The back of this book claims it to be a psychological thriller about a 17th century englishman, enlisted in Oliver Cromwell’s army, who falls in love with a fellow soldier.
This isn’t entirely inaccurate, but it’s such a small piece of a dense 600 page brick. Thus I endeavor to better describe the pieces that comprise As Meat Loves Salt.
We are introduced to our brutish (both physically and morally) first-person hero, Jacob Cullen, while he is dragging a pond in search of a drowned corpse. It is immediately apparent by Jacob’s apprehension that he had something to do with that corpse attaining its present state, lying in the muck at the bottom of a pond. Chronicling the day to day of the servants to a minor lordship, this part of the book is heavy with foreboding. Not least of all because it takes place amidst the calm of indentured servitude, spent polishing silverware and beating rugs, while our protagonist pines after his betrothed (a woman); this, when the reader is certain things must go south, having read the back of the book and its tales of war and romantic soldierly love. On top of this, Jacob Cullen is a guilty, anxious man. A peevish ogre, quick to anger and jealously paranoid. And when everything comes to a head, when his true colors show, the events are even worse than I had imaged. McCann has a knack for describing the violently terrible, in all its wet detail.
But I was afflicted with an ugliness of the soul that no physick could correct
Following Jacob’s expansive display of ugliness, he is thrust into the English Civil War. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition — Jacob Cullen, murderer, rapist, all-around shitbag, ends up looking damn near angelic by comparison to the horrific atrocities committed by the army upon those they conquer and pillage. Partly because we can say at least Jacob feels bad after, when he does something outstandingly terrible.
And feel bad he does. Jacob spends much of his time pondering his own damnation, begging forgiveness, making grand plans for restitution. Devout Jacob’s imagination portrays a vivid depiction of Hell, all aflame and in torment. He’s also a wonderful moper. This goes on until his anger gets the better of him once more and he starts bashing a man’s head into a table at the slightest provocation. Then he starts anew. Did I mention he has a Voice in his head, speaking in biblical liturgy, alternating between being his dead father or the devil, commanding him to do ill to his fellows?
In the army, Jacob meets Christopher Ferris, his eventual lover, and deserts to the latter’s house in London. This section is long; interminable. It drags.
Up until the London episode, reading this novel was akin to being locked in a room with rabid dogs, only to escape and find yourself in a room of rabid wolves. It was incredibly upsetting, unsettling, arresting. I turned pages in fear of what Jacob would do next. There was periods of anxious quiet punctuated by clamorous strings of violent, appalling action. This all committed by a first person narrator, making all manner of excuses for his actions.
Now the pace slows, the love story picks up. Jacob doesn’t so much as love as possess; the gender of his object of ownership is irrelevant. He yearns, he isolates, he loves, his wrath destroys. The fact that this part of the novel goes on so long is the great weakness of As Meat Loves Salt. We know this man is capable of the very worst — hundreds of pages of tranquil setup is much too much.
Swords into ploughshares
Drunk on the self determination ideology of the time, Ferris assembles a group of bright-eyed malcontents and sets off to a common green space to establish a farm community. Though loath to leave London, Jacob begrudgingly follows his lover. The ominous tone of the early chapters returns, and a grain-based doomsday clock builds to Armageddon.
And I craved it. I wanted Jacob’s Bad Angel to return because I was bored of the meandering pace of the London chapters. As the narrative scythe prepared its reaping, I realized this book is at its best, it’s most gripping, only when The Worst Possible Things are happening. It’s when a militiaman is violently throwing a newborn to the ground, that I can say this, this is when As Meat Loves Salt is at its best, my stomach rolling all the while.
This book is superbly written. The period dialogue is so effective, I could hear the characters speak, and at times I felt I could fain converse in kind. Even though I ultimately found the entire package only a few notches above okay, I will miss McCann’s handle on prose. It’s alternately beautiful and diabolic.