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The New Canon: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

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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.

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 50 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.

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