Monday, February 12, 2018

Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian

The history of the American West is one that is all to often cleansed of its violence. Even modern "Westerns" frequently sanitise the killing through ritual gunfights - highly choreographed shootings. The reality is, as one recent history book has shown, that the modern US is built on systematic violence, oppression and exploitation. So I was attracted to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian precisely because it was supposed to subvert the western genre completely.

It is certainly different. The novel follows the life of "the Kid" a young man from Tennessee who flees his home and joins up with a violent group of Indian hunters on the Texas-Mexican border. For weeks he, and his companions, travel through the deserts hunting down groups of Native Americans and brutally murdering them. These scalp hunters are portrayed as bloodthirsty, alienated, racist killers. Their motivation is initially financial though it becomes genocidal, and after the repeated bloodbaths they drown their sorrows in appalling orgies of drink and rape.

A quick google will show that some one has gone to the trouble of plotting this murderous route onto a map of the US. I'm not sure that the author intended the book to be read as such a literal journey (much like the route taken in McCarthy's other famous work The Road doesn't matter to the plot). McCarthy introduces a collection of vile and surreal characters into the story, and there is a desert showdown of sorts between the Kid and his nemesis, the Judge. But I found the novel's plot barely existed in reality - the tale existed to give the violence a backdrop, rather than the other way around.

Blood Meridian is widely considered one of the greatest novels of North American fiction so I approached reading it with some excitement. My initial enthusiasm was quickly tempered as I found the intensity of the first few chapters giving way to boredom - rather to quickly I found myself immune to the murder; simply taking it as another stage of the Kid's travels. It was only when I realised that this was surely the point, that I re-engaged with the book. Though the Kid and his band are desensitised to the violence, not simply because it is nearly continuous, but also because they have "othered" those they hunt. These are no longer Native Americans, they are animals to be killed for sport and profit.

Other reviewers have noted some deeper themes. The character of the Judge, his relationship to the others in the band, and in particular his violent attraction to young men, and his philosophical discussions are fascinating in themselves, though I liked more how McCarthy depicted the murderous band as being fascinated with the Judge's discussions of history, philosophy and science.

It's "based on true events" but its only real historical accuracy is to say that the West was won through brutal, systematic and racialised violence. Is it a good book? I am not sure. I was shocked, bored, and appalled by turns, and finally disappointed by the ending (though it benefits from a re-reading). I can't even say whether I'd recommend it, though McCarthy is certainly talented, but it is certainly an antidote to the anodyne nature of much of what passes for Westerns.

Related Reviews

McCarthy - The Road

No comments: