It’s hard to know where to begin with a novel like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West. It’s the sort of book to which the only proper response is another book. And this isn’t because Blood Meridian has an especially complex narrative; in fact, it’s astonishingly simple, a combination of travelogue and robinsonade, albeit soaked to its core with blood: it tells the story of a young drifter with a penchant for stumbling into violent situations, and how he comes to journey through the Southwest with a group of murderous criminals in search of the bounty being paid for Indian scalps. His often-nightmarish trip is highlighted by encounters with Judge Holden, a monstrous figure of grave intelligence who brings death and misery wherever he goes.
That bare-bones description tells you all you need to know about the book’s plot and structure, and yet it’s terribly inadequate in terms of describing the actual feeling of reading Blood Meridian. McCarthy’s greatest novel – and, I think, one of the great American novels of the last quarter-century – is, from its first sentence, a masterpiece of style, written in a spare but gorgeous prose that is revelatory, and perhaps maddening, to those who know him only from more straightforward works like No Country for Old Men and The Road; it is this lofty, almost Biblical writing that invites so many comparisons to William Faulkner. And, like Faulkner, there is a profound division between those (like me) who believe the prose style turns what is already magnificent into something transcendent, and those who believe it an unnecessary and possibly pretentious distraction from the story. While I’ve encountered the latter view in enough bright people not to dismiss it out of turn, I’ll probably never understand it; to me, the prose of Blood Meridian is its greatest strength, and hardly a page is found in the book without a sentence constructed with unthinkable beauty.
This beauty occupies a wasteland of blood, death, deprivation and horror, which serves to throw it into stark relief. Blood Meridian is one of the most violent books I’ve ever read – sometimes almost cartoonishly so. A scene where the kid encounters a bush filled with dead babies, in any other book, would be the terrible culmination of the narrative; here, it warrants only a paragraph, and is never mentioned again. What McCarthy intends with the book’s relentless violence is one of the most important questions about it; much has been made of the book as a dark mirror of the Bible, as a metaphorical damnation of the colonization of the West, and as a treatise on the struggle between savagery and socialization in the human soul. But one of the striking things about the violence in Blood Meridian, to my reading, is how utterly meaningless it is: it seems to exist in a state of nature, almost as a hazard to be avoided, like dehydration or bad weather. Violent acts in the book, unlike in many other novels of violence, do not serve as redemptive or transformative acts, and seem to lead to no moral lesson; so much for the Bible. They fail to bring civilization, progress, or advancement in their wake as any kind of retroactive justification; so much for post-colonialism. In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy would make subtle sport of our attempt to read meaning into the bloody deeds of the mad and dangerous; but he seems to have made the point here first, and more forcefully. Violence is no side effect of moral actors in an arena of freedom; it is as much a part of our atmosphere as oxygen.
So much of how we experience Blood Meridian has to do with how we perceive its towering figure, the grotesque, pedocidal Judge Holden. Supposedly based on a real historical character, the murderous and terrifyingly competent judge is one of the great villains of modern literature, but who is he? Is he a Gnostic demon, or the Devil himself? Is he the American experiment made pale, hungry flesh, a sort of wicked Uncle Sam? Is he simply a reflection of humanity, in its grace and its ugliness? When reading the book this time around, I thought of him in a different light than I had before: this time, I was reminded of William Withey Gull, the royal physician to Queen Victoria who is named by Alan Moore in From Hell as the Jack the Ripper killer. Gull believes his murders to be part of an elaborate ritual to usher in the 20th century; the blood he sheds is necessary as part of a transformation from one age to another. There are hints of this in Judge Holden, as he refers to “the dance” of destruction and terror that will carry him through what seems to be an ageless life.
But in so thinking, am I falling into a trap set by McCarthy? Am I reading in meaning where there is none? Am I assigning a transformational quality to the violence of the book in order to avoid the ugly truth that there is none? The kid seems to echo this view, maintaining a visceral fear of the Judge right up until the end, and mocking his pretentions of eternal resonance. When the Judge encounters him in a Fort Griffin saloon, the kid sneers that he’s “nothin’” and compares him to a dancing bear. Judge Holden thinks his dance of death has meaning and power, and fantasizes conquest over all the nations of the Earth, but in the kid’s eyes, he’s a blind and witless thing who has no understanding of what he does, or how he’s perceived by others. It’s a powerful scene, and one of the few that seems to explicitly hint at a theme lurking beneath all the dried blood and shadows. Even here, though, McCarthy doesn’t let us off so easy: the confrontation ends in a filthy outhouse, and a fate for the kid so unspeakable that we don’t even know what it is.
In the end, Blood Meridian is a book that’s doubly transcendent: it rises above and beyond its simple Western narrative structure, into a dense and intimidating universe of symbolic mysticism. But it doesn’t stop there; the more involved you get in its signs and wonders, the more you realize that you may just be looking for patterns in random bloodstains on the ground.
Now, to continue the tradition of last week’s Wrapped Up In Books, a few questions for my fellow readers:
• As has been repeatedly noted by plenty of writers, critics, and even A.V. Club commenters, Blood Meridian is a book loaded with Biblical structure, language, and referents. But is it truly a religious book? Contrast scenes that seem to suggest the presence of God (like when the helpless filibusters of Captain White are dying in the desert and successfully pray for rain) against those that portray it as a hope against hope (the fallen priest Tobin, the degraded old Mexican in the cantina, the seemingly eternal triumph of Judge Holden). Is God in this book’s cosmology, and if so, where?
• Speaking, as we must, of Judge Holden, who is he? And, perhaps more importantly, does he really triumph in the end?
• And on the subject of the end of the novel, what was your reaction to it? Why, in such a relentlessly violent novel, does the narrative finally shy away from fully describing the kid’s fate? Is anything accomplished by the final confrontation between him and the Judge? Did any of you find the ambiguity of the ending to be a cop-out in any way? And what did you think of the coda? (I’d especially be interested to hear your thoughts if you’ve also read No Country For Old Men, which I’ll discuss in comments if any of you have.)