by Cormac McCarthy
What a pleasure to read an author you didn't think you'd be that keen on and to discover that they're quite brilliant. After devouring The Road recently next on the list was his 'masterpiece' Blood Meridian. I have an irrational hatred of Westerns as a genre so I was tentative to say the least but whilst this is a very different book in many ways it is still suffused with the apocolyptic vision, the extreme violence of man and at its heart a child trying to survive.
'The kid' is a young boy from Tennessee, born during a meteor shower in 1833, who runs away from home at 14 and quickly establishes himself as a fighter and survives his first shooting (that's the first two pages). At a religious meeting in Nacogdoches he first encounters 'Judge' Holden, the huge demonic presence that dominates this novel. Seven feet tall with a vast, domed hairless head he cuts an imposing figure and causes a riot when he accuses a preacher of paedophilia and bestiality, later claiming to have never met the man before. The kid will cross paths with him again more than once but not before he has his second brush with death whilst on a fillibustering mission. In an unforgettable two page paragraph they are attacked by Comanche warriors and as one of the few survivors he walks away 'stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself'.
The bulk of the novel describes his time with Glanton and his gang of scalp-hunters. This is an age where the westward expansion of the United States means a bounty for any Apache scalp and this leads them into ever greater acts of violence against innocent natives and Mexicans. Amongst this group is the judge who, almost biblicly, appeared in the desert at a time of great need, helping the gang to manufature gunpowder mysteriously from the top of a mountain. Just like the kid each man of the gang claims to have met the judge at some point before. Who is this man who kills for sport and claims at the end of the novel that he will never die?
The plot of this novel is not really the important thing; this is a battle between the evil and violent side of human nature and the quality which sets the kid apart: Mercy. The violence is unremitting and extreme, too hard for some readers to stomach no doubt but written with such exquisite detail it is hard not to admire. Like a painting by Brueghel or the infamous Nazi sculptures of the Chapman brothers McCarthy is describing a landscape of violence, as when we come across a bush hung with dead babies 'Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being'.
I feel I could quote vast chunks of text as there are so many passages that stick in the mind, recalling classics of literature as John Banville has summised, 'The book reads like a conflation of the Inferno, The Iliad and Moby Dick.' Near the end of the novel the kid spots a large man walking towards them, a smaller figure beside him: The judge with a parasol made of bone and animal hide and an imbecile on a lead, 'like some scurrilous king stripped of his vestiture and driven together with his fool into the wilderness to die'. I found myself thinking of Pozzo leading Lucky through the wilderness of Waiting for Godot for a meeting just as extraordinary.
This novel is a masterpiece, describing in detailed prose the very qualities in man that place the concepts of hell, purgatory and the banality of evil very firmly on Earth rather than banished to the fiery regions of religious judgement. The everyman hero, the grotesque adversary, the ambiguous ending and the ambitious and mythical quality to the writing make this a novel which surley deserves its place as a runner-up in the best American fiction of the last 25 years.