Saturday, December 17, 2005
Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
I first attempted this book while attending the University of Texas as an undergraduate. At the time, its style and horrific violence turned me off sufficiently that I abandoned it and did not expect to ever return. But as McCarthy is considered one of the only stylists working in the realm of Western fiction at present, and as his Borderlands trilogy has garnered such respect, I decided I’d give it another try. I’m certainly glad that I did. Blood Meridian is an incredible work of fiction. It’s the most graphically blood-soaked novel I’ve ever read, and it manages to sustain a uniquely neo-biblical style and hellish intensity that puts most writers I’ve ever read to shame.
Blood Meridian is the story of a young man named simply the Kid, who falls in with Captain Glanton, a renegade officer of the US Army who is conducting his own private depredations against Mexico in the wake of the war. Glanton, his dragoons, The Judge, and the Kid go on a murderous spree through the badlands of Mexico, raping, butchering and slaughtering everyone in their path. Sound unpleasant? It is.
But it’s not the graphic violence of the acts which are portrayed that give the novel it’s power. There are instead two notable stylistic achievements in Blood Meridian which make it such an incredible work.
The first of these is McCarthy’s satanic figure: The Judge. Giant, bald, semi-omnipotent and seemingly immortal, the Judge is a figure who is oft compared to Milton’s Satan, or Conrad’s Kurtz. He is a powerful and depraved child molester whose goal is to wipe knowledge from the face of the earth. In several of the novel’s most interesting passages, the Judge finds artifacts of lost civilizations, only to record them in his private journal, then destroy them so that no man may ever understand them. He views “the freedom of birds as an insult,” he regularly kills puppies and children, at one point he discharges a pistol into the maw of a volcano, and often appears immune to fire. Judge Holden is among the most fascinating and demonic characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction.
The second, and more important of McCarthy’s accomplishments is a sustained tone which reads like an unfolding Hieronymus Bosch painting. Every page is drenched with skeletal remains, blood, the dead and dying. All landscapes are beyond hellish, and McCarthy’s vocabulary is stunningly suited to this task. By way of example:
“They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredible elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.”
“On the day that followed they crossed a lake of gypsum so fine the ponies left no track upon it. The riders wore masks of boneblack smeared about their eyes and some had blackened the eyes of their horses. The sun reflected off the pan burned the underside of their faces and shadow of horse and rider alike were painted upon the fine white powder in purest indigo. Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augured the earth and some said they’d heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what? And if the dried and blackened shell of him is found among the sands by travelers to come yet who can discover the engine of his ruin?”
Wow. Yes, the entire book is written in this fashion. Yes, this does make it a bit challenging to read. But it also makes for an incredibly powerful tale, and gives me newfound respect for its author. A man who can write prose such as this deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the very best of writers: Nabokov, Rushdie, and other wordsmiths of their ilk.
Fantastic, powerful, sickening, impressive piece of work, Mr. McCarthy. Thanks.