Blood Meridian is a catalog of atrocities, spelled by bouts of descriptive walking. The characters are defined only by their levels of cruelty and the plot is just a series of killings and murders, again, spelled by the descriptive walking, which goes on for pages and bludgeons as much as it awes. Perhaps the two are not unrelated.
The 349-page Cormac McCarthy novel is unrelenting in every way, except the ending, which is infuriating and abuts the style McCarthy did so well to establish for all those other pages. After telling you everything, droning poetic about war and the American southwest’s every physical feature and celestial movement, he tells you nothing. He decides it’s time to be cute and to be literary.
It’s an M. Night Shyamalan move and it’s bullshit. Blood Meridian is not that sort of novel.
The book follows “the kid,” a runaway teenager from Tennessee who ends up with a gang of scalpers. The kid, along with other characters who exist not much beyond a name and a physical trait — earless, a brand on the forehead, a hairless body, their race (if it’s not white) — perform terrible violence, and McCarthy describes brutality better than most. Brains splatter. Eyes are gouged with the broken bottoms of whiskey bottles. There’s crucifixion, child rape, decapitation and genital relocation.
In the last part of the book, a man’s head is cleaved by a vengeful Indian. His body — and his dog — is then tossed on a pyre of his fellow riders. Another dog is thrown in, too, and when it tries to crawl out, already charred black, it’s golfed back in with a shovel.
In a book of horror, it’s the image I can’t forget.
Blood Meridian is a meditation on war, on the selfish nature of man and the delusion of an objective morality. McCarthy says this with savaged adjectives and through the philosophy of Judge Holden, the eventual, de facto villain who acts more as the avatar of war than a real man. Within the context of the book, though, there aren’t really villains.
"Moral law is an invention of mankind," the judge says, "for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test."
Instead of moral absolutes, the judge — presented as a kind of a supernatural polymath — says, there is war and there is survival. Everything that happens in Blood Meridian promotes or defends this axiom. Humans are inherently selfish, which begets cruelty, but some are less selfish than others. This, the judge would say, makes them weak. The kid is less cruel, one of just two characters who seem to suffer any pang of humanity.
"War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence," he says, "War is god."
I’ve read and loved Cormac McCarthy before. Blood Meridian, which I finally read, is considered his masterpiece. And it might be. He’s certainly an auteur and a brilliant writer and Blood Meridian is challenging because of the inaccessible way in which it’s written and because of its uncomfortable philosophy. It evokes bleakness, isolation and Stephen Crane.
"The mystery," the judge says about existence, "is that there is no mystery."
And yet, at the end, there is mystery. The judge and the kid have their final confrontation, years after the scalper gang is disbanded and its members, except the judge and the kid, are executed or lost.
What the judge does to the kid in that outhouse is never said but it’s clear that it’s horrific. The men who find the kid, now 28, after the judge is finished are mortified and terror-struck. Perhaps the implication is that this one act — after all the death, cold collateral damage and battering purlieus preceding and leading to this moment — is what defies recording.
Finally, an unspeakable act.
It’s a classic move. The most terrible violence is always off-screen, alluded to by blood seeps and screams. But in Blood Meridian, where even the landscapes are painted with the language of bloodlust, the ending must be spelled out, detailed with all the atrocity and glory of what came before.
Blood Meridian is not subtle. It shows everything, forces you to confront the worst and leaves nothing to rationalize. The novel is brutal and the ending should be, too.