which McCann drew out brilliantly and I loved. I live for that sort of thing. I read much of this section of the book on the beach while in Florida last week, and I kept getting up and walking down to the ocean, picking up shells and looking at birds, doing anything I could just to prolong the deliciousness. They will, of course; they do, and then they do it again and again. There is a lot of sex in this book, and I was amazed at how well McCann writes it. The heat between Jacob and Ferris is palpable.
And then, of course, we have to watch things unravel. I'm not sure at exactly what point I realized that this book couldn't possibly have a happy ending, but I know it was early. How can a man like Jacob live happily ever after? How could I have wanted him to, after seeing some of the things he did? Yet I did want that happy ending, Jacob and Ferris strolling off into the sunset.... Impossible. But I don't know quite what to make of the ending I got instead. I don't know how to read it. Jacob thinks that his long-estranged wife has returned and re-entered his life under a false name. Yet even when they are alone together, the woman insists she doesn't know him. He is convinced, though, and thinks of her as his wife, using his wife's name. This is nuts. Right? It couldn't possibly be her. I'm supposed to see this as evidence that Jacob is slipping into delusion, aren't I? And when he becomes convinced that Ferris is sleeping with her, that's just taking the delusion even further, isn't it? These developments seem so crazy that it's hard to believe they could actually be happening, but with Jacob as narrator I have only his perceptions to go on. I had not thought for a second that he was unreliable until the moment when he won't believe the woman telling him she's never seen him before. Then suddenly I had to question everything. Jacob spies on Ferris and this woman when they are in the woods and is convinced that he hears them together, Ferris begging her to touch him--if this is delusion, what is it that he actually hears?
On the last night that I read the book, I had a big chunk left and knew that my only choices were to sit and read it straight through or not to read it at all--I wouldn't have been able to pick it up again if I had put it down then. So I read it straight through, a horrified spectator, waiting to see just how bad things would get. And they get bad. Ugly. Yet (and this is where I start to sound crazy and a little bit masochistic, even to myself), I kind of expected (maybe even wanted?) them to be worse. I thought, in the lead up to the final events of the book, that machinations were afoot. There was ample opportunity for this in the form of anonymous letters, suspicious behavior, many different desires for different forms of revenge.... And yet it seems that those anonymous letters are meant to be taken at face value. The ending is terrible and crushing, but seemingly free of insidious intent. Jacob knowingly allows it to happen, but his role is essentially passive. There is something that felt somewhat strange about that. And Ferris? The last few chapters made me wonder if I had ever really understood him as a character, but perhaps that is an effect of the fact that I only ever saw him through Jacob, and maybe it was Jacob who had never understood him.
I did cry when I got to the final lines. They are devastating, after all, but that wasn't entirely it. It was almost like fifteen seconds of hot tears simply because I didn't know what else to do with all of the feelings the book had aroused in me. And now I have written all this and still feel that there are more thoughts that haven't been expressed, thoughts that I am groping for in the chaos left behind by As Meat Loves Salt.
I was moving across your frozen veneer
The sky was dark but you were clear
Could you feel my footsteps?
And would you shatter, would you shatter? Would you?