Some of my favorite places are wide open spaces. Standing in a desert field can compare with strolling through a bountiful metropolis, and I’ve traveled hours upon end to stand in some fairly desolate spots, just to listen to the dry grass crackle and to gaze upon wagon wheel ruts which can’t be erased. There’s a notion I’ve held in the past, deeply mistaken, that the western half of this country was forged and settled by brave persons, bringing thrift, order, and tenacity under canvas with their tin utensils in streaming succession, all for the glory of striking homestead in an unforgiving landscape that will, ultimately, allow itself to be subdued and civilized. There were surely settlers fitting this bill, but Cormac McCarthy doesn’t write about them.
McCarthy’s 1985 novel, Blood Meridian, is a master work of historical fiction. The novel is based upon events occurring along the Texas border just prior to the Civil War. A teenager, known only as “the kid”, drifts westward from Tennessee and is recruited to join a band of scalp hunters led by a man named John Glanton. Encouraging and molding the group is an enigmatic figure known as the Judge. The terrain and distance before the riders is fraught with both opportunity and peril, for Apache raids pepper the landscape, driving fear into settlers and prompting their government to offer large bounties for the retrieval of Indian scalps. The kid and his companions ride the wild borderlands, working their way toward the west in an abundance of bloodshed.
This small summary cannot begin to describe Blood Meridian. I finished it late last night in a marathon session which found me declaring under breath “I bloody will finish you tonight.” The novel had haunted me for over a week with its dense, tangled sentence structures and unremitting violence. And its overall tenor and denouement will serve as bloody doppelganger in my mind‘s image of the West from now on. McCarthy’s depiction of events that shaped the southwestern US may not entirely encompass the full range and savagery with which Indians were driven from their home. For this reason, I was able to read the violence, knowing that its rendering is fair and that it is the romanticizing of these events which has been so grossly perpetrated.
Yet, there is so much more to this novel than any attempt to expand upon treatment of the native peoples. McCarthy is a writer who specializes in the grand, his sentences breathing fire and scorching earth with their complexity and profundity. He’s not easy to read, and his Shakespearean-like sweep can seem dissonant and otherworldly when it meets the end of the reading session and a return to the realities of modern life. Reading Blood Meridian is stepping back in time, taking the dark path toward an unknown end, certain only that there will be no ease, no answers, only endless mysteries. Is the novel saying something about Manifest Destiny? Is McCarthy crafting Biblical allegory so fearsome that Faulkner and Melville appear light in comparison? Most chilling for this reader, could he be implying that the birthing of a nation requires the death of any who stand in the way?
The Judge thunders and shapes Blood Meridian in the way few antagonists can. He’s larger than life, taunting and driving the men with clever musings and exotic forays into artistry, music, and playfulness, all the while grooming the murderous riders for their next dip into blood bathing. And it is the almost imperceptibly subtle relationship between the Judge and the kid which held me captivated and bound me to finish a book that was quite often so disturbing that I had to put it down and return to this century for a while. The notion of honor among thieves and bandits is very deftly placed within Blood Meridian. One of the riders is a would be theologian, and he raises questions before the kid about the nature of their enterprise and leader. Yet, McCarthy gives almost no inkling that the kid even momentarily considers the man’s comments. The last pages of Blood Meridian kept me awake long past a suitable hour and are filled with such terribleness that I can’t read them again. But, before that path narrows, the kid has his own moment of wide open space.
He squatted in the sand and watched the sun on the hammered face of the water. Out there island clouds emplaned upon a salmoncolored othersea. Seafowl in silhouette. Downshore the dull surf boomed. There was a horse standing there staring out upon the darkening waters and a young colt that cavorted and trotted off and came back.
He sat watching while the sun dipped hissing in the swells. The horse stood darkly against the sky. The surf boomed in the dark and the sea’s black hide heaved in the cobbled starlight and the long pale combers loped out of the night and broke along the beach.
He rose and turned toward the lights of the town. The tide pools bright as smelter pots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.