Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is not directed to the inattentive (or squeamish) reader. It can seem abstruse and unreadable at times, and contains a lot of Spanish that is not translated. Rather than be put off, however, I found the writing to be extraordinary.
McCarthy’s grandiloquence is reminiscent of Faulkner in A Fable or Melville in Moby Dick. When he is not waxing eloquent, McCarthy writes simple direct sentences, albeit with an elevated vocabulary. Indeed, much of the book consists of the simple dialog of uneducated cowboys, accurately and slangily rendered. Moreover, the events described are harrowing in the extreme, enough to rivet the attention of any reader with handy access to an unabridged dictionary in both English and Spanish.
The story is about white scalp-hunters in the American southwest in the mid-19th Century. The principal protagonist is an incredibly tough and resourceful unnamed “kid,” who joins a company of savage white Indian hunters. They have contracted with the Mexican government to kill pesky Apaches. The company is paid by the scalp (or sometimes the entire head) of their victims. Lest we sympathize too much with the Native Americans, what they do to their human prey [in this story, at any rate] is even more horrific.
The kid is marginally more moral than most of his companions, who kill not only the target Apaches but also the occasional hapless Mexican or their horses, mules, or dogs when it suits them. McCarthy’s universe, however, seldom awards good deeds although it often punishes bad ones. The company comes to a bad end when it lets down its guard and is decimated by the Yuma tribe. The survivors do a pretty good job of further reducing their number as they turn against one another in a desperate effort to salvage gold, weapons, horses, and water.
McCarthy excels at materializing his landscapes; the Sonora Desert figures prominently in this book in the way it imposes hardships on all the living things that pass through it. In the 19th century, it was a hellish land in which only tough, harsh people prospered or even endured. Having lived in Tucson for ten years, I can vouch that McCarthy accurately depicts the geography and topography of the area.
Evaluation: This book clearly aspires to greatness, and by and large it succeeds. It is very gruesome, and could legitimately be considered to be a Dante-esque tour of Hell, with The Kid as our guide. The ending disappointed me; it is a bit mystical and diffuse. But maybe I just didn’t understand it.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Note: A number of academics and critics have named Blood Meridian as one of the greatest modern American novels.
Published by Random House, 1982