Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Some novels dance on tippie-toes across an elegant marble floor. Some shift dodgily through dark shadows. Some grind and bleed in trenches. And some just rear back and punch you as hard they can. Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West is a ten-ton hammer.

If there is any common thread to the body of work Cormac McCarthy has effected to date, it would have to be a weary acceptance of the blanket of malevolence pervasive to mankind, a malevolence offset by the sparks of altruism lying latent within everyone. A sky of cloud with a single spot of blue. The blackest of thunderheads, Blood Meridian presents a historical re-visioning of Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War, particularly the rural skirmishes and small-town conflicts that took place in the present-day American southwest and northern Mexico. All would seem to strike much closer to a gritty truth that textbooks and Hollywood Westerns may have us believe was more romantic.

Blood Meridian tells of “the kid”. A young man caught up in matters far over his youthful head, his travails begin when traveling alone to the west. Barroom trouble and rough religious meetings in tents, he eventually joins the militia of Capt. White. But after a failed sortie, he's left little else to do but join a band of scalp-hunting mercenaries, led by one John Glanton and the mysterious Judge Holden. Witness and party-to the worst atrocities possible as the band tears through wilds of Texas, Arizona, and Mexico, the kid’s soul is left hanging on the edge of complete and utter depravity.

Quite trite compared to the note on which McCarthy chooses to end the novel, my plot summary lacks the profundity of the issues under discussion, not to mention the ultra-graphic representation of the kid’s time in Glanton’s band. Slaps in the face, the violence and cruelty is at times shocking—quite literally for sensitive readers.

But McCarthy’s aims are not sensationalism (as is the case with most violence in fiction). Extreme commentary on the human condition, Blood Meridian seeks to examine the worst in us, namely war, and its ability to manifest itself generation after generation, taking on whatever form the times require, with seemingly few exempt from its sweep. Almost broaching absurdism, Glanton and his band commit the most wicked of atrocities for the most base of reasons, any inkling of civilization razed in the process. Not a descent into nihilism, however, McCarthy’s silver lining, as thin and nearly translucent as it may be, does exist. Transcending liberalism to secular theodicy, McCarthy would seem to put the onus on the individual soul—to look at the world, to make a larger sense of it, and then come to choices for the betterment rather than continued devolution of mankind. Barbarism may not be avoidable in the larger scheme, but the individual can still make something of their own sphere.

McCarthy’s prose, so simple, so blunt, perfectly suits the story type. At times gut-turning and depressing for the historical reality of the details, and by way of symbolism the human reality it represents, at the meta level it sets up its ideas perfectly. All the Pretty Horses may have won McCarthy a National Book Award, but for sure his descriptive powers and marriage of mood and theme come through all the stronger in Blood Meridian.

In the end, Blood Meridian is not for the feint of heart. Explicitly graphic at the tangible level and depressingly austere at the intangible, it portrays humanity as possessing free will, but in almost animal style, with only the conscientious, most honorably-willed able to make the necessary decisions to escape the downward spiral of malevolence into violence—and even then the chaos of the circumstances may swallow the innocent bystander whole. Style impeccable, it is post-modern Western delivered with a ten-ton hammer.

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