This is the first time I’ve read Blood Meridian or Cormac McCarthy. The novel is a post-modern, epic western, told in third-person narrative regarding the life of the Kid, who is never named. It is set in the American Southwest and Mexico in the mid-19th century – the Wild West. And it is truly wild.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have mixed emotions about Blood Meridian. It is so horrifically violent I can't quite say I enjoyed it, but it was fascinating. It seemed to me an antithesis of romantic western fiction and film. There were no good guys, no handsome cowboys with straight white teeth, little honor, no innocence.
Indeed, the only possible innocence is lost early when the main character, known only as the Kid, leaves home as a teenager in the 1840s. His home life was not idyllic to begin with, but he soon experiences greater hardship and suffering. He copes as best he can, often violently and with little regard for others. He eventually lands with the Glanton Gang, a historical group of ruthless Indian fighters, scalp and bounty hunters that massacred Apaches, and others, in the American Southwest and Mexico.
The Kid encounters a number of characters, some probably mapped to historical persons. The leader of the pseudo military unit is Captain Glanton, a ruthless pragmatic. Second in command is Judge Holden, usually referred to simply as the Judge. He is certainly no longer a legitimate judge, if ever, and is second in command not by any formal arrangement, but merely by the dominance of his personality. He is highly educated, philosophical and quick witted. At times, he is almost playful and gentle, and at others utterly ruthless and despicable. The gang hunts Apaches for bounty, paid mostly by ravished Mexican villages. This wasn't political correctness on McCarthy's part, portraying the natives as innocent victims. The Apaches are depicted just as savagely as Glanton's gang. The gang though grows more and more violent and at times massacres without cause or hope of reward. When members of the gang are injured and unable to ride, they are left behind without hesitation. The only compassion being means to end their own lives quickly, or assistance with the task.
The Judge is without a doubt the most complex member of the gang. He is nearly a giant and completely hairless. I hate to admit it, but he is almost likeable at times - almost. He is eloquent, intelligent, takes pleasure in observing the devices of nature, amused by human folly, and shows keen insight on the motivations and thoughts of others. In one emblematic discourse, he contends that war and violence are the natural and proper conditions of mankind. He has little direct interaction with the Kid, but seems to study him intently.
The reader finds himself empathizing with the Kid, no doubt McCarthy's design. I felt sorry for the Kid, sensing he was very much a victim. Though he was brutal at times, he was less depraved than most of the gang.
Eventually, the gang is destroyed and scattered. The Kid wanders the west and makes something close to an honest living. Decades after his Glanton Gang days, he encounters the Judge in a saloon. They are perhaps the only surviving members of the gang. They have a terse discussion. The Kid, now referred to as the Man, makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the Judge. The story ends with the Judge dancing naked in the saloon.
He apparently enjoys being naked and appears so at various times throughout the novel.
I've often thought the romantic notions and perceptions of the Wild West are probably far from the truth. I imagine it was a filthy, stinking, drunken, lawless place where the strong preyed upon the weak. I'm no historian, but I think McCarthy's portrayal likely comes much closer to the truth. It would be a depressing validation of the Judge's philosophy, if not for two additional truths: conflict would not forever rule the west and the wild was eventually tamed.
It makes no difference what men think of war. As well ask men what they think of stone. ~ The Judge
There is no such joy in the tavern as upon the road thereto. ~ Unnamed bar patron