The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Blood Meridian
 by Cormac
McCarthy.
Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Cormac McCarthy’s brilliance as a writer cannot lessen the
strangeness of his narratives. What other novelist moves so quickly
from loving descriptions of flora, fauna and rock formations into
bloodthirsty violence? It is almost as if one had married those
meticulous books on geology by John McPhee to the worldview of
film abattoir director Sam Peckinpah. So much compassion is
cherished on the weeds and stones, that hardly any is left over for
the poor inhabitants of McCarthy's savage borderlands.

The character of Judge Holden in McCarthy’s
Blood Meridian is
peculiar in the same way that this book is peculiar. In fact, Holden
would hardly be believable . . . if it wasn’t
for the example McCarthy sets himself.
The judge is capable, as the occasion war-
rants, of ruthless violence or remarkable
delicacy. He is fastidiously concerned with
the geology, the history, the archeology of
his Western surroundings. He will give
learned discourses on arcane and sundry
topics, in polished periods that stand out
incongruously given their settings and
audience. And then he will travel on to his
next act of bloodletting.

Here is a passage that conveys both the
exquisite beauty of McCarthy’s writing, as
well as its incorporation of mind-numbing brutality as an accepted
part of the landscape. The body of a dead youngster, who has
probably been abused and murdered, is being laid to rest—which in
the world of
Blood Meridian means having his corpse thrown into
the mud. McCarthy writes:

His neck had been broken and his head hung straight down and it
flopped over strangely when they let him onto the ground. The hills
beyond the minepit were reflected grayly in the pools of rainwater
in the courtyard and the partly eaten mule lay in the mud with its
hindquarters missing like something from a chromo of terrific war.
Within the doorless cuartel the man who’d been shot sang church
hymns and cursed God alternately. The squatters stood about the
dead boy with their wretched firearms at rest like some
tatteredemalion guard of honor.

The reader doesn’t know whether to savor those carefully chosen
words that your spellchecker would probably reject—
tatterdemalion, chromo, cuartel—or to cringe at the callousness of
the scene described. This is McCarthy at his most stylized and
disturbing; indeed, at his best, I would suggest. He excises the tragic
from his tragedies, and thus makes them more a part of everyday
life. At the same time, his accounts retain a larger-than life
resonance, a combination of grandeur and horror, because of the
respect he pays to each cuartel and cactus along the way.

Other authors have stood out for their descriptions of landscapes. I
typically view this as a minor achievement for a novelist—far more
impressive are those writers, such as Dostoevsky or James, who
explore the
inner landscapes of the soul, I would argue, than those
who merely relate the passing scenery. Yet I make an exception for
McCarthy. His bleak settings are almost external manifestations of
the emotional lives of his characters. No other writer is quite so
skilled at making his readers feel the psychic tremor at the heart of
the merely geographical.

And McCarthy has a thousand ways of describing a sparse desert
that most passersby would characterize merely as “empty.” I would
need to cite several dozen examples to convey the full richness of
this aspect of
Blood Meridian, but readers merely need to open to a
random page to find an instance of this skill. Just as a librarian
throwing a dart at the text of
The Sun Also Rises will inevitably
strike upon an account of eating or drinking, or doing the same with
Updike will encounter some creative variant on copulation, the
same technique applied to the world of
Blood Meridian will
doubtless intersect a description of prairie or desert or hill country.

A typical McCarthy passage: “They rode all day upon a pale gastine
sparsely grown with saltbush and panicgrass. In the evening they
entrained upon a hollow ground that rang so roundly under the
horses’ hooves that they stepped and sidled and rolled their eyes like
circus animals. . . . On the day following they crossed a lake of
gypsum so fine the ponies left no trace upon it.” The characters of
his books both haunt these landscapes and are haunted by them in
turn.

But don’t be fooled by this into surmising that there is not much plot
in
Blood Meridian. Cormac McCarthy mimics the conventions of
those old Western dime novels, with some fisticuffs or near-death
experience showing up every few pages. One might even trace the
similarities between this novel and, for example, a book such as
Zane Grey’s
Riders of the Purple Sage. But though Grey is a much
better writer than most highbrow critics realize (they would hardly
know, since genre novels of all sorts, and especially Westerns,
merely exist for them as objects of scorn,
not curiosity), McCarthy
is in a class by himself in celebrating in narrative form the prickly,
lonesome dramas of life in the Southwest. Of course, an even more
striking difference exists between McCarthy’s book and Grey,
Wister, et al. The Western genre demands villains and heroes; while
in the world of Cormac McCarthy, a Nietzschean will-to-power
prevails, and heroism is at best a rumor, at worst a deception.

The story of
Blood Meridian follows the exploits of a young man—
unnamed in the book and merely called “The Kid”—who falls in first
with a group of U.S. Army irregulars, and then with the Glanton
gang. John Joel Glanton is a real historical figure, who operated as a
leader of mercenaries tracking down and scalping Apaches for
Mexican authorities. But soon their violence is directed at anyone
who crosses their path at the wrong time. Just as inevitably, their
perfidy starts to seep into their dealings with each other.

Although the unnamed ‘kid” is the ostensible focal point of the story,
McCarthy is clearly far more fascinated by Judge Holden, the
erudite nihilist who accompanies Glanton on his depredations. A
survey conducted by
Book magazine in 2002, placed Holden as one
of the fifty greatest characters in fiction since 1900. And with good
reason. The paradoxical behavior of this savage savant serves as the
magnetic center of the novel, and personifies that mysterious
combination of brutishness and scrupulousness that permeates
Blood Meridian.

The judge, with his pedantic displays of learning, is best situated to
pass judgment and offer some overarching interpretation to the
cascading violence of this world gone mad. After all, Holden is the
master of court cases, precedent and principle. But in
Blood
Meridian
, all verdicts are provisional, more a matter of chance or
destiny, and power vetoes the prerogatives of reason at every turn.
Even judges in such settings mostly mouth empty words or out-and-
out lies. Truth-telling here is reserved, it seems, only for the author
himself.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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