(Join us for a live discussion of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian at
7pm ET/ 6pm CT this Thursday. Sorry, this has been rescheduled to 5pm ET / 4pm CT this Thursday.)
“Those who travel in desert places do indeed meet with creatures surpassing all description.”
Reading Blood Meridian after No Country For Old Men and The Road was, to use a simile completely inappropriate to its arid setting, like jumping in a swimming hole after a lifetime of swimming pools. I agree with Leonard that the language is the book’s great strength; I don’t know if I would have been wiling to wade knee-deep in blood without it, even though it operates on a very different level than my former McCarthy experiences.
What begins as Lord Of The Flies for grown-ups, with the scene at the revival an all too brief reminder of the ordered society we are leaving behind, is deepened and complicated by its relationship with the words McCarthy chooses to pick out his wasteland. Plunged into this thicket of nightmares, I was at first comforted, then unsettled and finally obsessed by its religious imagery. I’m not a religious person myself (raised middle-of-the-road Protestant, for what it’s worth) but it’s impossible not to pick up on a man’s praise of Captain White that he “come along and raised me up like Lazarus,” the parable of the lamb lost on the mountain delivered to Sproule and the kid by a man giving him water, and -- most obviously -- the discovery of the burning bush by the kid wandering alone in the wilderness. For men who go to churches either to slaughter or examine the remains of the dead, God sure seems to be on their minds a lot.
It’s tempting to pin the religiosity of Blood Meridian on its time period, which it doesn’t share with No Country… or The Road, but this is too easy. Instead I found its twisted theology was anchored in a character who outwardly rejects religion yet bears in large part the name of an Old Testament leader. Sure, we begin with the kid, getting more of a complete history of his background than anyone else we meet, but then he drops out of view for large stretches of the book -- subsumed into the gang, depriving them of what could have been a sense of humanity. The kid is just the path that brings us to the judge, and he’s the one we remember walking away.
For someone who claims “war is god” and a moral universe doesn’t hold up against the onslaught of everyday barbarism, the judge certainly acts as if he wants to be perceived as a religious figure in his own right. In the ex-priest’s recounting in Chapter X, we get the judge creating gunpowder so the men can defend themselves (well, it’s not water to wine, but may be more useful), giving them a sermon and keeping track of the plants they pass on the road, Adam-like. Later, he saves the idiot from drowning, described as “a birth scene or a baptism or some ritual not yet inaugurated into any canon.” Why does he save the idiot, anyway? This is a man who in the recent past killed (and, it is suggested, sexually abused beforehand) a child and bought a pair of puppies just to shoot them. It’s this streak of, not tenderness, but momentary benevolence that make the Judge so dangerous.
The intermittent withdrawal of the kid as an individual foretells McCarthy’s averting his eyes in the ending, but it begins before the scene as we are left to imagine it in the jakes. And this too is tied up in the judge’s self-hood, against a band of men who are known as what they used to be (the ex-priest, the kid) or so unimportant as individuals as forced to share a moniker (the black and white Jacksons). Next to him, Glanton, the putative leader of this gang, is practically a cipher. (I assume this was McCarthy’s invention from the source material, an account of Glanton’s gang which undoubtedly would have included more about the leader of the expedition than his putative second in command.) They commit their acts of violence together but we focus our rage and lack of understanding at the judge and his weird habits like going on watch naked; his unnatural behavior gives us a rail to grip, to remind us that even in this desolate country there are atrocities to be marked.
After the horrors Glanton’s gang has wreaked on the towns and bands in its path, their comeuppance, such as it were, is almost perfunctory. We close with that unforgettable image of the Yuma sitting around their treasures and the fires of “the carbonized sculls of their enemies,” but the fire they build gets more narrative space than either Glanton’s death or that of his men. That said I felt pretty knocked flat by the ending of this book, though I feared the time jump was about to pull a There Will Be Blood. The kid has the chance to kill the judge but doesn’t, and why doesn’t he? Tobin the ex-priest warns him multiple times that he won’t get a similar chance again, but he stays his hand, and that is his undoing.
I remember feeling distinctly disappointed with the ending of The Road, which suggests something about how I prefer my existential bleakness. I think I prefer slightly more the shimmering surrealism of those final pages of No Country… to the grotesque image of the judge on which we end, but in the end, it doesn’t matter what exactly happened to the kid because it is clearly a horror beyond imagining. The real casualty here is the notion that Glanton’s men have gone out into the wilderness for some meaningful reason; when near the end Toadvine worries that he might “run plumb out of country,” he might as well be speaking to a nation which has buckled itself to the lawless in the name of the law.