Some books grab you by the seat of your pants for wild adventures, some whisk you off on wonderful fanciful trips of the imagination, others still reminisce on lovely lovers. This book forcefully pitches you head-long into an almost alien-like world of insane violence and ultra-hard living, never lets you up for air, and leaves you almost dumb-founded at the end. No need to read the rest of the review really, just read the book!
Blood Meridian ostensibly tells the tale of “the kid”, who remains nameless throughout, and his blood-soaked trudge through life, in mid-19th century America and Mexico. However, its is much more than that – I have read it described as a parable, and I would have to agree I think. In fact I believe the author has dropped clues to this fact throughout the work, as mentioned further below.
The Blood Meridian of the title probably refers to the fact that mid-19th century America was arguably the peak-time of violence in the northern continent, coming off the back of the Civil War, the Mexican War, and the “campaigns” (of extermination, let’s be honest) against the natives of the continent. As the kid progresses through life, the degree of blood-letting progresses and increases accordingly, reaching its “blood meridian” eventually also. The novel is mostly suitably set in the furnace of borderland deserts, also adding to the aptness of the title.
Purely as a tale of murder, savagery and desperado lifestyles, this book works brilliantly. Early on the kid crosses the path of one of the most, if not the most, malevolent, cunning and just plain wicked characters you are likely to encounter. Period. “The judge” is a truly fascinating yet repulsive “person”, who we are first introduced to in a hilarious scene where he incites a church congregation to turn on their own preacher, purely for his own amusement – masterful stuff! As soon becomes clear however, said congregation were actually lucky this “judge” didn’t butcher them all – just for the laugh, like – and he and his gang of death-dealers cut a bloody, pitiless, and most-terrible trail through the Mexican/American borderlands.
Without giving too much away, the kid joins the judge’s hellish group, and they basically rove from massacre to massacre, their currency being human scalps. Its a fascinating story in itself, and the seemingly endless sequences of chases, showdowns, massacres and revelry is exhilarating. McCarthy tells the tale in strange literary fashion, with scant regard for the niceties of quotation marks, or even punctuation in places. Whilst being slightly annoying (or disconcerting) at first, the reader quickly adapts to this unique style. In fact the anarchic writing style matches the anarchic world it describes! He also generates some fabulously moving and other ominous, haunting scenes – particularly the fact that in every town they “camp” in, a little girl always goes missing, with the locals scurrying about in pointless searches for the body. We find out chillingly at the very end who was responsible, and it really drives it home the wickedness of this character (you can probably guess who it was!).
But as mentioned above, there is much more to this than meets the eye. I particularly liked the passages of the massacres of the American Indians – not because I like reading about death like this, but because it exposes people in this day and age to the size, scale and horrific details of the massacres and exterminations carried out against the Native Americans, by the settlers. Americans in the present day arguably don’t acknowledge or maybe even realize what was done ancestrally only 150 years ago, and this book paints a pretty stark and clear picture (however fictionalized it may be) of it. It really annoyed me to read a review, in the New Yorker I think it was, saying that this novel exposed the savagery on both sides at that time in history…um, yes – savage and unprovoked massacres of men, women and children, which were sometimes (inevitably) met with savage retribution and massacres. I don’t think you can say both sides were equally guilty in the savagery stakes – after all, wasn’t one side basically genocidal, the other defensive? I digress, and its a touchy subject – let’s leave it at that.
I think this is also a parable, a parable regarding the savage violence instigated by the “settlers” of the Unites States (Civil War, Mexican War, Indian Wars and general rule of the gun), and the effects of that violence on even present-day America. In fact, it could almost be construed as the “Animal Farm” of the United States. The author drops plenty of clues throughout that this is his intention, for example the actual parable the judge regales the men with, the discussion of whether the judge is a human between the ex-priest and the kid near the end etc.
The judge embodies this violence, this culture or philosophy of violence and supremacy through violence, and I hope this doesn’t offend anyone when I say that to my mind, he represents the murderous past of the United States. SPOILER: Right at the end of the novel when he has killed the kid, who represents the maybe unwilling public who participated in the violence at the connivance of the manipulating judge, he is busy seducing the people, and he “never sleeps”, and “will never die”.
In fact, I would go further, and say that perhaps Cormac McCarthy has named this embodiment of merciless brutality, violence, savagery and insanity as “the judge” as a judgment on America, or at least American history.
The world described here resembles a post-apocalyptic world, which is all the more striking as we know this world was the birthplace as such, of modern America.The kid’s travels towards the end of the book, where he rapidly progresses through the years in accompaniment with the progress of America as a society, is clearly a deliberate illustration of how America grew from the years of incredible bloodshed, yet could never escape this history. Two striking examples for me were the meeting of the kid and the hunter, who along with others had killed 8 million herd of cattle in Texas – “Ever one of them that God ever made is gone as if they’d never been at all.” You’ve got to wonder what was the point of that, surely. Also, the bar where the kid drinks after many years has a fine zinc counter in direct contrast to the hovels the gang used to drink in, is a civilized establishment, yet is still at the mercy of the law of the gun.
This book is the perfect antidote to the romanticism of the popular notion of the “wild west” – there is nothing romantic about it according to McCarthy, and indeed how could there be, when in the words of the judge, “war is god”.