When I finished the Road I knew I’d read something amazing. This was a writer who tapped into something beyond the popular trends in literature, the name-dropping and cultural rhetoric. This was a story outside of time, prose so honed and pure it hit on something primeval. Back before Oprah and the Pulitzer, McCarthy won the McArthur Genius Grant and spent a decade writing an amazing book.
Blood Meridian follows the kid, a sixteen year old Tennessean venturing into the “wild” west. It’s a violent and distorted bildungsroman as the kid puts his lot in with the historical Glanton Gang, a wild group of scalpers and outlaws that ravaged the Texas-Mexico border circa 1850. The “Ahab” of the tale is Judge Holden, a hairless monster of a man, erudite and philosophical, but also barbaric and depraved.
The first third of the book is possessed with untouchable prose, imagery of the stark desert under the night sky, the sun like a jealous god, the very decaying rock – fossils of past civilizations. In this the book mirrors Moby Dick – a journey of men through the wilderness, deserts of the American southwest rather than the wide Pacific, and a quarry of Apache scalps instead of Sperm whales. And like Melville, the landscape and the actions of men stand as grand metaphors for question of deep import – the violence in men’s souls, technology’s place in the ravage of the land, the very notion of creator in this hellish place.
As the book progresses, the Judge explicates his philosophy of violence as man’s only noble goal, and leads the crew into increasingly dire situations. The licensed scalpers resort to brawling with uniformed soldiers, hijacking a river ferry, backstabbing benevolent tribes. And inevitably, those who live by the sword fall by the sword.
While Blood Meridian dwells within history, it does not attempt to explain or reconcile. The novel moves beyond cultural morality to a deeper universal – the eternal violence of man and his relationship with the land. These are the same rocks and mountains that serve as setting for No Country for Old Men, a hundred years later.
And while the subject is bleak, the prose itself is so incredible the book reads ecstatic and fast. As one reviewer mentioned, the scariest thing about Blood Meridian is not the violence itself, but the quickened pulse that accompanies its reveal, the knowledge we’ve been caught up in the timeless dance.