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McCarthy’s brutal masterpiece, ‘Blood Meridian,’ still shines after 25 years

Book Review | 4.5 out of 5 stars

Published: Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 08:10

It takes a true genius to find beauty in utter tragedy. In "The Inferno," Dante rendered a sweeping, breathing Hell that glowed with a beauty that stood at odds with the suffering it contained. In "Blood Meridian," Cormac McCarthy brings the same desolate aesthetic to the U.S.−Mexican border in the mid−19th century. The book follows a group of American scalp hunters in their efforts to exterminate as many Apache tribes as possible. Despite the grotesqueness of this premise, McCarthy delivers an intensely beautiful novel with a cultural relevance even greater on its 25th anniversary than its original publication in 1985. Any reader would be hard−pressed to find a better American novel from the 20th century. To put it simply, "Blood Meridian" exceeds almost all of its peers in lyrical virtuosity, thematic richness and expertly written dialogue.

The story traces the exploits of "the kid," the nameless teenage protagonist, as he joins the infamous Glanton Gang and mounts a lengthy campaign throughout Texas, Mexico and the American Southwest. McCarthy takes little time to introduce the violence of the novel's setting: The adolescent protagonist survives a gunshot to the chest within the first 10 pages and has murdered several people within the first 30. As horrific as it sounds, the violence of the novel provides McCarthy with a platform for his immense descriptive talent.

Just before the first full−scale battle of the novel, McCarthy describes the nightmarish appearance of the Apache Indians in a wonderful polysyndetic sentence that lasts for two pages: "A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery … all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning."

The massive slaughter that follows seems all the more justified by McCarthy's painstaking description of the Indians. As the novel progresses, the reader encounters countless more scenes that make the most out of this dynamic. Even in the most grotesque battles scenes, McCarthy finds a way of repelling the reader with the repugnance of his subject matter while simultaneously drawing them in with the eloquence with which he communicates it. However, "Blood Meridian" would hardly be a novel of its stature if relied solely on McCarthy's descriptive talents.

Glanton's gang of scalpers contains one of the most nightmarish characters in fiction: Judge Holden, a hairless seven−foot−tall albino who seems born from a different world altogether. Over the course of the story, the Judge revels in the violence that surrounds him, killing Mexicans and Indians alike and raping and murdering children whom he usually seduces with kindness.

For all of these horrible acts, the Judge never comes across as a character who is guided solely by his violent inclinations. His philosophy and his mastery of virtually every human occupation make him a character of immense intellectual prowess: He speaks numerous languages, is a fiddle virtuoso, converses on topics ranging from geology to divination and seems immune to the effects of sleep deprivation and starvation.

Though the Judge's egregious acts prove his evil, he would hardly be a character of such frightful substance without an equally disconcerting philosophy to inform him. The Judge's speeches to the gang comprise some of the most interesting and disturbing portions of the novel: "This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification … It is the testing of one's will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god."

In his compelling introduction to the newly released 25th Anniversary Edition, Harold Bloom finds every fictitious villain short of Shakespeare's Iago incomparable to the Judge. By creating a character who can commit such atrocities and justify them with the intellectual capacity of a genius, McCarthy unflinchingly addresses the darkest that human nature has to offer.

Though "Blood Meridian" is set during one of the grimmest periods in American history, it breaks free from the grip of its circumstances to acknowledge some of the most fundamental, unpleasant truths about humanity. The result is one of the greatest American contributions to world literature.

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