I was astonished to learn recently that there are people who think Cormac McCarthy is an extremely realistic author, someone whose novels are “marked by intense natural observation.” While I suppose you could make an argument that the whole atmosphere of his novels comes out of the Naturalist tradition (meaning that the environment produces the characters naturally, the way the Galápagos islands produce finches), I can’t say that any of his novels I’ve read strike me as realistic — or rather, as real. They are as exotic, as impossible, as farfelu, as the mountains of the moon.
Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West is the fictionalized story of the (real-life) John Joel Glanton gang, which terrorized northern Mexico in 1849. This gang dealt in the thriving market for Indian scalps, first for money, but later out of compulsion and a sheer drive for violence. They killed not only the Apaches they were sent to kill, but peace-loving agricultural tribes, whole villages of Mexican civilians, and even Mexican soldiers. McCarthy’s grimly blood-soaked vision mostly follows “the kid,” a fifteen-year-old sharpshooter who joins Glanton’s gang by chance and has his own predilection for violence.
The other presence in the book — and I say “presence” rather than “character” deliberately — is the Judge.
The expriest turned and looked at the kid. And that was the judge the first ever I saw him. Aye. He’s a thing to study.
The kid looked at Tobin. What’s he a judge of? he said.
What’s he a judge of?
What’s he a judge of.
Tobin glanced off across the fire. Ah lad, he said. Hush now. The man will hear ye. He’s ears like a fox.
The Judge is a creature barely human, or perhaps not human at all, larger than life-size, hairless all over his body, who roams McCarthy’s vicious and barren landscape as a sort of embodiment of violence and war. (The hairlessness — besides being simply eerie — reminded me of the myths that suggest that werewolves in their human form are hairless, because all the hair is on the inside; an inside-out man.) Educated and sophisticated, but also brutal almost beyond imagining, he orates only to incite and studies only to destroy: one of his hobbies throughout the book is to find and sketch beautiful artifacts from previous ancient civilizations — Anasazi, Spanish, Yuma — and then quietly eradicate them, “expunge them from the mind of man,” so that eventually nothing will exist but the Judge himself.
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
Over time, the kid’s personality and opinions form themselves against the Judge’s, as a riverbank blindly forms itself against the power of the river.
The prose in Blood Meridian is unlike almost anything I’ve ever read. McCarthy likes to use recondite vocabulary (I always learn something new, reading his books), and there’s an almost Biblical ring to his texts — I hardly need say that we are talking about the particularly grotesque bits of the Old Testament here, need I? You could choose from almost any page a piece of description like this one:
They did not noon nor did they siesta and the cotton eye of the moon squatted at broad day in the throat of the mountains to the east and they were still riding when it overtook them at its midnight meridian sketching on the plain below a blue cameo of such dread pilgrims clanking north.
A cameo of dread pilgrims. In jasperware, no doubt. Or this, about a troupe of tarot-readers:
Someone snatched the old woman’s blindfold from her and she and the juggler were clouted away and when the company turned in to sleep and the low fire was roaring in the blast like a thing alive these four yet crouched at the edge of the firelight among their strange chattels and watched how the ragged flames fled down the wind as if sucked by some maelstrom out there in the void, some vortex in that waste apposite to which man’s transit and his reckonings alike lay abrogate. As if beyond will or fate he and his beasts and his trappings moved both in card and in substance under consignment to some third and other destiny.
This kind of prose, as you can see, is not realism. It’s not even close observation of nature. It is some sort of visionary staggering into Fate, and it’s extraordinary; the style is almost trance-inducing.
This second quotation mentions, incidentally, the only woman in the entire book, except for girls who get raped in passing by the Glanton gang. I’ve read McCarthy’s prose described as “masculine,” but insofar as that term means anything when applied to prose (not much in my opinion) it appears to mean that he concerns himself with violence and has only male characters in his books. It’s been a very, very long time since I read a book that had only male characters. Even Fight Club had a woman in it.
This is the fifth book I’ve read by McCarthy, and by far the most violent and the grimmest, even surpassing The Road. I can see, though, where people get the idea that it is his masterpiece. A strange and unholy light illuminates its landscape, and its meditations on human nature and violence are compelling. If this interests you at all, I believe on balance I’d recommend it.