Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
I do not read many westerns. I have really enjoyed some that I have read, they simply do not come into my view very often. When I was younger I liked Larry McMurtry—his stories rang true at the time. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage was great, and I can see why it became a classic. But I had never read Cormac McCarthy, even though he is western writer who is taken seriously in academic circles. I had felt that as an Advanced Placement reader and teacher I ought to read something by him, but there was always something else. I finally got around to reading McCarthy with Blood Meridian.
I would never have any intention of reading Fifty Shades of Grey. From what I have heard and read about it, the main character is a Mr. Grey and the book gets its title because he is involved in fifty sex acts. Blood Meridian has no sex other than possibly some vague innuendo and a few descriptions of animals breeding. Instead, it has multiple scenes of violence. It could be called A Hundred Ways of Bleeding. Even at the end when the main character has eschewed violence, it still rears its ugly ursine head.
I confess to using the cliche that a book bleeds because the author’s pain seeps through its pages. I believe I wrote that of Infinite Jest, and have sensed that with nearly everything I have read by Virginia Woolf. Blood Meridian also bleeds. The narrator is very detached, there is no voice of pain from the narrator except possibly in a few lectures or sermons given by the character called the judge. No, Blood Meridian bleeds because some people or other poor creatures are killed on nearly every page.
The story follows an orphan from Tennessee who ends up in Texas of the 1850s where he joins a band of filibusters. A few of this gang are veterans of the Mexican War, others are wanderers or misfits of various types. There are even a couple of Delaware Indians, misplaced and displaced warriors who no longer fit in anywhere. Ostensibly, these riders are going after a group of Apache Indians who have laid waste to about 10,000 square miles of Mexican Territory in Sonora and Chihuahua States. They do collect the scalps of a number of Apaches and are paid by the Mexican government, but they also kill a lot of other people and obliterate peaceful villages and encampments, and continue to do so after collecting their bounty.
McCarthy’s style takes some getting used to. He does not use apostrophes or quotation marks, so dialogue is tricky to read. Otherwise, he writes with style and precision. His descriptions are especially effective. The barren deserts and lava fields of the American Southwest and Mexican Northwest are not merely hot and dry. He has an eye for nature—the geology, the flora, and the fauna, from blossoms of sulfur to giant condors. We can picture these things well. From my limited experience in the Southwest, his description of the sand dunes around Yuma still apply today.
We never learn the main character’s name. He is simply the kid. The recognized leader of the men at their peak is a ruthless ex-veteran named Glanton, who is based on a historical character. In many ways, though, the spiritual or philosophical leader is a pale, hairless hulk they call the judge. We first see him in Texas when he accuses a revival evangelist of raping girls and the audience turns on the preacher. We suspect later that Judge Holden (we learn his last name) is himself the pedophile.
The judge supposedly originally had twelve followers as a kind of antichrist or devil figure. He speaks at least five languages and cleverly quotes the law to blame others and escape blame himself, though he is as violent and ruthless as the rest. He indeed is the diabolos, the accuser. (See Revelation 12:10) The last we see him, he is dancing naked with drunkards and prostitutes urging them on and boasting like some kind of mad ritual or danse macabre.
There are other allusions to the Bible, but they are turned violent or somehow twisted. For example, we see Psalm 137:9 acted out. People and animals regularly die in churches. The judge mocks the Bible. He has read Lyell and believes that the earth is much older than the Bible says and that there is no meaning or purpose to life. And if there is a purpose, it is all fate put into motion by blind physical forces. (The antichrist in Daniel 11:38 KJV is said to worship a god of forces.) Either way, there is no moral accountability.
There is no real redemption here. At the end, the kid, now a man, only kills in self-defense. He is still a loner and drifter—but in the very naturalistic world of Blood Meridian we all are. Echoing Brecht, we are lost in the stars. Life is nasty, brutish, and short. It is survival of the wickedest. “War is god,” says the judge. Nature is at best indifferent but usually hostile. And man is the beastliest of them all.