Review: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy likely needs no introduction; he’s a household name for literature lovers, and he’d surely scold me for using that semicolon. I’d never read any of McCarthy’s work before this year. A few months ago, I read The Road, a post-apocalyptic story of a father and son’s struggle to hold onto goodness in a hopeless wasteland. I enjoyed it, and found his style interesting. Like Vonnegut, McCarthy opts for simple, declarative sentences, boiling things down to their essence. This made The Road a relatively easy, minimally punctuated, and enjoyable read.

Blood Meridian, published 30 years earlier, is written in much the same style, but told by a thunderous, nihilistic, and omnipotent narrator. It’s a dark and challenging book, seething with chaos and Dionysian blood-lust. The main plot follows the fate of the Kid. An orphaned teen, the Kid finds himself riding amongst a gang of scalp-hunter outlaws across the barren borderlands of the 19th century United States and Mexico.

McCarthy beautifully captures the tragedy, lawlessness, and violence of the times both in his prose and in his characters. Every act drips with significance, every description, every interaction. One passage that stuck out to me serves as a fine illustration:

They did not speak. They were men of another time for all that they bore christian names and they had lived all their lives in a wilderness as had their fathers before them. They’d learnt war by warring, the generations driven from the eastern shore across a continent, from the ashes at Gnadenhutten onto the praries and across the outlet to the bloodlands of the west. If much in the world were mystery the limits of that world were not, for it was without measure or bound and there were contained within it creatures more horrible yet and men of other colors and beings which no man has looked upon and yet not alien none of it more than were their own hearths alien in them, whatever wilderness contained there and whatever beasts.

The cruelty to which the native Americans were subjected is front and center in Blood Meridian. Villages are massacred, women and children burned. Axes in skulls, bodies hung from trees, puppies thrown into rivers.

Towering above the plot is the character of the judge, a bald, sadistic member of the Glanton gang with which the Kid rides. The judge towers over the plot of Blood Meridian, equal parts villain and philosopher. I read the judge as a Nietzschean character. In fact, Blood Meridian has a thoroughly Nietzschean tone in it’s entirety. The judge essentially repeats the thesis of the Genealogy of Morals at one point:

Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.

I was fascinated by the judge, despite his cruelty and perversions. He’s one of the most challenging and vivid characters I’ve yet to encounter in literature. McCarthy’s scenes of the judge orating his worldview to his filthy gang of killers are powerful moments of wonder amidst a string of ruthless violence:

For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

Brown spat into the fire. That’s some more of your craziness, he said.

There’s not much more I can say about Blood Meridian that hasn’t already been said. It’s a fantastic book that I’ll likely be returning to again in the future.

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