Book Review: Blood Meridian Or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
“This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.” – Judge Holden
I have a strange relationship with violence. On one hand, I abhor it when I read that there’s been a violent killing somewhere in the world and, on the other hand, I believe in the aesthetic capacity of violence in fiction especially when it is handled by deft hands. Hands that know the didactic capacity of violence. Hands such as those of Cormac McCarthy which has created violent masterpieces such as No Country for Old Men (which I have read), The Road (which I have not read), and Blood Meridian (which this review is all about).
Blood Meridian tells the story of “The Kid” and his adventures across the Old West with the Glanton Gang, a group of scalp hunters led by John Glanton. The gang has been hired by a Mexican governor to kill Apaches and harvest their scalps for $100 apiece. At first, they were true to their word but then degenerates into ruthless murderers of innocent people. The gang’s experience with violence escalates at a pace that seems quiet since it is sandwiched between depictions of bleak and empty landscapes.
It has been truly a chore to go through this book and finish it. For a book about violence and war it is slow-paced and monotonous. McCarthy’s attention to detail regarding the desert landscape of the Old West is excruciating. He pays attention to the trees, the shifting sands, the wildlife, and the sun that is eternally the tormentor of his characters. The desert itself is a character that seems friendly then will turn treacherous without a warning. However, upon further reflection, this slow-paced monotony seems essential to the work as it magnifies the violence within the book. If this book were all about the violence, its impact will be less intense and might dilute the meaning of it.
The violence within the pages is truly appalling. From the first page until the last, violence is the main point of the novel. It seems that every character gravitates around violence and is affected by it no matter how reluctant of a participant you are. The image that I conjured as I wrote the previous line was a scene in the book where Glanton saw an old and weak Indian woman sitting by the side of the road. Without remorse and hesitation, Glanton shot the woman in the head and proceeds to scalp her. The others of the gang just watch Glanton and dismisses the act with a bored disposition. Other violent acts populate the pages of the book and one act is more violent and more horrendous than the last that you actually have to put down the book every now and then to get the images out of your head. But you will read on because the characters are compelling, the events are nuanced, and the violence is necessary.
Speaking of compelling characters, Blood Meridian is a book that is home to one of the most interesting characters in literary history, Judge Holden. He is a hairless man who is seven foot tall and very charismatic. Conscienceless, he murders people left and right including defenseless women and children without a sign of remorse and wherever Judge Holden shows up, a child is killed or disappears mysteriously. He is mysterious and cold-blooded but he also shows signs of being gentle and he is a man that is learned about a variety of subjects including philosophy, law, and geology.
Holden’s characteristics is almost supernatural. Incredibly strong, immune to death, strange in appearance, extremely fast and agile, charisma, and an expert in the art of dance. There are arguments that Holden is supposed to be the devil or violence personified and I wouldn’t argue with those kinds of analysis. Holden possesses qualities and a certain aura that makes him a fitting candidate for the devil that is tasked with murdering and wreaking havoc across the Old West. He is the stuff of nightmares and is a man that you do not want to meet and get acquainted with because those who do ends up dead.
The last fact is true and creates the most bone-chilling endings in anything that I’ve ever read. Several years later after the Glanton Gang has split, The Kid and The Judge met again in a small town. The meeting ends with The Kid being killed, in a move that is pure McCarthy, off-screen. The book was filled with violence but the scene of the murder, and the murder itself, was a different level of violence that it was not described in the book. What did Holden do to The Kid that made McCarthy stay his hand from describing it in the book? That question, the didactic nature of violence, and Judge Holden himself are the things that made the most impact for me while reading this book. They haunt my nightmares to this day.