I can’t remember which McCarthy novel I read first—I think it may have been Blood Meridian, which would explain why I was a little confounded at the descriptions of The Road as the bleakest thing since bleak sauce was invented. Because The Road, for all its deprivations and decay, is still in some ways fundamentally hopeful. There are some things, it suggests, that will survive even the harshest of deprivations. There are some connections that can be maintained even in the face of absolute despair.
Contrast that against the lot of Meridian, where friendship is defined entirely by proximity, and compassion means less than Eliot’s proverbial handful of dust. Glanton, Toadvine, David Brown, even the kid—these are characters who don’t endure the harshness of the wild so much as they become it. Unlike The Road (or No Country For Old Men, the only other McCarthy novel I’ve read; I’ll take suggestions, by the way), this isn’t a world where we can’t root for anyone. Things change some in the final section, but for the most part, this is a group of miserable sociopaths doing miserable things. It’s bleak because there’s no way for it to be anything else, and those few moments of beauty (which derive almost entirely from McCarthy’s stunning descriptions of the natural world) are ultimately drowned in as much blood as everything else.
What’s impressive is just how gripping that drowning is. The stylistic choices McCarthy makes are effective (how can you criticize the prose as a distraction? How could this possibly have been written any other way?), and reading this again for WiB, I was amazed at how natural it is to fall into the author’s rhythms. I’m of the sort that tends to skim long, belabored descriptive passages; I can appreciate the poetry on an intellectual level, but I think writing is best served when it doesn’t waste all its time trying to emulate the things it can’t actually do, like paint. But this isn’t the sort of novel you can skim, and the endless desert vistas and plains never lose their power.
It’s never boring, either, which is odd because Meridian is basically plotless; the kid wanders around, stuff happens, he joins with Glanton and the judge, lots and lots and lots of people get killed, he leaves, he dies, the end. Sure, there’s a structure here, but for the most part, there’s never any goal—hell, even Ulysses has us wondering if Leopold and Stephen are ever going to hang out. In Meridian, you expect to see more horrific violence, and you wait for more spooky shit from the judge, but until the kid starts struggling for his life in the final fifty pages or so, there’s no hook here. It’s just droning depravity and mysticism, but it’s incredibly engrossing for all that.
How about that judge, huh? I can’t do much with Biblical allusions, but I can respond to Leonard’s second topic of discussion. The judge is such an immense symbol that it’s difficult to pin him down to one specific concept; doing so would diminish his power. (As does reducing him to the merely symbolic, really.) But I think part of what he represents here is Civilization, or at least whatever force it is that mankind has to make a deal with in order to bring civilization into being. His title is in some way satirical, but it also implies a certain station, of bringing an order to the wilderness, blunt and destructive as that order may be. As others have pointed out, he’s the only character in the book who seems to operating under his own agency. The others wander from point to point, with no planning or intention beyond basic survival. The judge has education, the judge has focus, and the judge has a vested interested in cataloging, dissecting, and control.
He also isn’t the most fun guy to work with. That bit at the end hit me hard the first time through, when he finally kills the kid (or the man, I guess). It reminds me of a scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Leatherface grabs someone, yanks them into a meat locker, and slams the door shut; it’s that same jump from a vaguely peaceful, doomed feeling into sudden, decisive violence. And it’s a violence we aren’t allowed to process. The final section of the story comes the closest of any part of it to conventionality, in that once Toadvine and the kid escape from the Yuma massacre, we’re basically in a horror novel. Before it was a novel of horrors, and the difference is an important one. The kid faced death at numerous times in the story, but it’s only when the judge starts threatening him directly that we get worried. And then, to think the kid’s escaped—that he’s growing up, moving past the atrocities of his youth (a maturity that’s a lot more convincing here than it is in Burgess’s Clockwork Orange)—only to have him dragged back down at the last minute, in all of two sentences… it’s still shocking how much that bothers me.
After all, isn’t it in a way just desserts? Doesn’t the kid deserve some kind of reckoning for the devastation he’s party to? It could be that the reason the ending hits so hard is that we’re allowed a glimpse of someone who could be worthy of redemption, just before that redemption is stripped away for good. The judge claims to destroy the kid because his commitment was never pure, and maybe that’s the price to pay for aligning yourself with that kind of darkness; that the very things that make it possible for the kid to become a man are the things that make him prey.