My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Cormac McCarthy has been one of my favourite authors ever since I read All The Pretty Horses back in 2012 (I read The Road first, but it was The Border Trilogy that won me over). So, after having buzzed through four McCarthy books in under half a year, I decided that - in order to preserve/lengthen the magic of reading the rest of his oeuvre - I would have to establish a "Cormac McCarthy Reading Plan" and pace myself with his novels in order to always have some new McCarthy to return to whenever I need the bare honesty, dark beauty and astonishing landscapes he delivers with such stark detail. According to my CMRP, the summer before college would be reserved for reading Blood Meridian, so that I'd have plenty of time to digest it (or recover from it in case of nightmares). And that's just what I've done! I finished Blood Meridian two days ago and it's been haunting me since. (warning: it is not for the faint of heart).
The novel is a bildungsroman, but the most violent one that McCarthy has written yet. It takes place in the brutal Wild West, during the mid-1800s, a time when savage "scalp hunters" would murder Indians along the Mexican and American border and then - quite literally - collect their scalps as evidence of the massacre. Our protagonist, "the kid," runs away from home at 14 to become "a solitary migrant" and a worker in a diptheria pesthouse before finally ending up with the scalp-hunting "Glanton Gang" - led by none other than the enigmatic and terrifying Judge Holden.
The judge, who is "close on to seven feet in height," "bald as a stone," adept at coin tricks and exceptionally knowledgeable about geography/history/science, belongs on an inaccessible tier. As he says, "Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” Yet it is only at the end, when he is dancing, young as ever, vowing that "he never sleeps" and saying "he'll never die," that readers believe he may be supernatural. And perhaps it is true that only a demon could have done the things he did - doom the innocent (even a preacher!), commit brutal murders, abduct children. At one point in the novel, the kid asks this about the judge: "judge of what?" For this is a 'judge' that does not subscribe to standard, legal laws, but rather believes in bloodshed through war:
“This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence.War is god.”
“War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”Such an acceptance of war echoes the 'normalcy' with which the horrors of the novel are portrayed. The following sentence, for example, is delivered so casually despite all its terrifying implications: “They passed through small villages doffing their hats to folk whom they would murder before the month was out." Moreover, McCarthy describes the Glanton Gang parading through a town with human heads on splinters while their arrival is celebrated by a "fantasy of music and flowers" (amazing juxtaposition). Even more chilling is how the children, accustomed to this culture of violence, eat "pastry skulls" at the parade while the judge tries to tempt them with his pockets full of "little candy deathsheads"(CHILLLLSSSS).
The language of the book itself accounts for much of its appeal. And I don't just mean McCarthy's delightful use of arcane plant terminology ("golden grounsel and zinnia"), but also the form of the prose itself. In the opening chapter, for example, the unforgettable and monosyllabic opening words introduce us to the kid: "See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt." Blunt, stark and brilliant. As with his other novels, McCarthy also beautifully weaves the darkness of the times with the landscape his characters trespass: "in the long red sunsets the sheets of water on the plain below them lay like tidepools of primal blood." They pass the "blackened bones of trees." Amazing.
As mentioned earlier, Blood Meridian is a bildungsroman. At the beginning, "the child's face is curiously untouched behind the scars, the eyes oddly innocent," but he is shot below the heart on page two and then "finally divested of all that he has been." There is a poignant moment near the end of the book where the kid sees an old woman bent over in the desert, speaks to her for a long time, tells her that "he would convey her to a safe place," but then realizes that she had been "dead in that place for years" and is nothing but "a dried shell." The hopelessness of the place hits home right there.
"The kid" is not a child for long, even though he is called "the kid" until the end of the novel. Indeed, despite all the fighting he engages in, he never reaches the level of violence that the men around him do. He cannot shoot the judge and he cannot leave the ex-priest to die (by the way, this is the ~2nd ex-priest I have come across in McCarthy's works. Brilliant symbol of loss of faith.) The judge even says that he loves the kid "like a son."
So that brings us to the end of the novel, where "the kid" becomes "a man." The ending is terrifying. And, given all that the judge is capable of doing to children and men, I am going with the worst-case scenario regarding the kid's fate. The judge "gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh.” That carnal imagery suggests at much, although we never know what truly happens to him, except that whoever sees him at the end can only comment, "good god almighty."
Blood Meridian is stunning, especially as so much of it is historically backed (scalp hunting, the Glanton gang, even Judge Holden himself). Reading it was like living in a trance - in some chapters, nothing seems to be happening except moving through barren terrain (thankfully, the synoptic chapter headings help one keep track of the plot). I think this is the main shortcoming of the novel. In other chapters, evil is described so explicitly, you don't want to believe what you read (I swore outloud so many times while reading this book).
But regardless of how shocking and horrifying the story becomes, McCarthy's magic never diminishes - the sheer beauty of his prose, his ability to etch out bygone landscapes with stunning believability. Blood Meridian is a book that will leave you speechless, restless and astounded.
Rumor has it that McCarthy's The Passenger may be out next year. Yes!!!
“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.
The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.”
The smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men's knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.”
The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.
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