Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
This novel, set in both Mexico and the US in the mid-eighteenth century, has been lauded quite a bit since its publication in 1985. It centres around the life of the Kid, a fourteen year old boy born in 1833, in Tennessee, who leaves a motherless home in search of something more. Although a wily and cautious young person, the Kid finds himself in trouble again and again as he moves from tough town to tougher town spending the little he earns on drink.
He is a vicious and fearless brawler, whose violent qualities are noticed by Captain White, a crazed idealist in pursuit of legendary status. White has gathered a bunch of irregulars to spearhead an incursion into Mexican territory as part of a proposed expansion by the US government.
The Captain’s recruits have been promised land and spoils of war. His plans are not to be fulfilled. The ragged column are attacked by Comanche warriors and destroyed. The Kid – who is never given his proper title – is one of the few to escape the slaughter, but the situation for the survivors is precarious. Eventually, the Mexican authorities arrest the Kid, and it’s in prison that he meets Toadvine, a felon from the US, who he previously fought whilst drunk. And so are friendships in the Wild West made.
The two men are press-ganged into joining yet another band of irregulars, this time led by Glanton, a ruthless gunman from north of the border. Their colleagues all hail from the US also, and it is in this gang that the Kid comes to know the mysterious and formidable Judge, a learned monster who is to dog the Kid’s life. Standing at almost 7 feet tall and lacking any body hair, the Judge is to become a central feature in this story, as well as a bogeyman in the Kid’s increasingly turbulent life.
Under Glanton, the Kid leaves to embark on an expedition to claim as many ‘Indian’ scalps as possible. In a deviation from the standard narrative disseminated by western historians, script-writers and novelists, Blood Meridian portrays the cowboys as the ones most responsible for taking scalps, each having a monetary value for the local Mexican governor. Glanton’s brutal gang show no mercy. Neither are they discerning when it comes to selecting their victims. Scalps mean money. Men (warriors or not), women, children, young, old, ‘Indian’, Mexican, alive, dead, it doesn’t matter. The gang’s bloodlust becomes insatiable the longer they continue.
Through it all, the Kid remains a figure who watches and partakes only to a point. He never fully loses his humanity as many of the others do. The Judge observes him. And it is the well-educated Judge who cuts the most curious figure in the tale. He is a musician, a fine dancer, an anthropologist, theologist, philosopher, archaeologist, historian, chemist and adventurer. He is also completely sociopathic.
But Glanton’s gang soon use up all their luck. As their behaviour deteriorates to the point where they are wanted by the authorities everywhere in Mexico, they move north of the still fluid border and begin again, dismissive of all laws and social norms. It is in southern California that they run afoul of the Yuma, having pulled a murderous double-cross on the native tribe previously. Glanton dies, and the irregulars are either killed or fled.
The Kid, the ‘expriest’, Toibin, the Judge and a mentally deranged man all escape. But the weak alliances formed under Glanton quickly dissolve. The differences between the Kid and the Judge become more apparent, and both find themselves in conflict. However, as the Kid soon discovers, the Judge is not easy to kill. Many people, including the Judge himself, say that he can’t be killed, and so the Kid finds himself hunted and haunted by an unstoppable killer. Who’d want to be the Kid?
Blood Meridian is a beautifully written book. It’s not light. It’s not easy to read. There is no punctuation. I don’t know why McCarthy has decided to omit such grammatical necessities. I believe that Joyce needs a kick in the bollox for encouraging this approach. There is a reason why punctuation was invented. It helps the reader to better follow the tale.
Yet Blood Meridian is not impossibly difficult. The text does flow naturally, even without punctuation. It is a mark of how well written it is that the reader can comfortably follow the story-line in this way, although there are certain sentences that would require adjustment as I found myself having to re-read them. Perhaps the need for the reader to focus strongly on the story is one of the reasons why the author adopted such an unorthodox approach. Yet as clever as McCarthy obviously is, I much prefer the standard format. McCarthy also used this punctuation-free approach in his wonderful novel All The Pretty Horses, the review for which can be found here:
McCarthys’ prose is poetical in large parts of Blood Meridian. The story is mostly narrated in the third person, so the dialogue seems sparse, unless the Judge is speaking, that is. The beastly killer is afforded any number of bombastic monologues throughout, some of which require serious thought in order to understand them. I do wonder what humble cowboys would have made of such a man and such high-brow language. Blood Meridian could, perhaps, be described as an intellectual read. James Patterson it ain’t.
The descriptions of the landscape through which the Kid moves are vivid. The characters are consistent, gritty and believable. The violence is shocking and unrelenting. It is scary to realize just how little value was (and is) attached to innocent human life, even and perhaps especially those of children. Blood Meridian is a damning indictment of the brutality extant in some of the descendants of the European invaders of north America. The natives never stood a chance.
The recurring question that emerges from Blood Meridian is who exactly, or what exactly, is the Judge. He stands in great contrast to that of the Kid who remains relatively untouched by the barbarism that surrounds him and corrupts all those around. I have drawn my conclusions. I won’t spoil your enjoyment of this novel by imposing them upon you. Yet I wonder what decisions you will come to regarding the Kid and his nemesis, the Judge?
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. Recommended for anyone who is up for a serious read of an academic standard. The imagery, the people, the places will stay with you long after you finish this story. Gritty and compelling.
(note: the cover photo is of the mass burial after the Wounded Knee massacre, when the US military murdered more than 150 Lakota Sioux – some estimates put the final number at closer to 300 . The bodies of the innocent men, women and children were dumped in mass graves that predated a similar tactic used by the Nazis during World War 2. The United States was founded upon the genocide of the indigenous people. Irish men were involved and, as an Irishman, this author feels shame at the conduct of his fellow countrymen at that time, especially as they would have been the victims of similar barbarity at the hands of the British colonial authorities in Ireland. The US government has never made a serious attempt to acknowledge the disgusting treatment of the First Nations people, nor has it made any attempt to properly compensate them)
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