Vintage, 1985, 337 pages
An epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America's westward expansion, Blood Meridian brilliantly subverts the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the "wild west." Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into the nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.
The Mennonite watches the enshadowed dark before them as it is reflected to him in the mirror over the bar. He turns to them. His eyes are wet, he speaks slowly. The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it. Hell aint half full. Hear me. Ye carry war of a madman's making onto a foreign land. Ye'll wake more than the dogs.
Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft were a literary author, and instead of writing pulp novels about Elder Gods, he wrote Westerns. You'd get something dark and frightening, unsettling, something brilliantly written with sentences that sometimes make your eyes cross, violence and gore all the more disturbing because it's not the fictional ichor of Mi-go but with an equally unhinging effect on mankind's fragile grasp of sanity. A universe without light or hope, where humans exist by accident and death is as incidental as it is inevitable, and the only "happy ending" is not dying today.
The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.
McCarthy is an author whose prose stylings I used to make fun of as being emblematic of "pretentious" literary authors who use lots of fancy writing to express threadbare stories with pretty words.
I don't think that anymore. I still don't always like his prose, mind. And I still hated The Road. But I realized after reading Blood Meridian that McCarthy isn't trying to be pretentious or show off his vocabulary. (And jeebus it's been a long time since I've read a book that actually made me wish for a dictionary, repeatedly.) He just treats writing like art. He plays with words and sentence structure and punctuation the way a painter swirls a paintbrush through globs of paint and smears it onto a canvas. At first it may look like a muddy blob, but if you look at it long enough, it starts to take on form and texture and a sort of alien beauty.
I'm stretching my metaphors here because I don't actually know shit about painting. But the point is, reading this novel is an immersive literary experience and to appreciate it, you have to have a tolerance for a certain amount of linguistic experimentation. Some of it is just fucking brilliant. McCarthy imparts on every page a stark, barren beauty to a land that is ancient and horrible and waiting to swallow men up and devour them, and the way he strings words along in naked sentences unadorned with punctuation sets a mood to the entire piece that is bare and hard and almost an offense against English, and that's a suitable mindset to be in while reading this book.
They rode for days through the rain and they rode through rain and hail and rain again. In that gray storm light they crossed a flooded plain with the footed shapes of the horses reflected in the water among clouds and mountains and the riders slumped forward and rightly skeptic of the shimmering cities on the distant shore of that sea whereon they trod miraculous. They climbed up through rolling grasslands where small birds shied away chittering down the wind and a buzzard labored up from among bones with wings that went whoop whoop whoop like a child's toy swung on a string and in the long red sunset the sheets of water on the plain below them lay like tidepools of primal blood.
But there are certainly passages that don't work quite as well. When you're kicking words around this much, they can't all bleed genius. But even when the prolixity borders on impenetrable, there is still an evocative majesty in the most tortured sentences.
They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds.
It's a bloody literary Western historical horror novel, kind of
Written in 1985, Blood Meridian is a "Western" (a genre that has repeatedly been declared dead but never quite seems to die), but it's not cowboys and Indians or properly speaking, a historical, nor is it either a glorification of America's "conquering" the West nor a subversion that makes the Indians the good guys and the White Man the villain.
Basically, it's a deconstruction of all human activity as an engine of violence.
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armour of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Blood Meridian is a loosely fictionalized account of the Glanton Gang. John Glanton was U.S. soldier turned scalphunting mercenary who, in 1849, was hired by Mexico to kill Apaches. He and his men went on a rampage across the Southwest and pretty much killed anything that moved, included Mexican civilians, whose scalps they turned in as "Indian" scalps for the bounty. When the Mexican government put a bounty on them, they fled to Arizona, wiped out a band of Indians that was operating a ferry across the Gila River, took over the ferry, murdered many of the Mexican and American passengers who crossed on the way to the Gold Rush, and finally were slaughtered by another band of the Indians they had taken the ferry from. It was a brief but violent episode in the West, and Glanton and his men were probably some of the most unpleasant individuals in a time and place that was full of unpleasant individuals.
Cormac McCarthy uses these historical figures to weave a tale that is so dark and mythic that it spans genres and defies historical analysis.
It begins with a description of a fourteen-year-old kid from Tennessee. He is never given a name, despite being the primary viewpoint character in the novel. The kid travels to Texas, and eventually falls in with the Glanton gang. This extra-historical personage, whom McCarthy allows to escape the fate of most of the gang, lets him tell the tale including entirely fictional events outside the historical record. Even if you're a historian, it will be hard to figure out where McCarthy stitched bits of fact into fiction, or inserted some fiction into the facts. But it doesn't matter, because the Glanton Gang could be entirely fictitious and the story would still work.
And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.
This is a very bloody novel, with one massacre after another. But the massacres are not described with any particular emphasis or distinguished from all the other events in the book, and in fact begin to seem no more violent than the land itself. The violence is an organic feature of the environment, and in stark contrast to the drunken, psychotic bloodthirstiness of the human animals roaming the landscape, McCarthy gives us an erudite, cold-blooded monster who is one of the best-realized Evils ever written.
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
Judge Holden was supposedly a real person, though not much is known about the alleged historical figure. McCarthy turns him into a being who is demonic in both genius and depravity. He can take his place among the canon of great literary villains. The implacable, stone-cold killer Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was pretty damn scary, but whereas Chigurh is a force of nature, the judge is more like a god of war and violence.
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.
The kid first meets him years before he joins the Glanton expedition. He's watching a traveling preacher work a crowd, and suddenly the judge appears and denounces the preacher as a known malefactor, gets the fellow nearly lynched, then laughs to the kid and says he has no idea who the preacher was.
He seems to take a special interest in the kid, which persists to the end of the novel. The kid, nameless but in some savage way an innocent, there for all the atrocities without ever really seeming to be a willful participant, violent and brutal but with a speck of humanity, is contrasted with the immense, mythical presence of the judge, who is the educated, personable and loquacious face of pure evil. He speaks many languages, he has an expansive vocabulary and the encyclopedic knowledge of an autodidact, he can lecture like a college professor with the cadence and charisma of a preacher.
Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test. A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views. His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view. The willingness of the principals to forgo further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment the divergences thereof. For the argument is indeed trivial, but not so the separate wills thereby made manifest. Man's vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgments ultimately he must submit them before a higher court. Here there can be no special pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.
And he does shit like this:
On the third night they crouched in the keep of the old walls of slumped mud with fires of the enemy not a mile distant on the desert. The judge sat with the Apache boy before the fire and it watched everything with dark berry eyes and some of the men played with it and made it laugh and they gave it jerky and it sat chewing and watching gravely the figures that passed above it. They covered it with a blanket and in the morning the judge was dandling it on one knee while the men saddled their horses. Toadvine saw him with the child as he passed with his saddle but when he came back ten minutes later leading his horse the child was dead and the judge had scalped it. Toadvine put the muzzle of his pistol against the great dome of the judge's head.
Goddamn you, Holden.
You either shoot or take that away. Do it now.
Toadvine put the pistol in his belt. The judge smiled and wiped the scalp on the leg of his trousers and rose and turned away. Another ten minutes and they were on the plain again in full flight from the Apaches.
The judge's extemporaneous philosophizing is in its own way as brutal and violent as the massacres, because what he's preaching is made manifest around him. His description as a villain is imposing enough: at one point he literally picks up a cannon and fires it, and while this might sound like some ridiculous over-the-top flourish if the book were ever made into a movie, by this point in the novel I was just like, "WTF? Yeah, okay, fine." Because the judge, one suspects, isn't actually a human being. One suspects that if you met him, you might want to have some courtesy, some sympathy, and some taste.
And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked and dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he will never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
Cormac McCarthy deserves a place on the 1001 books list
Blood Meridian has only a loose approximation of a plot, being structured around the aforementioned historical exploits of John Glanton and Judge Holden, but that story exists only to provide a sequence of events to keep the characters moving from place to place and from one violent denouement to the next. As the named characters are whittled down and the violence reaches a crescendo, the kid and the judge finally separate themselves from the historical narrative and move through the end of the novel toward their own denouement. And while Blood Meridian is not a very long book, it's an exhausting one. You have been beaten with linguistic arcanery and mind-numbing, soul-shearing violence for over 300 pages until it's a beautiful thing.
Verdict: If you are a Cormac McCarthy fan, then you have to read this book. If you're not, this one will either make you a fan or make you run screaming. Taking a few excerpts out of context may not give the true flavor of the novel. The words and sentences and paragraphs roll around in your mind like odd-tasting alien candy on the tongue, the imagery seeps into you, and you are there in that bad place in the West. A brutal Western that shoots most Western tropes in the head, tops most fantasy novels for mythic evil, and tops most horror novels for violence and gore, this is a book for people who want to see what writers can do when they ignore the rules, but definitely not for anyone who wants a linear story or a novel-like resolution. To say there's no storytelling here would be false, but you don't read it for the story.
This is the book wherewith I "got" Cormac McCarthy, and now I am seriously wondering why he appears nowhere in the books1001 list. He's at least Haruki Murakami's equal (more violence, fewer blowjobs), and hella better than fellow Great Writers of Peen Philip Roth and J.M. Coetzee.
Also by Cormac McCarthy: My reviews of No Country for Old Men and The Road.
My complete list of book reviews.