the evening redness in the west
This is Cormac McCarthy's contribution to the cliche-ridden yet somehow still fertile genre of the American Western. There have been many artistic works which have attacked the myth-making apparatus of the Western, such as Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, but Blood Meridian goes further than any other in the brutality and unrelenting inhumanity of its vision. Set in the 1840's, it deals with the raids made into West Texas and Mexico by a group of mercenaries in search of Indian scalps.
The 'hero' of Blood Meridian is a young man known only as 'the kid' or 'the man', in an obvious reference to the tradition of the 'Man With No Name' in a story remade many times, from Yojimbo to A Fistful of Dollars to Last Man Standing, but where the Man With No Name is glorified and given an air of mythic superiority, McCarthy's kid is portrayed as an uneducated, vicious survivor, the only thing to distinguish him from his fellow killers being a strange spark of feeling or intelligence which he keeps well hidden.
However, the Kid is not really the central figure in Blood Meridian. This honour belongs to the judge, a larger-than-life character who brings together in a single person all the murder and sensitivity and intelligence and amorality of which humans are capable. He stands over seven feet tall, has no hair anywhere on his body, and is superhumanly strong, but combines these fairytale characteristics with a voracious scientific curiosity and a preternatural calm, so that the reader becomes as fascinated with him as do the other characters in the book, who rally around him and listen to his stories all night around the campfire. The judge justifies his actions with a philosophy of absolute humanism and self-reliance:
"Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent...he man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate."
The judge and the kid emerge as adversaries in a strange way, due to the connection between them. Each recognizes in the other a spark of awareness absent from the others around them - an awareness that stays alive through the horrible bloodshed and meaningless violence they partake in. The judge talks endlessly about life, and the kid says almost nothing, but each knows the other, and knows that one day, probably not so many pages from the end, one of them will kill the other.
What makes Blood Meridian such an amazing book is the power of Mccarthy's descriptive writing, which turns rainshowers into Biblical floods, and salt plains into landscapes from an alien world. There are endless passages describing the judge, the kid, and their company of mercenaries crawling through enormous, rocky vistas like ants, a perspective which McCarthy forces on the reader in order to make the point he is trying to make: it isn't so very much to be human. The mercenaries are driven to worse and worse acts of depravity and violence as they are slowly made insane by the endless gore and death, and McCarthy describes their acts in nightmarishly vivid detail.
This is a very dark and frightening book, and the questions it raises about humanity and morality in times of war are perhaps unanswerable. However, by some strange combination of the beauty of the writing and the stripping away of the illusions and myths of the Western, on closing it the reader feels innocent of its violence, happy almost, as if in being given free passage on a train through hell we have had our fear of death at least temporarily removed, and we know more than we did before about our own nature and place in what, we can clearly see, is a very strange world.