reviewed by Jon Duelfer
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11780960
Here beyond men’s judgments all covenants were brittle.
Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West is a harrowing, violent tale of a boy who joins a band of mercenaries hired to hunt and kill Apache Indians in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The group, inspired by real memoirs of the historical Glanton gang, gruesomely scalp Native Americans and bring this grotesque method of identification to the Mexican authorities for payment. A terrifying mission in its own right descends into the unthinkable as the gang massacres peaceful Native American and Mexican villages. What starts out as amoral profiteering soon devolves into outright murder.
Cormac McCarthy writes in horrific detail that curdles the blood in the reader’s veins. The novel doesn’t just include violence, it is violence. Though even a reader adverse to gore and violence cannot help but turn the pages through terrifying scenes in the hope for some sort of redemption for McCarthy’s characters. Blood Meridian is an epic novel, masterfully conceived and executed, that will haunt and inspire us both in its horror and in its beauty for ages to come.
McCarthy makes the novel compelling through his remarkable characters. Each personality feels so real and fluid that the reader embraces their hopelessness, their foolishness, and their evil in the hope that they will escape the violent world that pulls them downwards.
The novel generally follows the Kid, an unnamed, late-adolescent boy, in third person through his encounter and experience with the Glanton gang. It’s hinted that he experienced violence in the early part of his life, before the story takes place, that initially made him willing enough to join the group of marauders, desperately in need of money. Although he is the vessel on which the story travels, McCarthy keeps his personality and contribution to events ambiguous. His relationship with other members of the group, who generally have clear-cut personalities, give us a rough and gradual sense of who he is or what he thinks, though it’s often never stated outright.
John Joel Glanton is the gang’s Captain. He’s revered by the group and almost never challenged in his authority. He ensures his “soldiers” have their desires met. When asked to dine with a Mexican government official, he refuses to dine alone, unless his gang is invited as well. His morals are honorable in a way, yet in other sense, he is the steadfast leader and instigator of the massacres and rapes that his gang commits. He seeks money and power above all else, and believes those things are what turn the world. The following passage gives an insight into his character.
That night Glanton stared long into the embers of the fire. All about him his men were sleeping but much was changed. So many gone, defected or dead. The Delawares all slain. He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, where it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.
Judge Holden embodies everything of Blood Meridian and is the character to which McCarthy dedicated the epic. While he is wealthy, educated, speaks various language, and holds a set of morals that make him appear superior to the other soldiers, he is the most heinous and sinister character of the story. He commits the most unspeakable atrocities with the most fervor, yet attempts to justify them with his intellect and philosophy on life.
If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.
He believes in man’s unwavering dominance of nature, because nature can devour man so easily.
These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerian of the earth.
Though in the vein of his philosophical character, he often play’s the devil’s advocate against his own theories.
The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exists without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a strong in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.
Above all else, he believes that war is a natural and essential part of human nature, which is the justification for his crimes.
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade waiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.
He goes on to say that men love games, and war is the ultimate game. Man think games are more honorable than work, and therefore war is as well. He believes moral law is an invention, not a truth. He fights against the modernization of mankind, saying that war is becoming less honorable and so life is as well.
I tell you this. As war becomes dishonored and its nobility called into question those honorable men who recognize the sanctity of blood will become excluded from the dance, which is the warrior’s right, and thereby will the dance become a false dance and the dancers false dancers. And yet there will be one there always who is a true dancer and can you guess who that might be?
McCarthy’s writing is impressive. It’s beautifully direct, yet filled with beautiful vocabulary. He focuses heavily on the natural terrain; pages and pages are filled with the gang traveling through barren landscapes detailed by the smell of juniper, the heat of the sun, the broken and dried earth, and the sea.
They crested the mountain at sunset and they could see for miles. An immense lake lay below them with the distant blue mountains standing in the windless span of water and the shape of a soaring hawk and trees that shimmered in the heat and a distant city very white against the blue and shaded hills.
They were crossing the western edge of the playa when Glanton halted. He turned and placed one hand on the wooden cantle and looked toward the sun where it sat new risen above the bald and flyspecked mountains to the east. The floor of the playa lay smooth and unbroken by any track and the mountains in their blue islands stood footless in the void like floating temples. Even when writing of human event, he relates them to the natural world.
The Reverend Green had been playing to a full house daily as long as the rain had been falling and the rain had been falling for two weeks.
The same level of detail that is attributed to the natural world is also attributed to the horrendous actions of the gang.
All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon. In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor scribe, to tell to any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.
Dialogue is never represented by quotation marks; it is written directly into the text. This style fits perfectly with the third person memoir aspect of the story, as well as the raw, untamed (and extremely racist) personalities of the characters.
What do you want?
Wanted to talk to ye.
Hell fire, come on out. I’m white and christian.
Blood Meridian is one of the greatest novels that I have ever read. It will cause nightmares and haunt the reader through the days it remains open, as well as long afterwards. But if the reader is willing to confront the most hideous aspects of humanity in unforgettable detail, they will also confront the terribly real aspects of American identity and manifest destiny that will perish under history written by the victors.
Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.