Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985) Modern Library (2001) 337 pp
Like the eminent scholar who introduces the Modern Library edition of Blood Meridian, on previous attempts I failed to read this book through due to the violence. It’s on every page. While I recognized the quality of what I was reading, I just wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. Even when I stopped reading it before, though, I always knew I’d return to it. I’ve finally done it! What changed? Well, I’ve a bit more reading under my belt, both of McCarthy and in general, so my ability to understand (not just recognize) the brilliance was enhanced. But probably the most significant change this time around: I read Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick helped me learn how to read Blood Meridian.
Moby-Dick is definitely one of the highlights not just of last year but of my life in literature. I loved it from page one until that emptying last line. It is no spoiler, and it is important, I believe, to repeat that line here:
It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.
Blood Meridian has been Harold-ed as a worthy successor to Moby-Dick, though it is probably reductive to think of it only in those terms. However, since I only finished Moby-Dick last August, it is fresh on my mind, so I’m going to use it as a springboard. In the first page of Blood Meridian we meet another orphan: the kid. The first sentence is, “See the child.” He’s actually not an orphan when we meet him, and in the first paragraph we get an interesting line about his heritage: “His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster.” The Biblical allusion to “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” a reference to the curse Joshua places upon the people Gibeah after they’ve beguiled the Israelites, hearkens violence of Biblical proportions as well as the curse that followed. It’s also suggestive of the profound issues McCarthy will be juggling through the book. Following the allusion, we meet the kid’s father briefly when he says:
Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heaves. The Dipper stove.
We then learn little of the kid’s mother:
The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it.
And then, just before another literary allusion, we learn this tragic fact about this young child:
He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a tastes for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.
Again, the line “the child the father of the man” comes from a William Wordsworth poem, “My heart leaps up when I behold.” This poem speaks about a much more innocent theme: a child’s heart leaping when he sees a rainbow becomes the old man whose heart leaps when he sees the rainbow — so we hope. In Blood Meridian, what the child fathers is much more desolate.
And it is here, at the end of that first page, which is not very long, that we orphan the kid. At fourteen he runs away from home, never to return. On the next page he is shot, though not mortally wounded. And then there’s this beautiful sentence about his lost origins, which to me hearkens back to Ishmael’s concerns with the whiteness of the whale and with his own parentage:
His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.
All of that incredibly deep setup in just a couple of pages, and I am sure I’ve left out much more. I’m afraid that that type of depth and that weighty dense prose is the nature of this book, but it pays much to the devoted reader. It’s violent — but it’s beautiful to behold.
In his paths through that wild and barbarous terrain there is one looming figure, his main antagonist, Judge Holden. How the kid first sees the judge is another part of the book that hearkens to Moby-Dick. In the first few pages of Moby-Dick, when Ishmael is wandering the streets thinking of his mortality, possibly contemplating suicide, he attends the sermon of Father Mapple and is in part invigorated into going to sea. In the first few pages of Blood Meridian, the kid attends a sermon by the Reverend Green. Suddenly, Judge Holden enters the room and claims Reverend Green is an impostor, that he has no degree of divinity, and in fact he is wanted by the law:
On a variety of charges the most recent of which involved a girl of eleven years — I said eleven — who had come to him in trust and whom he was surprised in the act of violating while actually clothed in the livery of his God.
Reverend Green’s only response:
This is him, cried the reverend, sobbing. This is him. The devil. Here he stands.
After Reverend Green has been killed by the congregation turned mob, Judge Holden is asked how he knew all of that about Reverend Green. His response is that he had never set eyes on the man before. Judge Holden is a brutal man, the embodiment of the loftiest philosophical conflicts found in Blood Meridian. He is, however, a kind of second to another man named John Joel Glanton, the leader of the filibusters. The Glanton Gang is a real gang of mercenaries hired by the Mexican government to protect civilians from the Apache Indians. They were paid by the scalp. And there is one reference in history to a Judge Holden, perhaps the most ruthless of the bunch. In Blood Meridian, Glanton leads the warfare; the judge leads the philosophizing and haunts the nights, eventually rising far above his role to the point where the story cannot contain him.
It is the kid’s misfortune to eventually become part of Glanton’s scalp-hunters. We witness massacres and, sometimes, the aftermath:
Long past dark that night when the moon was already up a party of women that had been upriver drying fish returned to the village and wandered howling through the ruins. A few fires still smoldered on the ground and dogs slank off from among the corpses. An old woman knelt at the blackened stones before her door and poked brush into the coals and blew back a flame from the ashes and began to right the overturned pots. All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon.
We also see the filibusters ride into a Mexican village, champions, saviors:
Hundreds of onlookers pressed about as the dried scalps were counted out upon the stones. Soldiers with muskets kept back the crowds and young girls watched the Americans with huge black eyes and boys crept forth to touch the grisly trophies. There were one hundred and twenty-eight scalps and eight heads and the governor’s lieutenant and his retinue came down into the courtyard to welcome them and admire their work. They were promised full payment in gold at the dinner to be held in their honor that evening at the Riddle and Stephens Hotel and with this the Americans sent up a cheer and mounted their horses again. Old women in black rebozos ran forth to kiss the hems of their reeking shirts and hold up their dark little hands in blessing and the riders wheeled their guanted mounts and pushed through the clamoring multitude and into the street.
The, well, rather: A terrible thing about it is that many of these scalps are the remnants of anything that even looked passably like an Indian scalp. So we have here the scalps of women and children, to be sure, but also of the Mexicans the filibusters were asked to keep safe. But, much like the whale and the search for the whale in Moby-Dick serves a greater philosophical narrative, the disgusting actions of the Glanton gang serve a similar purpose:
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.
It really is superb to watch the judge and the other characters and McCarthy discuss grand ideas. It is especially remarkable that the judge himself is a massive idea. In Blood Meridian the judge is, in some respects, more than just a member of the searchers. He is the white whale. Albino, large, incomprehensible, seemingly — or perhaps literally — immortal. More than a being of flesh and blood he, like Moby-Dick himself, is the bulging embodiment of bigger ideas.
To end this slight review, I’d like to change the focus from suggesting the big ideas to a quick look at McCarthy’s style. More than in his other books, Blood Meridian is written almost as if it were written in the 1850s or earlier. The word choice, the syntax, everything is archaic. But it is also poetic and fresh. Here, to end, are a few examples of his description of the loneliness or the violence encountered in the dessert surrounding the Texas – Mexico border in the 1850s (and today). The following sentences do not follow one another in the book, though the final two are from the same episode (and what an episode! where the kid has the judge in his sights three times while the judge, naked but with skins covering his nake head, calls to the kid while walking an idiot man on a lead).
There is hardly in the world a waste so barren but some creature will not cry out at night, yet here one was and they listened to their breathing in the dark and the cold and they listened to the systole of the rubymeated hearts that hung within them.
His leg had begun to bleed and he lay soaking it in the cold water and he drank and palmed water over the back of his neck. The marblings of blood that swung from his thigh were like thin red leeches in the current.
He looked at the expriest and at the slow gouts of blood dropping in the water like roseblooms how they swelled and were made pale.
I have now read five of McCarthy’s ten novels. I’ve loved each one, and each is masterful in its way — but this stands out as a masterpiece among masterworks.