Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthyTo mark the passing of Cormac McCarthy, I read Blood Meridian again this weekend. I first read it in the early 90s, after I was entranced by All the Pretty Horses. That book focused on a 16 year old cowboy in 1949 and could be summarised as a romanticised account of the final passing of the Wild West of America.

Blood Meridian was written in 1985, and also features a 16 year protagonist, but is set 100 years earlier in 1849. This is cowboy country at its peak, when violence was the ruling philosophy as the colonisation of the American continent pushed the indigenous people further and further to the west until the coast was reached.

It is graphically gruesome, and an unremittingly bleak depiction of the violence men descend into, the unknown territory of the uncivilised soul. Thematically it’s devastating.

Stylistically, it’s masterful, as McCarthy manipulates language to suit his themes. The narrative is littered with obscure words with complicated meanings, while the dialogue varies between barely literate stranglings of English and exquisitely erudite explorations of history, theology, ethics, humanity and inhumanity. McCarthy spurns most punctuation and declines to distinguish between narration and dialogue and yet it’s always clear which is which.

Blood Meridian features a characteristic trait of McCarthy’s writing, in that there is almost no internal life expressed. Everything we know about the story and its characters comes from what they do and say, not what they think and feel.

Reputedly, McCarthy researched the book intensely, learning Spanish, following the physical trails of the characters’ movements across the landscape and absorbing extensive historical detail to produce a work that feels as true to its setting as could be imagined.

It’s based on some real characters, chiefly a gang of murderous mercenaries hired to protect Mexican and American settlers from indigenous tribes, including among them the brutal Judge Holden, a hairless albino giant who is educated in archaeology and sociology, is a skilled sketch artist, musician and dancer, and who is committed to violent war as the natural human state.

Their success is the “blood meridian”, the peak level of violence as a way of life. I suspect the title also refers to the line of longitude that falls down the west coast of North America, dividing the old Spanish west from the incursive Anglo east.

The kid, a teenaged orphan with a propensity for violence and a deadly aim with a firearm, joins this gang, and Blood Meridian is his story as he intuitively tries to hang on to some sense of human decency, even as he participates in the murderous activities of the gang.

When I first read the book, I was shocked. While All the Pretty Horses and its two sequels that form McCarthy’s Border Crossing trilogy feature some graphic violence, Blood Meridian is soaked in it. I remember thinking at the time that McCarthy had refined his literary technique in the later, more romantic trilogy, but this time around I spent more time thinking about the complex and deeply disturbing philosophies expressed in Blood Meridian and, through its characters, its exploration of the desperation of the human state.

The mitigating factor in the bleakness of its world view is that it is entirely particular to its time and place. It dismantles any view of the American Wild West as aq romantic place, including any view as to who were heroes and who were villains. The reaching and citification of the west coast, then the gold rushes and the Civil War changed the country deeply and forever.

Even so, this book’s devastating depiction of Americans, Mexicans, Indians, men and women invites deep exploration of the USA – and the world – as it is now and what it will become.

This is a true American epic, rightly compared to Moby-Dick, and is both Biblical and Shakespearean in its themes and style. If it isn’t already, Blood Meridian will, in time, be recognised as one of the greatest American novels.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

1 thought on “Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy”

  1. The book disturbed me a lot when I read it but I’ll give it another go in the light of your review. And I’m older so maybe the impact will be less disturbing. Great review, bro!!

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