I found myself liking this book despite myself. It was a close call there for a while: there were a lot of parts where I scrawled “Eli Cash writing” in the margins.
The violence in this book is truly no joke and will present the biggest obstacle to anybody reading it. I think the only other work that compares in terms of sheer “I Wish I Could Read This With My Eyes Closed” is Bolaño’s rape chapters in 2666; I can definitely see now how Blood Meridian must have been a big influence for him. Throughout BM, McCartney presents us with delightful images of men wearing necklaces of human ears and human skin as cloaks, an idiot sitting in a cage chewing on his own feces (I scrawled Thanks Cormac in the margins besides this lovely image), and castrated men with “strange menstrual wounds between their legs.” (153)The chapter with the heading “Dead bush of babies” almost had me, as did the scenes of swinging babies and bashing their heads against rocks (Cormac sure likes to kill em babies, I scrawled with my pencil).
I wasn’t enjoying this book and I wasn’t looking forward to reading it. I didn’t like picking it up and carrying it around with me. I would stare at it in dread, propped up at the end of the couch, McCarthey’s intense authorly stare on the book cover, nailing me down. I re-read Harold Bloom’s introduction, wondered about his claim that BM is the kind of book he re-reads again and again; re-read Bolaño’s review in his essay collection Before Parenthesis. I read posts on IMDB of people discussing who would best be cast as the Judge (for my part, I’m sticking with Daniel Day Lewis) and long threads of people discussing the meaning of the book’s exceedingly enigmatic ending (if the ending of No Country For Old Men frustrated you or maybe even ruined the movie/book for, then be warned, Best Beloved!). The same questions kept coming up, again and again: I couldn’t get though the first forty pages. It’s too violent. It’s too much. Indeed, what’s the point of reading a book with themes that (albeit relevant and powerful) are also pretty damn depressing? Why should you read a book that’s one big downer of a bummer?
With all this talk, analysis and discussion echoing in my ears, I decided to persevere and give it another try. What eventually ended up making a big difference was that I read more slowly, pencil in hand. I underlined the landscape descriptions (out of the many!) that I liked: the sand crept past in the dark all night like armies of lice on the move. (111) A fire flickers “like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground.” (244) Dead volcanoes rise up “like the works of enormous insects.” (247) The ocean is “where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.” (304) (I can’t help but think of Moby Dick when I read this.) McCarthy can write a mean simile, and in the end I have to begrudgingly admit that stumbling upon these well-written phrases every couple of pages turned out to be one of the biggest unexpected treats of the book.
That being said, this is not an easy book to read, and I totally understand and respect the opinion of anyone who says that they just plain didn’t like it and weren’t able to get past the violence. This is not an easy book to like. Even I feel a little weird, saying that I “liked” it. To be honest, a lot of this book is pretty boring. There’s no plot to speak of. The main character for the first ninety pages disappears until the last fifty. There’s a lot of repetition, a lot of wandering around hostile landscapes, and plenty o’ scalpin’ and muderin’. What draws the reader in, I think, is the language and nature of the prose, as well as the strength of one character (the Judge), whose metaphorical heaviness lifts the novel up to another level.
Much is made of the Judge. He’s described as being a dancer, a naturalist, a learned man, a man of reason. He is the character the reader can most easily relate to (talk about an unsettling sensation!), an intellectual lover of books and long speeches. He is constantly described as an infant, shiny and bald all over his body (not even eyelashes), and is always showing up naked. He is also fond of drowning puppies, raping small children and making friends with the feces-eating village idiot. To me, he feels like the representation of a birth—of a new order, a new era for the U.S. (as represented by the expansion into Mexico) or for humanity in general. Or maybe he represents something that’s ongoing, a quality of violence and brutality that is always with us.
McCartney does a very clever thing when the Judge. He creates enough ambiguity surrounding the character so that we are never sure if the judge is just a man (albeit a psychotic one) or a devil (maybe THE devil himself). This is a very clever move on McCartney’s part, because as with the character of Chigurh in No Country For Old Men (who seemed to stand in for Death himself in many parts), this interpretation of the Judge’s character adds extra depth to his words and interactions. “What is the reader to make of the Judge?” Harold Bloom asks in his introduction, and thus earns his tenure by putting the novel’s essential question into very simple words. What does it mean, for example, that the Judge collects stones and presses leaves, only to destroy them later? “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,” he offers by way of explanation. (198) Is this just a maniacal, godlike ego craving (as I’m sure many of the current narcos in Guatemala and Mexico have also displayed), as opposed to a more Devil-like desire to destroy the world? The fact that he collects knowledge only to destroy it later implies to me that maybe it’s the progress or advancement of man’s knowledge that he wants to destroy. Here’s another intriguing section:
Books lie, he [the Judge] said.
God don’t lie.
No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.
He held up a chunk of rock.
He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.
(116) So by destroying what he collects from nature, is he attempting to destroy God?
Another big theme in this book is violence, obviously, or more specifically the legacy and tradition of violence. The Judge has a speech on page 146-147 that I found particularly worthy of underlining:
What is true of one man, said the judge, is true of many … All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage. So. Here are the dead fathers. Their spirit is entombed in the stone. It lies upon the land with the same weight and the same ubiquity.
The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no warning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day… This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again.
To me, the Judge is expressing a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature and civilization here. Mankind is doomed to repeat itself in never-ending legacies of violence, as did “the dead fathers.” In the same way that frontiersmen stood in the ruins of slaughtered Anasazi villages, so will others one day stand in the ruins of our suburbs and our malls, as in The Road. I don’t know anything about McCartney’s background or personal beliefs, but I definitely get the sense from his books that he genuinely believes that as a human race we are dooming ourselves.
This passage also seems to hint at the meaning of the title: Blood Meridian, a circle of blood, never-ending, that basically represents human society. This book could have just as easily taken place in the modern day era, with Mexican drug lords replaced for Gleason’s gang, slaughtering illegal immigrants and rural Mexican peasants instead of indigenous tribes. (There’s a really great line on page 34 where a character says “There is no government in Mexico. Hell, there’s no God in Mexico. Never will be.”)
Here’s another passage discussing violence, as espoused by the Judge (the first speaker):
“All other trades are contained in that of war.
Is that why war endures?
No. It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.
That’s your notion.
The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work…
He goes on to talk about stakes, and how once death gets involved, say in a card game, the value and the meaning of a game becomes much higher. In the context of a game, nobody goes on to question whether it’s justified for the loser to die, but instead accepts that the man has to die because of the authority of the game: his card was lower, he loses, he dies.
“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… War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.”
It’s fascinating, heavy, intense stuff. War as god? There’s another great, classic line of the Judge, in which he says, “If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.” (307) Antic clay? “What joins men together is not the sharing of bread but the sharing of enemies.” Holey moley.
So is there ANY hope in this book at all, you might be asking? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Some people (Howard Bloom, specifically) see the ending as this Prometheus-like promise of someone rising up in order to fight the Judge, but that sounds a little too much like X-Men to me. I’ve read other theories that the ending represents the building of fences and railroads, the so-called “civilization” and “taming” of the landscape of the West, thus representing a transition to a happier, more stable time—but I don’t buy that as a happy ending either. Civilization as clean and bloodless—where the heck did THAT idea come from?
For me, what little goodness or hope that comes up in small glimmers in this novel (in a book like this you gotta grasp at whatever puny straws are available to you!) is best portrayed by the main character, the Kid. It’s hard to call him the main character when he remains off stage for so much of the narrative, but he’s there at the beginning and is there at the end and it’s his struggles with the Judge (a fight for his soul, almost) that represents the book’s true climax in a novel full of scenes that could stand in for climaxes. For much of the book the Judge, the action sequences or the landscape are the focus, but the journey is the Kid’s.
The Kid is not much of a 3-D character. Whatever we think of him is going to stem from what we project upon him. He does display a certain resilience and grittiness in his early struggles before joining the gang (as well as his own version of bloodthirstiness and ruthlessness that I guess was normal for the era but still repelled me). I liked his matter-of-fact, blunt nature and his terse smart-ass responses to people’s questions, as when a companion comments “This is a terrible place to die in,” he replies, “Where’s a good one?” (208)
As the violence in the book gets worse, the kid does arguably reveal himself to be more compassionate than the others, like when he’s the only one who volunteers to try pulling an arrow out of a friend’s leg in order to reduce his suffering. (162) And then there’s the part in the desert where the kid has the opportunity to shoot the judge, at his friend’s urging, but doesn’t. (285) The fact that McCartney uses the name ‘The Kid’ for his main character makes me wonder if the Kid is supposed to stand in for children in general, or future generations. What kind of hope is there for them out there? What kind of person are they supposed to be, if this is the environment they’re living in?
There are several instances in which the Kid does come off as heartbreakingly child-like; such as when he summarizes his story to a dried-up corpse of an old Mexican woman he finds in the desert with heartbreaking simplicity: “He told her that he was an American and that he was a long way from the country of his birth and that he had no family and that he had traveled much and seen many things had been at war and endured hardships.” (315) Talk about an understatement; it reminds me of the kids at the B&GC who tell me how they ended up in foster care. Even though the Kid seems to be resisting the Judge throughout the novel, he nevertheless reveals himself as not exempt to the Judge’s theories. In the novel’s last chapter, years after the main events, he shoots a young child (no older than his age at the book’s beginning) for attempting to steal from him. And thus the violence continues, as it always does.
I guess the main reason I like the Kid is for how he carries himself during the climatic last scene in the novel in which he encounters the Judge one last time. The plight of the dancing bear onstage in the background just adds to the surrealist and carnivalesque atmosphere. I agree with Harold Bloom: the part where the kid looks the Judge straight in the eye and tells him “you aint nothing” is the bravest thing anyone does in the book, and is arguably the book’s key moment. He looks the judge in the face, sizes him up, and tells him point-blank, “Even a dumb animal can dance.” (331) This feels like a huge victory to me. By telling the Judge “you ain’t nothing” and comparing him to the dancing bear, a bear that dances because it has to, because of the cage it’s in, the Kid is cutting the Judge down to size. You’re no Devil, he seems to be saying. You’re no demon. You’re just a seriously ****-ed up pedophile psychotic guy.
Me, I’m with the Kid here. I don’t really want to give the Judge enough respect or credit by thinking of him as this Devil, apocalyptic character. It’s true that when he re-appears again after twenty-something years he is described as not having aged a bit, and the last sentence of the novel (before the epilogue) is He says that he will never die. There’s one part where he seems to perform magic, causing a coin to float through the air, (246) but quite frankly, Best Beloved, I don’t buy it. Or, to be more specific: I refuse to buy it! On principle! He’s pretty damn evil, sure, but to be honest, he could be a stand-in for any of these narco drug-trafficking lords running around in the world today. It sounds horrible, but it’s true: this story could just as easily have been set in a contemporary era with some tweaking.
In the writing of this novel, McCarthy definitely had his fingers on the pulse of something that we don’t often like to think about: the nature and the existence of evil. It’s undeniable, basically. There are CRUEL people in this world doing cruel, horrible things. Evil exists. It is out there. The question is, does that define humanity? Are we a plague that deserves to be wiped out? Does the fact that we bond over the sharing of bread from time to time balance out the fact that we also bond more often than not over the sharing of our enemies?
In summary, this is a big and important book to read, and I’m glad that I did, even though I almost gave up at the beginning. I’m glad I persevered. I can definitely see why this is assigned so much in universities; there’s a lot of juicy stuff to unpack. If I had to write a paper about it, I would probably steal from Bolaño’s short mini review (found in his wonderful Beyond Parentheses) and write about the role of the landscape. Or I would write about how McCartney is able to achieve the Kid as a stand-in for the reader.
With Infinite Jest and now this I definitely feel a little more ready for Gravity’s Rainbow, in terms of continuing my spree of Conquering the Difficult To Read Contemporary American Novels… sally forth.