Coming off the elegant and hopeful beauty of Station Eleven, this next book was a shock to the system. I really could not have picked something more different to follow with, but it was worth it.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is the darkest and most disturbing book I’ve read in recent memory. I went into this familiar with other McCarthy books like The Road and No Country for Old Men, but it still managed to shock and unsettle me. Blood Meridian is a world populated with people that are desperate, violent, and dangerous and utterly without mercy. It is a Western, and by that I mean it is set in the borderlands of the Old West, but comparisons and parallels end there. This book is a chilling account of practices and actions during this period, a descent into the dark unexplored regions of brutality and blood that choked people attempting to subsist there.
What McCarthy has created is a beautifully written blood-soaked charnel house of a book. A story of slaughter and evil that is unrelenting and unwavering, but is carried on the wings of a masterful grasp of the English language, a beautifully generous but selective economy of language. When you read this book every sentence, every word, seems to have been placed there perfectly and precisely. It is harrowing, sickening and terrifying and absolutely compelling.
The novel follows The Kid and his spiral into the underbelly of the Old West as he joins up with a man named Glanton, whose gang has become immersed in the scalping trade. What follows is a tale of murder, destruction and brutality. Their path begins with a fiscal motivation but as they cook under the unrelenting desert sun in the wastes of the west they begin doing it for enjoyment. Their targets become anyone and everyone and they begin killing simply because they can. They transform into something darker in the company of an enigmatic and erudite hairless giant named Judge Holden.
There are no heroes in this book. There is nothing even close to it. I hesitate to say that there are villains either because this book does away with the traditional black and white, good and bad moral dichotomy that is so familiar in Westerns. People just are. There are no vigilantes redeeming themselves on a quest, no beloved anti-heroes. There are no morally righteous crusaders hunting down men who have wronged the innocent. This book makes no apologies for that. It is a confronting subversion of everything one would come to expect from this genre. It shows us a world where a loaded gun is the final arbiter, where moral certitude is nullified and common empathy is negated. No group in the novel is free of this; all concerned parties are equally murderous, brutal and amoral; the Native Americans the scalpers hunt, the Mexican militias, American soldiers and other outlaws. There is no moral respite to be found. Readers and critics who have called Blood Meridian an anti-western are spot on. The location is the only theme this novel shares with that genre. Everything else that takes place is at once horrifying and more believable for it. Romanticising the Old West is a popular narrative device, well established and much beloved, but it remains that this period was one marked by this kind of brutality. The truth found in the fallibility of these characters is all the more confronting and genuine because of it. One poignant moment that stood out for me was an old reflective buffalo hunter, who speaks to The Kid about how they have hunted the buffalo to extinction. As he considers the life he led and the death of the buffalo it pervades the scene with a sadness, a sense that humanity descended on this pure land, this pristine wilderness, like a colony of murderous scurrying ants that can only swarm, pillage, kill, war and destroy. The bloodthirsty ardour of the hunter’s past mirrors the actions of Glanton’s gang. It is a wanton and callous rampage that is unchained, greedy and finally a habit. It is an endlessly recursive loop of killing and revenge. The only end to it all is death.
Cormac McCarthy deserves his reputation, as does Blood Meridian and the esteemed place it holds in literature. I found his style challenging and rewarding. I have no issue admitting that my vocabulary has grown through the course of reading this book as has my appreciation for his unique sentence structure and miserly dissemination of grammar. McCarthy’s work contains some of the longest sentences I’ve ever seen in a book, but throughout I could never pick one that outstayed its welcome or contained superfluous information. He makes me feel utterly frivolous in my use of punctuation. This is going to sound strange if you’ve never read one of his books but his writing is skeletal, stripped of meat, but also rich and generous. Generous in the sense that he says exactly what he means to say, skeletal in the sense that nothing is misplaced. He is a literary clockmaker, an engineer. I found his style one of the driving aspects of the book. He details horrors and even as I was repelled by them I was in awe of just how perfectly written it was. I have utter admiration for his editors. I cannot imagine how challenging and intimidating that must have been. This man is a giant.
Blood Meridian is an absolutely harrowing inversion of the western and I loved it. It is a dark book but it is also one of the most well crafted and beautifully written novels I’ve ever read. If you seek to be challenged, if you don’t mind finding yourself occasionally reaching for your dictionary then you must read this. If you don’t mind a novel that deals with the darkest aspects of humanity, with scenes and events that will horrify you then you would be remiss if you didn’t pick this up. If you love the written word and want to observe a master at work read this book.
I read the Picador edition of the novel, you can find it here: http://www.booktopia.com.au/blood-meridian-cormac-mccarthy/prod9780330510943.html