I have recently finished reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. The novel is tells the story of an unmanned fourteen year old who wanders the American frontier and Mexico in the year 1849. It is held in high regard as one of the most important American novels of the last few decades, and when I started reading it I found it easy to see why. Every sentence is perfect, not one is wasted. While it has a sizable caste of memorable characters like any other good book does, the impersonal and unexplained nature of the protagonist, known only as “the kid,” is what really interested me.
The reason Blood Meridian is so esteemed by critics is because of the highly ambiguous nature of the narrative. Plot is very difficult to discern at first, but the action increasingly begins to focus on a group of mercenaries whom the kid joins with. They are given a mission to collect the scalps of several Apache chiefs. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the mercenaries get a little greedy and start killing anyone they see. Its hands down the most violent and disturbing book I’ve ever read. Violence of every sort is indiscriminate, but unpredictable; there is no knowing who will be harmed next or whether they will be harmed at all.
Most brutal of all is the second in command of the mercenaries, the enigmatic Judge Holden. Seven feet tall, three hundred pounds, and completely devoid of hair or color, the judge is what makes the novel so memorable. Though unspeakably vicious, he is also a true Renaissance Man and has supernatural skill in a huge range of interests. The mixture of cruelty and genius is what makes him so compelling, he is a truly formidable force. The overall meaning of the text is a matter of debate, but many critics have reached a consensus that the novel has Gnostic elements; Holden’s various monologues on the nature of war and his insatiable quest for knowledge are what have led readers to this conclusion. I think that theory is likely, it makes perfect sense. However whatever intentional themes Blood Meridian has remains unstated, I really enjoyed the extent that I was left to conclude things for myself.
As a fan of historical fiction, I found this book’s unflinching portrayal of its setting a real kick in the pants that modern people need. Rather then portray the journey West as one of great promise and self improvement, McCarthy turns into a cynical, nightmarish sojourn into a world where life has no value. All of the atrocities detailed are ones that were commonplace, I know that from reading history books; but reading about these events in fiction is very different. The thing that makes the delivery so effective is that no moral judgment is passed at all. Is it really necessary to tell readers that massacring an entire village to sell their scalps is evil? Instead readers are left to make their own judgments; and decide for themselves who is good or evil.
Overall I found Blood Meridian an excellent book, and I recommend it to anyone who thinks they can handle the gore. It was a very challenging book to read, but braving though was ultimately worth doing.