Thursday, 26 May 2011

Book Review - Blood meridian, or, the evening redness in the west by Cormac McCarthy

Blood meridian,or, the evening redness in the west by Cormac McCarthy

First published in 1985 - various editions, the one read here was -

Published in 1992 by Vintage International ISBN 9780679728757

No less a person than Harold Bloom has included this book in the pantheon of American literature, claiming that it is the equal of Moby Dick and As I Lay Dying, which is great praise indeed. And who am I to disagree? This is indeed a great work of literature, one that, like Moby Dick, repays re-reading.

First, the bare bones of the narrative - we are introduced to The Kid (we never learn his name) when he is a child in Tennessee, he runs away from home within the first couple of pages, has a brief encounter with Judge Holden, and joins a mercenary group that gets massacred by Comanches. He then joins up with the Glanton gang (- a link to a historical reality, the gang existed somewhat as McCarthy describes), which exist to drive Indians out of the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico - they are paid for scalps. The greater part of the work is to do with the deeds of the Glanton gang, of their attacks on Indians and Mexicans, of them being hunted by the Mexican army, and finally being massacred by Yuma Indians. The Kid escapes this massacre, as does the Judge. The final section of the book is set 20-30 years later, when The Kid again encounters Judge Holden, and meets his demise.

While the book is ostensibly about The Kid, the major character in the work is Judge Holden - He is physically abhorrent (7 feet tall, massive, overweight, not a hair on his body or his head, and the palest of pale white), incredibly knowledgeable and intelligent, and extremely violent. His presence dominates everything the Glanton gang does. He discourses on the meaning of life at the drop of a hat, and never fails to smile. He appears almost miraculously to save the Glanton gang (before The Kid joined them - he is told the story by an ex-priest), making gunpowder almost from nothing for them to kill their pursuers. He can speak any language that presents itself (I think I counted in the book French, German, Spanish and Dutch), and sketches and takes notes on all the history, botany and biology he can. He also drowns puppies, kills and scalps women and children, and is probably a pedophile. He is an image of Civilization in all its accomplishments and cruelties. He comes through the book unscathed, seemingly reborn after each brush with death (McCarthy uses the image of newborn babes or rebirth quite often when writing about the Judge). At the end of the book he is the only member of the gang still alive, as he dances naked, yelling that he never sleeps and never dies. He is possibly the Devil - the ex-priest thinks he is - The Kid has the chance to kill him but doesn't, perhaps recognising that the Judge encompases humanity, and that in fact what he represents can never die.

The Kid is un-knowable. Terrible things happen to him time and time again, and he bears it. He says little, and we are not privy to his thoughts (apart from dreams about the Judge later in his life). On more than one occasion he stays with wounded or sick people to his own detriment, but he also leaves other people to their fate. The Judge recognised The Kid as the one person in the gang who never fell under his spell one way or the other. Perhaps The Kid is the ultimate observer, or perhaps a cipher on which the actions of others can play out. I am unsure.

The other great "character" in this book is the land itself. Much like areas of Australia (where I live), the country of the South West borderlands of the U.S.A. is amazingly varied, and always awe inspiring. People are insignificant in it and compared to it, and McCarthy conveys that well - there are many extended passages of landscape description, which raise the country up to almost a mythical status.

Which brings us to the subject of McCarthy's use of language. The entire book is written in an almost biblical tone - words have been deliberately chosen for their resonance on the page and in the mind. The landscape is described in grandiose terms, and the men (the novel is mostly populated by men), are made to be almost leprous in their filth, poverty of dress, and repulsiveness. None of the speech in the novel is within quotation marks or separated, which means it is not privileged in any way above the descriptive writing, which gives the book a wholeness, with the human characters being part of a bigger story.

The other thing that should be mentioned is the graphic depiction of violence in the novel - violence committed (Judge Holden aside) by seemingly normal, if hardened, men. Some have written that these depictions are over the top, but it seems to me that they serve a purpose to make the reality of what occurs that much starker.

Like much great literature Blood meridian is a book about everything and nothing and a book that leaves a lasting image in your mind.

You really should read this book - check it out at your local library, bookshop, or Amazon.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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