Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Vintage, 2010, originally published in 1985. 368 pp)
Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933. One of six children, Cormac’s family moved multiple times in his childhood as his father accepted different occupations. In 1951, McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee majoring in Liberal Arts. Midway through his studies, McCarthy served in the Air Force for four years. After his service, McCarthy returned to college, writing his first short stories. In 1959 and 1960, he won the Ingram-Merrill Award for Creative Writing. Mccarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Several years, grants, and fellowships later, McCarthy published Suttree, Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses marking his rise in literary acclaim. McCarthy is widely considered one of the great modern American authors and many of his works have been translated to film.
Violence is key to any story we tell. Chekov’s gun operates as a literary device because human stories orbit around violence. A story receives its stakes with the threat of violence; a narrative becomes shocking when violence emerges as a reality instead of a threat.
Without the opportunity of violence, any story risks the mundane. We are a culture of violence. Cormac McCarthy utilizes this truth to devastating influence in his masterpiece, Blood Meridian.
Blood Meridian details the historical violence of the Glanton Gang in the border country of the United States and Mexico in the late 1840s and early 1850s.
The Kid and the Judge
The novel’s quasi-protagonist is “the kid,” a teenager from Tennessee that happens upon the Texas border with the required fighting skills to take up residence with John Joel Glanton and his band of scalpers. The state recruits the band to hunt down Apaches and receive a bounty for each scalp.
The marauders pillage the countryside murdering warriors and peaceful Mexican villagers alike.
While the entire band practices despicable deeds, the role of central antagonist sits with Judge Holden, an enigmatic figure, deeply intellectual and operating with chaos as raison d’être.
The novel proceeds cyclically through this violent existence with the band killing gratuitously at will.
Only when the kid loses the gang, wandering the wilderness it seems for 40 days does the reader begin to understand the moral push of the novel, especially when the kid encounters a Biblical experience.
“It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarrons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before this torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets” (224-225).
With this burning-bush moment, the kid becomes the rooting interest in a universal battle of good versus evil.
While McCarthy exhibits his literary strength in gorgeous prose, Blood Meridian is not for the faint of heart. It is bloody. Bloody. Bloody. Bloody.
“He was sat as before save headless, drenched in blood, the cigarillo still between his fingers, leaning toward the dark and smoking grotto in the flames where his life had gone” (112).
Also true to McCarthy’s modus operandi, Blood Meridian offers many opportunities for philosophical pondering. Given the nature of the book, his characters take the time to consider war and human nature.
“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way” (259).
Who are we as a people? Why must we shed blood so consistently? Blood Meridian leverages violence to force the reader to consider these ideas. Many call this novel an anti-Western. There’s no glory in pistol battles on the frontier with the million-dollar grin of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Blood Meridian is blood and guts caked to the water-starved dust of the borderland.
Verdict: 5 out of 5