So, the other night I caught “No Country for Old Men” on the television. And loved it. Sure, it was violent, strange, demanding but it was also deep, thoughtful, and a great story. So I wandered over to the local library to find the book by Cormac McCarthy on which the film was based. No luck. However, the library did have a version of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” I had read “The Road” a couple of years prior and didn’t have strong opinions about it either way. So, with the idea of, “What have I got to lose?,” I took “Blood Meridian” home.
The first things that jump out at the reader are the unique McCarthy style and the graphic violence. McCarthy uses punctuation and capitalization in an infrequent and unorthodox manner. I found the style a bit disconcerting at the beginning but if you give the book 50 or so pages, your imagination adjusts. And the writing style is austere and tight–it fits well for the setting of the desert Southwest of the United States. The violence starts early in the novel and, though it begins small (hand to hand combat, bar fights), it spirals out of control–getting more depraved and graphic.
The 19th Century story revolves around a nameless “Kid” who joins a mission to scalp Apache Indians in an expedition led by John Glanton. Though Glanton is the titular head of the expedition, the real leading personality is Judge Holder. A giant, bald albino, Judge Holder is the true villain of the piece and his presence horrifically broods over much of the novel. Holder is a sadist, a sexual deviant, a megalomaniac. McCarthy’s symbolism is most adept here–with the giant Holder feeding all his immoral appetites, with no one to limit him. He consumes and consumes, as an evil after-image of, perhaps, Mellville’s Moby Dick.
The author deftly plays with our ideas of good and evil. At times, we wish for the Glanton gang to do well, to survive their task. Yet, any exhilaration we feel following a victory is deflated after the reader witnesses the bloodlust and sheer nihilism of the company. No one emerges innocent. No one is untouched. Indeed, I feel that is the purpose of the graphic descriptions of violence–averting their eyes was no option for the Mexican villagers set upon by the gang or the Native women and children. The violence is everywhere.
This is not to say that “Blood Meridian” has no moral compass. In fact, I would argue that it is a very moral book. The author seems to be calling into question our idolization of violence as a solution to our problems as well as our easy dualism which separates the good from the bad. I have a hunch that McCarthy would agree with Solzhenitsyn’s aphorism, “The line separating good and evil passes . . . right through every human heart.”
The penultimate meeting between Holder and the Kid is an illustration of the warring of good and evil in the soul. Additionally, it is some of the most dramatic and gripping writing I have ever read. The Judge and the Kid stand nose to nose (figuratively) in a scene that is reminiscent of Jesus’ 40-day temptation with the Devil.
I can’t say that this is an easy read. Nor can I say that I picked it up and read right through it. Particularly in the first part of the book, I was put off by the violence and the prose. But I stuck with it–both elements are vital to the story that McCarthy tells. And he tells it with genius and passion.