the Modern Library cover of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West

  • Author:  Cormac McCarthy  (b. 1933)
  • Rank:  #63
  • Published:  1985
  • Publisher:  Random House
  • Pages:  337
  • First Lines:  “See the child.  He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.”
  • Last Line:  “Then they all move on again.”
  • ML Edition:  Gold Edition
  • Acclaim:  Runner-up – Best Novel of the Last 25 Years (New York Times – 2006); All-TIME 100
  • Film:  forthcoming
  • First Read:  Spring, 2002

The Novel: When I do my rankings of films and novels, I do them independently.  But sometimes, there are some serendipitous placings.  Here we have Cormac McCarthy, one of two contemporary writers whose style echoes that of William Faulkner (the other, of course, is Toni Morrison).  In some ways, this is not only his most Faulkneresque novel, in both style and content.  It is also a brutal, violent book that examines the very nature of evil itself.  It is a natural godson to Faulkner’s Sanctuary, which will be the next novel on the list.  As is said in Magnolia, “These strange things happen all the time.”

There is a line not too far into the book that seems to sum it up succinctly: “I know your kind, he said.  What’s wrong with you is wrong all the way through you.”  There are many characters in the novel, indeed of all of McCarthy’s work for whom this statement is apt.  The two main characters here are the kid and Judge Holden.  The kid becomes part of a gang that is marauding its way across the southwest in pursuit of Indian scalps.  His life then becomes intertwined with that of the Judge.  We follow the trail of the kid as he emerges from his childhood: “Only now is the child finally divested of all that he has been.  His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.”  This is blistering language, the description of something that could have been if only there had been someone else at the potter’s wheel, a Thomas Hardy notion shaped through Faulkner’s style and McCarthy’s language born out of American brutality.

There is the kid, of course, the protagonist.  This kid is scarred while young by what he sees on the trail.  How could you not be scarred when this kind of description is what you see in life: “In the morning a urinecolored sun rose blearily through panes of dust on a dim world and without feature.”  But he has a chance to somehow escape the brutal violence of this life, to perhaps escape into life (which, of course, depends on your interpretation of the end of the book).  The kid has nothing on Judge Holden.  This is one of the most brutal, depraved (it’s incredible how many scenes involve the Judge being naked), horrifying characters to ever come to life in a major work of fiction.  He calls himself a Judge, yet this is how his thinking goes: “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.”

That quote comes most of the way through the novel, at a point where many readers never reach.  The book courses with violence (“Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.”), runs aground in amorality and is a difficult read for anyone with even the slightest moral bearing.

McCarthy is one of the very best of American writers, one of the old generation, along with Roth, Morrison and Pynchon and this is his best book.  You might not find yourself able to read him, or, if you start, to finish.  But there is an amazing grasp of story and language to be found here.  And you find notions that will shakes you to the core.

“The wrath of God lies sleeping.  It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it.  Hell aint half full.”