“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow.” –Blood Meridian
Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West might be one of the top five novels of Modern American literature.
I say “might be” because it is probably too soon to make that judgment even though the novel was published in 1985. Moby-Dick did not gain dominance over American literature until after WWII and it was first published in 1851 to mediocre reviews and multiple head-scratching.
Sometimes it takes decades for an American novel to assume its rightful place in the rarefied pantheon of Great American Novels. I know some critics have placed McCarthy’s work there. Personally, I think it is safe to say Blood Meridian is not deserving of that distinction…not yet. But one day it could be, and probably should be.
Nevertheless, Blood Meridian is, without doubt, a definitive western of lasting power. It is, by any metric, a masterpiece of emotion, raw moment, and language:
“When the dogs announced them the sun was already down and the western land red and smoking and they rode singlefile in cameo detailed by the winey light with their dark sides to the river.”
Blood Meridian tells the story of the Glanton Gang (historically accurate) working the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s who murder Native Americans for their scalps. (This was actually quite a lucrative business.) Already animalistic the gang starts scalping anyone who falls across their path and sells the scalps for gold. The novel deconstructs myths and Hollywood-inspired tropes promulgated upon an unsuspecting public. I say “unsuspecting” because many readers (and, sadly, some writers of the genre) have been nurtured and pampered through the bubblegum influence of pulp magazines, Saturday morning television, and cartoonish movie serials.
This dangerously simplistic notion the Old West was one thing explicit, when we have solid historical proof it was quite another, has taken deep root throughout our Western Culture. Many western writers toil in the overarching shadow of this awful growth and its pervasive, debilitating influence. This becomes evident in the now-infamous line of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence when a newspaperman sagely opines if the legend becomes fact, one should by necessity be forced to print the legend. Thus, the power of myth, and its ability to sometimes usurp and weaken historical evidence.
Blood Meridian breaks those barriers down with grim remorse. At its core are philosophical elements of Gnosticism and Nihilism. However, the violence on every page is in no way symbolic or meaningful. McCarthy doesn’t use violence for shock effect or to elevate character description. Nor does he use it as a cheap literary device to move his readers. In his novels, and Blood Meridian in particular, violence exists for one reason: because man exists. Only once in the entire novel does a character allow himself to wonder if there is any other being in the universe more terrible than Man. The answer is quite clear: there is not. We are alone on that red plain.
From the pronouncement “war is god” to the line “If god meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?” the terrifying and enigmatic antagonist, Judge Holden, moves with unadulterated power through the entire novel. The Gnostic influences are evident both in his philosophy and his determination to judge not only the men around him but the very world itself. This dovetails with the grim actions of the gang and how they interact and shape the Texas-Mexican border through their own violent actions. It is an amazing novel.
I can’t promise you will like Blood Meridian. One suspects many readers will be turned off by the unremitting (almost uncaring) violence and the cold, enigmatic ending. We have been conditioned to believe violence must mean something, that it must have cause and thereby fit neatly within our dualistic universe. Books, movies and television have conditioned us to believe the world must be righted if canted over, and all will be wrapped in a neat, pretty bow before the credits roll. That simply doesn’t happen in this novel. Because, as Judge Holden argues via his very actions, violence just is.
I definitely recommend this novel. And, if you write westerns of any type, you would do well to read this American masterpiece and perhaps learn something from it about the western genre, and maybe even yourself. It’s that powerful.