Dusted Off: Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West
All the pretty corpses
Until 1992, with the publication of the National Book Award-winning All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy had been a writer’s writer: a writer few except other writers (and critics) read. McCarthy hadn’t helped himself, either. Like contemporaries Thomas Pynchon and J. D. Salinger, he refused to give interviews and readings or do book tours. Legend had him living under an oil derrick, in fleabite motels, a mobile home. He famously turned down a high-paying lecture gig despite having little money for food.
Since Horses, though, McCarthy’s fame has grown steadily, helped
this past year by the Coen Brothers’ Academy Award-winning adaption of
his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men and that fact that his most recent book, the searing, post-apocalyptic The Road, won the Pulitzer Prize and is currently being filmed, with star Viggo Mortensen.
But as powerful as all of McCarthy’s novels are, none can touch his true masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985). Set around 1850 along the Texas-Mexico borderlands and based on true events and people, it chronicles the carnage of the Glanton Gang, a group of mercenaries commissioned to collect Indian scalps in Mexico. With its treefuls of dead babies, its pillages, rapes and massacres, its hundreds and hundreds of maimings, scalpings and murders, Blood Meridian may be the most violent book west of the Bible. It’s also one of the most beautifully written novels in American history, with blood and gore rendered to art, lightning that “provokes mountains” from darkness, and pages littered with exquisite corpses.
Centering the novel is Judge Holden, a seven-foot-tall, hairless genius who charts the world in notebooks and speaks in riddles and parables, and who is said to have met each member of the Glanton Gang at some point in their lives. He speaks all languages and fiddles like a prodigy and says that he will never die. He is a pedophile. He pulls, on a leash, a naked “idiot.”
Once, pursued and out of ammunition, the gang follows the judge into a mountain pass. There, as they watch and the Mexicans approach, the judge uses bat guano to make gun powder—McCarthy’s use of precise detail is amazing—and saves them all. He’s a Nietzschean superman, outside the bounds of right and wrong.
Judge Holden is like McCarthy himself, the writer/creator inserted into his own novel. (Think Keanu Reeves at the end of The Matrix.)
War, the judge says, is God. If that is so, then he himself is Blood Meridian’s Jesus.