Blood Meridian - a novel by Cormac McCarthy
There is something strangely masochistic in appreciating works of art. Certainly in the case of Cormac McCarthy, one of the most acclaimed American writers today, made pop-culture famous after the huge critical success of the movie adaptation of his novel No Country for Old Men. The unique depiction and multi-layered interpretation of a story seemingly told million times, narrated from the perspective of an older sheriff baffled and lost in the world he has lived for a couple of generations passed, firstly had me interested in McCarthy’s work. My first true contact with McCarthy’s unique prose was with his arguably most personal and also most accessible work – the most recent The Road, a simple, albeit beautiful story about a father and a son seemingly trapped in a post-apocalyptic world with barely any hope left.
As one can tell, McCarthy doesn’t really think of roses and harps when he looks at the world outside. In fact, rarely have I come across an author, both in film and literature, who has such an utterly bleak, hopeless and brutal narrative style, both in his stunning depictions of vast and ominous open landscapes and the violence that occurs frequently within them; Blood Meridian is thematically similar (at least on the surface) to No Country For Old Men, since the nature and origin of violence and the effect and the ease it has to corrupt men is a major theme in both of the novels. The major difference lies in the fact that No Country can be considered more character-driven and more human to an extent, since the protagonists are more or less decent people caught in impossible situations. Blood Meridian introduces us to the infamous Glanton gang, a scalp-hunting real-life cohort of ex-soldiers and outlaws, who are paid to massacre and slaughter everything human, plant or animal that does not resemble an armed American, with a special eye on Native Americans and Mexicans. The first and final third of the novel is narrated from the perspective of a character solely named “the kid”, who joins the Glanton gang after not having much choice in life, since from the beginning he was thrown into the merciless apocalyptic nightmare that is McCarthy’s vision of the West in the mid-19th century.
McCarthy’s demystification of the Wild West is especially interesting, when looking at it from a context of growing up playing cowboys and Indians and watching John Wayne films. Blood Meridian is by far more disturbing than any other post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read (including The Road), for two reasons; one is the fact that McCarthy throws us in the midst of the apocalypse, not bothering so much with its long-term consequences – there are bodies and carcasses everywhere, violence is escalating on every step, blood is more often visible than water or even whiskey, McCarthy doesn’t shy away from creating graphic and disturbing images that will probably prevent to make a viable movie adaptation ever (the tree of dead babies as one example, the main characters do not shy away from brutally slaughtering children…). The second reason which makes the whole thing a lot more frightening is that this “apocalypse” actually happened – a lot of the events that McCarthy dramatized did in fact happen, and some characters, like John Joe Glanton, leader of the group and one of three main characters, were real-life personas. What is also commendable to mention is that McCarthy does not take any sides in this war and doesn’t turn anything into some kind of propaganda – the Native Americans are as hungry for blood as the white men, and all the characters stay in the shades of bloodiest kind of gray imaginable.
Except for the obvious star of the novel; the character called judge Holden, who is the antagonist of the story; this is for sure one of the most memorable villains in literature I’ve read so far. The ambiguous, demonic nature of the mysterious seven-foot tall and all-bald judge is especially brought to the forefront in the book’s stunningly morbid, open-to-interpretation ending that had and will have various analyses, since McCarthy notoriously shies away from giving any kind of interviews or information about his work (actually, Oprah had a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview the writer, and she wonderfully used the time to ask the writer “does he read a lot before he writes”… Ah…). Judge Holden is the epitome of everything rotten, corrupt and dishonest in a world that is already treacherous and deceitful even without him, and his undeniable charisma through memorable monologues and teachings about the nature of humanity, origin of war etc. always gives the novel that extra push. The most humorous, enigmatic and brutal moments are interconnected with the judge’s character, and I’m sure, when the inevitable movie adaptation is to come, the biggest expectations (and paranoia) will be surrounded around the character’s transfer to the big screen. I especially enjoyed the bizarre, morally reverse father-son (or maybe something even more intimate) relationship and tension between the judge and the kid that results in the aforementioned memorable climax. Outside of that, where Blood Meridian may lack in character development, the atmosphere, the endless cleverly implemented symbolism (which will need a second reading to fully grasp and analyze) and the insufferable tension, especially in its last third, make this a success where I’m not surprised to see it being called McCarthy’s true masterpiece.
Now to explain my first sentence, reading this book was a nightmare (so I could relate to the nightmarish architecture of the novel). One could say I hated it as much as I loved it. As a non-native speaker, McCarthy’s biblical, Shakespearian way of expression, filled with thousands of archaic words and with excruciatingly long sentences, it was impossibly hard to decipher sometimes even the basic plot even when actually getting used to the rhythm and the feel of the book. One has to commend in a way that the book reads like poetry and the language is almost like its own character, something that is probably unique in modern prose. But yeah, my next book is going to be something equivalent to watching a Steven Seagal movie on TV (OK, maybe not that bad – that would be the exact opposite sort of masochism).