There are books that strike you and then are books that run you through; books that walk the narrative right into your guts – inch by inch – as though it were a lance. Such work leaves me quieted for a few days, pondering what to make of it. Immediately after reading this novel, I was not quite sure what I wanted to say. Off the cuff, I came to the conclusion that that Blood Meridian establishes Cormac McCarthy as a living American master; that said, I do not wish to waste time by gushing over this novel’s finer qualities in a general fashion. Instead, I am interested in some of the specific stylistic moves the author made that managed to rattle my back teeth. One such move is to frame depictions of deadpan violence with a narrative voice that sounds both ancient and elevated.
First off, the book just feels old. Though set in the American west, this novel subverts most of the expectations of the genre using tactics that keep the reader off balance while providing specifics that anchor the story in the nineteenth century frontier. This is accomplished before you have read word one of the body text as McCarthy sets up the aura of classic saga by using chapter headings. For example, the headings for chapter five read: “Adrift on the Bolson de Mapimi – Sproule – Tree of dead Babies – Scenes From the Massacre – Sopilotes…” (55). Setting the headers up in this fashion is effective because the reader is tuned in to read a story with epic characteristics. Fragments like “Adrift on the Bolson de Mapimi” Simultaneously invoke the The Odyssey and Moby Dick. However, when I read “Tree of dead Babies,” I have no literary reference point for the image. It is an unexpected and grotesque landmark in a text replete with grotesqueries that become exponentially more extreme as the novel unfolds. The violence depicted in Meridian is unrelenting but far from gratuitous as the author continues to raise the stakes, through plot and theme. The result is a reader that is invested in the journey, possibly wondering if they will ever become as inured to the death and the depravity as the characters seem to be. McCarthy does a first-rate job of depicting the Glanton Gang’s decent into barbarism. The gang starts out as a group of outlaws and killers who are working as an instrument of the Mexican government and end up a roving band of murderers who kill indiscriminately. The narrative arc itself becomes a topic of conversation as some readers might see the group as unrestrained and immoral from the outset; at their “best”, the gang is collecting bounties on scalps collected from men, women and children. However, I would argue the gang certainly crosses moral boundaries, only to redraw then cross them again; this is, for me, clearly an exploration of warfare and the ‘rules’ one abides by. After all, they starts out working under a rough code of conduct, then let the facade fall away at the banquet. But by the time the gang takes over the ferry, they have shed any trappings of outward misdirection that they are anything more than killers and thieves.
To be sure, the core of the action in this novel is straight forward brutality, but the violence is framed with poetic exposition, philosophical soliloquies, and unexpected tangents that consistently keeps the feel of this narrative in flux between the American frontier, the plain outside the walls of Troy, or some yet unexplored level of the inferno:
With the darkness one soul rose wondrously from among the new slain dead and stole away in the moonlight. The ground where he’d lain was soaked with blood and with urine from the voided bladders of the animals and he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself (55).
Zane Gray or Louis Lamour this most certainly is not. In maintaining this narrative voice throughout a novel about the nineteenth century frontier, McCarthy responds to the mythology of Davy Crockett and the grand narrative of manifest destiny that is tossed off as a quaint, abstract idea in middle school history courses from sea to shining sea. I would not presume to know McCarthy’s intent in writing about the scalp trade of the Mexican Texas border, a particularly bloody location, physically and historically in the history of both America and Mexico; but, I cannot help but read this novel as an extended metaphor for western expansion. However, instead of being didactic, the novel floats along using the cloud of myth; it is the same myth that helps to place these tottering instruments of genocide alongside Agamemnon or Priam’s rank and file. Maintaining the elevated voice is a feat in itself, but it is most effective because it is partnered with the laconic dialogue and straight-ahead violence that characterizes the western. And the bulk of the dialogue, with the exception of Judge Holden, is the kind of stoic, deadpan phrases one expects. The skill with which McCarthy displays in shifting between detailed description and immediate action makes the novel a lush experience.
After reading The Road, I was impressed with McCarthy’s style, but Blood Meridian left me in awe of this author’s ability to articulate a larger narrative. I feel like I have a lot to learn from this novel, and I look forward to dipping into it in the future.