by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is the American epic of a band of mercenaries and their trek across Mexico in search of Apache scalps. It is set around 1850. Next to Moby Dick, it is the only American work that springs to mind as worthy of the label “epic” as it is applied to The Iliad, Beowulf, or The Aeneid. It is also epic in its length and scope, though it comes in under 350 pages. It is known for its violence, but reads like poetry. It contains passages of brilliant description, metaphor, and rumination in between the bloodletting that carry equal weight.
“When the lamb is lost in the mountain, he said. They is cry. Sometime come the mother. Sometime the wolf.”
Published in 1985, it was McCarthy’s fifth novel. The four works preceding it were set in Tennessee, where McCarthy grew up from about the age of four, or in undisclosed southern-American locales. Blood Meridian was a significant departure in both setting and genre, though the author’s work defies the need for such designations. It could be accurately called a western, but would still exist if the genre did not. We, as readers, would have no less understanding of it, just as we have no more understanding of it in a world where the genre does. It demands our full immersion. McCarthy researched the novel using funds from a McArthur grant, physically tracing its characters’ routes, visiting all locations, teaching himself Spanish, making gunpowder out of bat shit. The results show in descriptions so uniquely vivid, they require double-takes and re-reads to conjure up their images; once that work is done, the reward far outweighs the effort.
“Scribes crouched by the steps with their quills and inkpots and bowls of sand and lepers moaning through the streets and naked dogs that seemed composed of bone entirely and vendors of tamales and old women with faces dark and harrowed as the land squatting in the gutters over charcoal fires where blackened strips of anonymous meat sizzled and spat.”
The novel is an odyssey across a landscape both physical and spiritual, stark and phantasmagoric, morally uncertain. Its trajectory plummets with increasing desperation, but greater depths reveal themselves. The Kid, the main protagonist, discovers his capacity for mercy even as his companions thoughtlessly sacrifice their own. Toward the end of his life, he may lose this capacity to a relentlessly irritating juvenile much like his former self.
The Kid and his confederates belong to a gang recruited out of prisons and comprised of veterans, black, white, and brown men, Delaware Indians, fugitives, orphans. They are paid by the Mexican government for scalps of the members of a tribe that is raiding its towns. Before long, they take to raiding said towns, themselves. They are led along their journey by a large, hairless killer of limitless knowledge known as the Judge and by the group’s official leader, a “small blackhaired man” named Glanton who has no qualms about executing little old ladies and making cats “simply disappear” to test his gun. The Judge enacts senselessly destructive provocation near the beginning of the novel that calls to mind Mexican legends of a wandering Satanic figure who likes to stir up shit that results in death as a means to gather souls. He has been called Mephistophelean and compared to a Gnostic archon. One can only speculate at what he represents.
“He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”
McCarthy’s writing has been compared to that of Melville, Faulkner, and Homer; all of these prove out. Blood Meridian lives and breathes and reveals new layers with each subsequent reading. It improves with the scope of one’s experience and knowledge and also with one’s vocabulary, though there are words it contains that no dictionary has for at least a hundred years. There are sentences taking up at least half a page. There are scenes of blood and cruelty that will make one recoil. There are pages and pages of starkly vivid beauty reserved for readers, not dabblers, readers.
I count myself a reader.
You should, too.
“All else was heaped on the flames and while the sun rose and glistened on their gaudy faces they sat upon the ground each with his new goods before him and they watched the fire and smoked their pipes as might some painted troupe of mimefolk recruiting themselves in such a wayplace far from the towns and the rabble hooting at them across the smoking footlamps, contemplating towns to come and the poor fanfare of trumpet and drum and the rude boards upon which their destinies were inscribed for these people were no less bound and indentured and they watched like the prefiguration of their own ends the carbonized skulls of their enemies incandescing before them bright as blood among the coals.”