Cormac Blood Meridian Novelist
“BLOOD MERIDIAN” comes at the reader sort of a slap within the face, an affront that asks us to endure a vision of the Old West filled with charred human skulls, blood-soaked scalps, a tree hung with the bodies of dead infants. But while Cormac McCarthy’s fifth novel is tough to urge through, it’s harder to ignore. Any page of his work reveals his originality, a fanatical voice given equally to ugliness and lyricism. Over the past 20 years the brutality of his subjects may have kept readers away, but the facility of his writing has earned high critical repute. Three early novels, actually – ”The Orchard Keeper,” ”Outer Dark” and ”Child of God” – are reissued within the Ecco Press series, ”Neglected Works of the 20 th Century.”
This latest book is his most vital , for it puts in perspective the Faulknerian language and unprovoked violence running through the previous works, which were often viewed as exercises a la mode or studies of evil. ”Blood Meridian” makes it clear that each one along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not so as to know it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the important and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.
Loosely supported historical events, the novel follows a fictitious 14-year-old called only ”the kid” – born in 1833, exactly 100 years before the author – as he drifts through the Southwest. He soon joins an outlaw band of Indian hunters who are hired by a Mexican governor to return Apache scalps at $100 apiece. These misfits – including an ex-priest, a person with initials tattooed on his forehead and a mysterious, erudite judge named Holden – have a taste for blood and death that Mr. McCarthy seems to enjoy .
Grotesque descriptions are alleviated by scenes which may have come off a movie screen. Indians undergo the novel like extras during a Fellini film, ”wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery . . . one during a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a blood stained weddingveil.” The kid’s terseness may be a mild parody of B-movie westerns. watching a severed head, ”he spat and wiped his mouth. He aint no kin to me, he said.” The horrifying details stick in our minds, however, while the surreal elements melt away.
That imbalance may be a problem, for Mr. McCarthy’s emphasis isn’t on the violent set pieces but on the characters’ reactions to them. the child recedes into the background because the judge comes forward, in scene after scene sounding the novel’s major themes and hinting at the author’s strategy. Half-naked, the judge sits among the others by the hearth ”like an icon” and pontificates. One who observed a conflict between two enemies ”expressed the very nature of the witness and . . . was no third thing but rather the prime, for what might be said to occur unobserved?” Pointing to the encompassing Indian ruins he announces, ”Here are the dead fathers” against whom their descendants define themselves.
The kid and therefore the judge are our own dead fathers, whom Mr. McCarthy resurrects for us to witness. He distances us not only from the historical past, not only from our cowboy-and-Indian images of it, but also from revisionist theories that make white men the villains and Indians the victims. All men are unremittingly bloodthirsty here, poised at a peak of violence, the ”meridian” from which their civilization will quickly fall. War may be a civilized ritual beyond morality for the judge, but not for Mr. McCarthy, who positions his readers to guage the characters’ moral and philosophical stances. the child frequently responds to the judge’s grandiose speeches by saying, ”You’re crazy” – a notion so plausible that it effectively undermines the judge’s authority.
Mr. McCarthy carefully builds this dialectic only to allow us to down with a stylistically dazzling but facile conclusion. Years later, during a saloon where a bear dances on stage, the child encounters the judge, who calls himself a ”true dancer” of history, one who recognizes ”the sanctity of blood.” there’s a touch that he kills the child . Last seen as a towering figure on stage, the judge is ”naked, dancing . . . He says that he will never die.” H E is denied the last word, though. Mr. McCarthy’s half-page epilogue presents a person crossing the plain making holes within the ground, blindly followed by other men who look for meaning during this pattern of holes. The judge’s enigmatic dance and therefore the long ordeal of the novel’s violence demand quite this easy ambiguity. There are, of course, no answers to the life-and-death issues Mr. McCarthy raises, but there are more rigorous, coherent ways to border the questions.