Where you goin’ riding, boy? once sang Will Oldham, to which Blood Meridian would reply Oh, you know, all over. Gonna massacre and dismember a bunch of people. Shyit. I first read this book back when I was a teenager, spurred on by my best friend’s enthusiasm for all Cormac’s work, and a strange [strange for a young northern English boy] love of country music and a taste for bourbon and being a menace [more to myself than anyone else].The first thing that struck me the second time around was how episodic it is. The plot, such as it is, involves a gang of outlaws, mostly white men, who have been hired to contain the Apache threat. By contain I mean, of course, butcher. Is there an Apache threat? I don’t know. Regardless, the band of men are paid in gold for Indian scalps; this is, if you like, their job.
A lot happens in Blood Meridian, but it is mostly, in terms of action, of one sort: violent. I’m sure everyone makes mention of this, you have to, because McCarthy’s novel is unrelentingly psychotic. In any case, the book, in true episodic fashion, involves no character development; everyone is introduced fully formed, no one has an epiphany, no one has a change of heart, no significant ties are made, no lasting friendships, nothing. What you get, and I know I’m repeating myself, are a bunch of people riding around, and this riding around is punctuated by scenes of extreme barbarity. Of course, it is easy to throw out phrases like barbaric, horrific etc, but here they are fully justified. It would take far too long to list all the unpleasant things this book has to offer, but, to give a few examples, we’re talking about scalping, sex with dying people, babies having their brains dashed out, animals being slaughtered and so on, and, believe me, so-the-fuck-on.
In terms of the violence, however, I never felt as though it was gratuitous. This is, first of all, and most importantly, because Blood Meridian is a novel about violence, so it is, of course, necessary; and yet, mercifully, McCarthy does not linger over these dreadful acts. We know, for example, there are rapes that take place, but he never, in excruciating detail, describes the act itself. Similarly, we are told that men are scalped, babies killed etc, but that really is as far as it goes. There is an economy here, a sense of outrages being listed, rather than dwelled upon and enjoyed by the author, and I think he deserves a lot of credit for that as the book in some hands would have been unreadable. For me, at least, it was never unbearably nasty and, thankfully, at no point did it descend into melodrama either. I would say that this is because McCarthy is, largely, an unemotional and distant writer, and because his work often features characters that do not respond emotionally to their surroundings or to each other.
I wrote that Blood Meridian is about violence and that, perhaps, requires further explanation. One critic claimed that although initially shocking the sheer ubiquity of violence means that by about two-thirds of the way into the book one becomes bored by it. I believe this critic, although being negative, actually hit on something important: I think McCarthy wants you to become accustomed to the violence; one could perhaps say that one of his themes is how people can become accustomed to it. It is telling that none of the main characters flinch in the face of the horrific things that they engage in and that they experience; it is normal to them, it is the-everyday. However, more than this, I’d argue that the novel is about, not how we can become used to violence [this is almost the most optimistic interpretation] but how it exists in the hearts of men, how it is, to a large extent, what man is, that it defines him, that he is synonymous with it. Indeed, one of the characters, the judge, makes similar claims. Man was made to wage war, he says, upon each other and the earth.
What was most interesting, to my mind, was the lack of civilisation. Blood Meridian, for me, asks the question, what does it mean to be civilised? This term has been traditionally used as a way of drawing distinctions between enlightened cultures and so-called savages or indigenous peoples. And yet the outlaws and the Indians are both as bad as each other. The judge, who is the most educated, the most articulate, character in the novel, who is the one man who one would, on the surface, point to as an example of a civilised person, is actually the most psychopathic of all. He buys puppies merely to toss them in a river, he scalps a child he saves from a burning village, etc. McCarthy’s point seems to be that civilisation is impossible; that is, at least, certainly the judge’s idea. At one point he takes up with an idiot child, who exists almost as an emblem of unruliness or the impossibility of civilisation. The idiot is initially a caged freak show exhibit, a filthy, mentally disabled boy, who feeds on his own faeces. During one important scene a group of women emancipate him and wash him in a river. The boy, however, instead of taking to his new life of freedom, and flourishing under the affection shown to him, one night wanders back into the river to almost drown. It is the judge who saves him, who, in a sense, baptises him, gives birth to him, as his own son, a son of chaos.
To speak of baptism isn’t perhaps as absurd as it might seem, for there is a biblical element to much of what happens in the book. In fact, some readers believe that the judge may be the Devil. He is certainly a phenomenally odd man; large and hairless, strong beyond normal expectations, and seemingly invincible. Is he the Devil? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t rule it out. There is a scene towards the end when the kid, who is the only marginally relatable or likeable character [he isn’t really], the only one who displays a smidgen of humanity, is being tracked over the desert by the judge. He tempts and cajoles, tries to get into the kid’s head, to convince him to join and follow him, and I was, at this point, reminded of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, of Satan’s bid to bring Jesus over to his side.
Of course, all of this sounds pretty hard-going, and it is. Obviously Blood Meridian isn’t a light read. However, Martin Amis once said that all great books are funny books, and, well, you may be right Marty, because although one would struggle to call this a comedy there are welcome flashes of humour. Off the top of my head: I particularly enjoyed one of the outlaws asking a barman to give him the drink that was least likely to blind or kill! Ha ha! Surely, it’s not just me? Yes? No? It is also worth pointing out, for those who like this sort of thing, and I do, just how fine a prose stylist McCarthy is. His style is characterized by wonky grammar and infrequent punctuation, but he turns out, at nearly all times, sentences full of beauty. Yes, even some of the blood-soaked ones.