Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

I’ve been meaning to read Cormac McCarthy for a long time. I’ve seen “No Country for Old Men,” and my brother has insisted I read The Road so many times that it’s become a point of honor for me that I still haven’t. Blood Meridian came the most highly recommended, and my English class this term gave me an excuse to push it to the top of my “eventually” list.

The book centers on “the kid,” a protagonist who is never named, but becomes at the ripe age of 14 a member of a gang that hunts Native Americans for their scalps along the Texas-Mexico border in the aftermath of the Mexican-American war. McCarthy’s novel is based on the memoirs of a member of John Joel Glanton’s gang of scalp hunters which operated during the same time, though Glanton and his second-in-command, Judge Holden, are the only characters that are directly out of the memoir.

While it is loosely based on the memoir, and the book occasionally roots us in history with a date, McCarthy colors the setting with a feeling of post-apocalypse. The adventures of the kid soon reduce themselves to a litany of slaughter as the gang travels between anonymous Mexican towns, indiscriminately killing Indians and Mexicans for money or whatever they can get. The accouterments may or may not include sodomy, setting people on fire, shooting those who beg for mercy, etc. As far as this goes it reminds me of an infamous part of one of my favorite novels; “The Part About the Crimes” in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. For what it is worth I read somewhere on the tubes that Bolaño was a fan of McCarthy, and “the Crimes” like Meridian is set on the Texas-Mexico border. Both, in the end, engender a certain feeling of numbness through the constant violence. This is not, however, the same as gratuitousness: McCarthy is trying to create an atmosphere in which (and this is something he shares with Bolaño as well as Sadat Hasan Manto, a favorite short story writer of mine on the Partition of India) the violence is horrifying not only because it happens, but because such violence is so commonplace. From the little I know of the history of the American frontier, his depiction is spot on.

In between the slaughter, when the gang is on its way to the next town, McCarthy’s narrative powers are most fully on display. The novel is almost impossible to excerpt from, but here is a little piece that takes place as the kid has been separated from Glanton’s gang somewhere in Sonora:

It grew colder and the night lay long before him. He kept moving, following in the darkness the naked chines of rock blown bare of snow. The stars burned with a lidless fixity and they drew nearer in the night until toward dawn he was stumbling along the whinstones of the uttermost ridge to heaven, a barren range of rock so enfolded in that gaudy house that stars lay awash at his feet and migratory spalls of burning matter crossed constantly about him on their chartless reckonings. In the predawn light he made his way out upon a promontory and there received first of any creature in that country the warmth of the sun’s ascending.

He slept curled among the stones, the pistol clutched to his chest. His feet thawed and burned and he woke and lay staring up at a sky of china blue where very high there circled two hawks about the sun slowly and perfectly opposed like paper birds upon a pole. (222)

Beautiful. You can see from this example the unique elements of McCarthy’s style: run-on sentences containing many “and”s, little to no punctuation, etc. If anyone had told me about this beforehand I probably would have refused to read the book, but he makes it work, and it is perfectly suited to his chosen subject.

McCarthy’s description of the kid walking alone through a cold and pitiless nature in that part also gives one a fairly good hint at the book’s message and tone. Man is born into a cold, unfeeling world, while there he performs hideous acts of violence often for no other reason than because he can, and after all that is done he winks out just as he winked in, without nature paying any heed. In the place where a Dostoevsky or T.S. Eliot might put religious transcendence as a way out, however, McCarthy is a bit more equivocal. This is particularly evident as Judge Holden (known simply as “the judge” throughout the novel, which in itself is ominously religious or religiously ominous) becomes the novel’s antagonist. Named by critics as possibly the most terrifying character in American literature, the judge is about 7 feet tall, albino, and has alopecia, which certainly gives him a unique air in the several scenes in which he appears naked in the Mexican desert. At first the judge is a somewhat mysterious and occasionally entertaining figure who speaks a large number of languages and delivers  ex tempore lectures on philosophy, science, and his favorite topic, war. The novel takes its title from one such lecture:

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. (145)

With these and other statements, it becomes increasingly clear as the plot develops that the judge is in fact the Prince of Lies incarnate, which perhaps explains why he fails to sunburn. I hear they are making a movie of Meridian – god only knows what actor will be lucky enough to play the judge.

In the aftermath of a the massacre of most of the gang by the Yuma Indians, including John Joel himself, the judge now has his sights set on the rest of them, especially the kid. “Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common,” says the judge, “and one did not.” The novel then winds itself leisurely toward the final showdown between the judge and the kid, in the outhouse of a dancing house and brothel somewhere on the American frontier.

From a social viewpoint, Meridian is rather hard to classify. Its message of cosmic nihilism is certainly difficult to assess from any kind of social reading, nor will I try to. Inasmuch as it is a Western, however, it has much to recommend it. McCarthy has, with perhaps some rather excessive flourishes that may be forgiven in literature, shown the origins of the white man’s law and order on the American frontier. In this he has turned the genre on its head and deserves to be congratulated. He has indeed portrayed the basic savagery of the white man on the frontier, but he doesn’t seem to be much more well inclined toward Native Americans; we see the Comanches perpetrate the novel’s first massacre before the kid joins Glanton, and it is the Yumas in the end who do the gang in. They are either the victims or perpetrators of brutal violence, just like the white men. Although this violence is probably understandable as a reaction to white savagery, McCarthy never brings us close enough to either tribe to find out why. Also, one wishes he had gone a bit more into a few of the gang members, who are mainly undifferentiated. For instance, the gang includes 4 Delaware Indians, who I for one wish he had explored a bit more. What motives did they have for crossing the entire continent only to end up participating in the slaughter that the United States had been carrying out on themselves and other tribes since its beginnings? Nevertheless, well done for one of the recent contenders for the Great American Novel.

Literary qualities: 5/5, Social qualities: 4/5

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. 351 pages. New York: Vintage International, 1992. $15

Similar books: Roberto Bolaño, 2666.

Next up: either André Malraux, Man’s Fate, or Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two Birds. I absolutely refuse to review To the Lighthouse, the other novel I have to read for my English class.

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Filed under Literature, Reading journal

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