I started Cormac McCarthy’s first Southwestern novel, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, in 1994 and I finished it this year. It’s not a long novel and like most of McCarthy’s work beautifully written. I stopped and started over the years due to the themes and the perpetual bleak violence of the story. I mean violence.
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a masterpiece of violence and violent people. His true account has horrifying passages but Capote’s genius lies with the words relaying these atrocities. They are poetic and beautifully structured. They slip a veil across the acts, that are no less horrifying, but soft focused by the rhythm of the telling.
McCarthy has not such an agenda, his tale of the 1849 Glanton Gang, scalp hunters massacring Native Americans and others for profit and entertainment, is clear eyed and terrifyingly focused. Adding to that stew is the introduction of a teenager, referred to throughout the novel as only “the kid” and the presence of a genius murderous, maniacal pedophile called Judge Holden.
That violence runs to the other side, too, with a blistering account of an Apache raid that covers almost a page without punctuation. It is astonishing and also the point where I usually put the book down. It’s almost too much.
So why did I always return to these horrid tale? One, I love McCarthy’s work, No Country For Old Men, The Road and All The Pretty Horses are some of my favorite modern novels. And as bleak and violent as they are, they cannot hold the darkness dripping from Blood Meridian. Two, its critical reverence is vast and influential. TIME Magazine listed it as one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. So I tried, again and again.
Finally this year I pushed through the tide of blood and finally caught the phantom’s coat that runs through the story. After a while the barrage of violence numbs you and you begin to feel the beauty of the words and the power of the narrative. I realized the reason I stopped was that it was too well written. McCarthy’s prose is unfettered in its depiction of the brutality, so much so it becomes elegantly elegiac . So much so you feel guilty admiring it but you decide to travel on to see where the red beauty takes you.
I cannot recommend Blood Meridian to anyone, it’s too polarizing. I will not read it again unless to go back to a certain passage for some clarification I may need. But I will never forget it. Judge Holden is etched in my brain and I believe is one of American literature’s great, if not greatest, villain. To prove my point of this work, when I think back on it, it is not just the carnage or the atrocities that reverberate in my mind’s eye, but also an image of a big sad dancing bear.
“Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance. – The judge”
― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West