The Bloody Southwest
"Blood Meridian": The first in our infrequent series of Southwest classics.
By Gregory McNamee
MAY 18, 1998:
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy (Vintage Books). Paper, $12.
FORGET THE SCRATCHY-voiced aw-shucksisms of Andy Devine, Duke Wayne's solitary steadfastness, Debbie Reynolds' virtuous warbling at the close of yet another sweet-tempered oater. Put Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, and Davy Crockett far from your mind. Dispel even the slightest thought of the Ponderosa and the Big Valley, of frontier schoolmarms and bashful cowboys. Do not remember the Alamo.
The American West was not brought into the nation by the clean-living, brave, square-jawed individualists our movies, schools, and other myth-making factories portray. No, the West--our West--was created by scavenging armed gangs whose horses and carts forded the rivers of blood they spilled.
Such is the history that Cormac McCarthy urges on us in Blood Meridian, perhaps the greatest of the countless little-known novels the Southwest has inspired. In its pages William Shakespeare meets the Wild Bunch, and human savagery finds an epic language of its own. No one who reads it will ever again watch Gunsmoke in quite the same way.
The year is 1849, the initial setting eastern Tennessee, where four of McCarthy's earlier, equally bleak novels--The Outer Dark, The Orchard Keeper, Suttree and Child of God--take place. Blood Meridian opens by introducing us to its narrator, known only as the kid, an abandoned 14-year-old, a wild child. "He can neither read nor write," McCarthy instructs, "and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence." The kid wanders aimlessly to Memphis, then up the Mississippi to St. Louis and down to New Orleans, mayhem always in his path. Eventually, having killed more than once, he arrives in Nacogdoches, Texas, the capital of the newly declared Republic of Fredonia. There he meets for the first time the sinister Judge Holden, the Ahab who will take him to the gates of hell.
The kid moves on. In San Antonio, he confronts Manifest Destiny in the person of one Captain White, who has taken it upon himself to renew the Mexican War with a ragtag band of filibusters. "We fought for (possession of Mexico)," says White. "Lost friends and brothers down there. And then by God if we didn't give it back. Back to a bunch of barbarians that even the most biased in their favor will admit have no least notion in God's earth of honor or justice or the meaning of republican government." Declaring himself and his scruffy militia to be "instruments of liberation in a dark and troubled land," this Oliver North illegally crosses the border to conquer Mexico anew, only to be dispatched along with his troop by an unimpressed Comanche war party.
The kid, the very definition of a survivor, lands in a Chihuahua jail, with Captain White's jarred head for company. He is freed, however, at the demand of the ever-present Judge Holden, whose attention nothing escapes. ("What's he a judge of?" the kid later asks, only to be hushed lest the judge hear him.) Holden, accompanied by a party of renegades--among them an earless, branded outlaw named Toadvine, a psychopathic entrepreneur named Glanton, and an Australian who once hunted aborigines for a living and has merely transferred his skills to a new arena--is bound for the state of Sonora, where 14,000 French colonists have recently arrived. If a foreign flag is to fly over Mexico, the judge declares, it will be the stars and stripes.
McCarthy's history in all this is thorough and accurate; in many particulars he simply retells the story of American freebooter William Walker, who in the late 1840s invaded Sonora and, having failed there, Nicaragua, only to be executed for his troubles. The real Glanton, too, ran the Colorado River ferry at Yuma; in order to consolidate his holdings, he murdered both his partner and the crew of a competing ferry run by Yuma Indians. The Yumas in turn killed Glanton and thereafter enjoyed a monopoly on ferry crossings for another decade.
Judge Holden's apocalyptic band meanders throughout the Southwest and northern Mexico, destroying everything in their path: Mexicans, Indians, Anglos, penned goats, dogs, chickens, cacti, forests, even ancient petroglyphs. They gather scalps, teeth, heads, and hearts as the receipts of their trade; the kid, the gentlest of the lot, proudly wears a necklace of human ears, blackened and shriveled by the desert sun. The judge, the dark heart of Blood Meridian, pontificates all the while, cheering his companions onward with a homespun philosophy of doom: "It makes no difference what men think of war.... War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way."
And so the homicidal band, "itinerant degenerates bleeding westward like some heliotropic plague," slashes and burns its way across the face of the West, across seas of decaying buffalo bones and burning pueblos, losing a member here and there, indiscriminately visiting death and destruction on an already tortured land, reveling in their unchecked power. In the end, even the bloodthirsty kid seems to have had enough, and the judge's parting words to him offer the promise of at least some sort of redemption: "You alone were mutinous. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen."
Blood Meridian is a dark, cheerless novel that aims to destroy a few myths--not only the cherished and carefully engineered icons of our national past, but also any hint whatever of the fundamental goodness of the human animal. In its pages, lone trees burn in the Biblical desert of Sonora, ghosts and angels haunt the dark fringes of the hills, and we are bludgeoned into understanding that Judge Holden, dancing like a maenad on his tiny feet while crying to the winds that he will never die, is none other than the Devil himself.
It's a far cry from the world of Louis L'Amour and John Ford. Of our contemporary Western fabulists, McCarthy alone exposes the heart of darkness in our history, summoning it in a language and manner that are without peer. There is as much nobility in the pages of Blood Meridian, the Southwestern classic of our time, as you'll find in a crack house.
But that, he might say, is just the way we savages are.
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