The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing 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, Gioia looks at Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
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 warrants, 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 — tatteredemalion, 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 stone and cactus along the way.