Bloody scalps, dry and darkened human ears necklaces and random acts of unspeakable violence. If you are wondering why Cormac McCarthy’s most famous novel has not been adapted to film yet, unlike his No Country For Old Men or On the Road, look no farther than the other-worldly levels of violence in the book (full disclosure: here is a limited teaser by James Franco, of all people). Trees with dead babies hanging, scalping scenes, companions in arms shot like horses when they are too banged up to ride on, “Injins,” Americans and Mexicans tortured in the most cruel ways imaginable… These images are not exactly made for the silver screen. And there’s so many of them, that if you sanitized them out of the book, you wouldn’t be left with much.
While the amount of gore in the book is suitable for a horror movie, the storyline is much more conventional Western flick. The riding and hunting scenes, at times, feel right out of a Karl May novel. The second main theme, besides the violence, is traveling the open plain. Or desert. Or mountains. On horseback mostly. But the most moving episodes of the journey are by foot, over infinite landscapes—barren deserts, cold autumn freezing mountains, with almost no chance of survival.
Survival is the third main theme of this novel. We follow the story of “the Kid,” a 14 year old boy who escapes from the poverty of his parents’ house in Tennessee to make his way out West in the late-1840s. Eventually, he joins an ill-advised U.S. Army captain, who leads his company deep into Mexico only to lose most of his men in an Apache ambush. The Kid miraculously escapes the ambush and the subsequent crossing of the dessert by foot, only to be jailed as a foreign soldier in the first Mexican town he reaches. While incarcerated, he meets other Americans who tell him about Glanton’s Gang (and more here) and its infamous contract with the governor of Chihuaha: $100 for each Apache scalp they can bring back.
Mercifully, the author does not follow the easy “fame-and-fortune seeker” storyline, so common in traditional Western literature. In fact, neither fame nor fortune constitutes important themes in the book. Whatever money the band does earn, they spend it almost immediately in debaucheries or new equipment. All of the members of the Gang are imbued with a strong sense of the tragic, from John Glanton, their inhumanly cruel leader, to Tobin, the ex-priest, to the Delaware Indians who serve as scouts, to the two Jacksons, one black and one white. They are all men who are no longer expecting much from life in the long term. They are just living day-to-day, strong in their conviction that as long as there are Indians still living across the Southwest, there will be business for them. But most of the men know that they cannot return to the US because of arrests warrants or other similar problems. Life on the run in the Southwest is all they have, and whenever they get off their horses, it is game over, sometimes quite literally.
This book resonated with me because it has three underlying themes dear to my heart: the white man’s unspeakable cruelty when dealing with others it considers “savages;” the brutal and systematic nature of the Native American genocide; and the thin line between good and evil, the moral and the immoral.
Noam Chomsky’s observation that White men have been the most cruel and barbaric group in history finds resonance at nearly every page. Not only does Glanton’s Gang fulfill its contract for Apache scalps, but they also scalp any other human that crosses their path, whether peaceful Indian agricultural communities, Mexican peasants or even Mexican soldiers! They have a profound disdain for everything and everyone that is not American, and won’t hesitate to shoot down a Mexican for giving them a wrong look—while Indians are pretty much scalped on sight, whether warriors or not.
Regarding the North American genocide of Natives, the book sheds light on a lesser-known aspect of it, that is Mexico’s involvement. Starting in the 1830s, the government of the states of Sonora and Chihuahua put a prize on Apache scalps, which attracted an eclectic mix of local bounty hunters, U.S. prize seekers, as well rival Indian tribes. When discussing the genocidal aspect of the extermination of Native Americans, one of the main counter-arguments for apologists is that there was no direct government policy supporting the killing of Indians. Sure, they’ll say, Indians were killed (after all it’s pretty hard to deny facts) but it was always a by-product, or it was done in self-defense, it was not the government’s policy to kill them to clear the land for White pioneers. While self-defense was also used by the two Mexican states that implemented scalps bounties, McCarthy exposes the hypocrisy of it throughout the pages of Blood Meridian.
The third main theme is thin line between good and evil. The Kid keeps the reader’s sympathy throughout the book. While he is obviously a member of the infamous Glanton Gang, we’ve known him before his involvement, and we follow him long after the gang disbands. McCarthy achieves the minor tour-de-force of making the Kid sympathetic throughout by not focusing on him during the goriest scenes of massacres. At those times, we barely have a glimpse of the Kid, while the description focuses on the actions of other members of the Gang. Later, after the split up of the Gang, the Judge (more on him below) even attacks the Kid for having judged his companions for their barbaric acts while he was still a part of the Gang.
While the Glanton Gang was undeniably evil, and so the Kid should be judged harshly for his participation in it, it was also his only chance of escaping a Mexican jail—and a potential hanging as an enemy combatant. Overall, McCarthy does a very good job of eschewing simple, black and white moral judgments.
The character of the Judge is almost as central as the Kid to the book. We first encounter him in a town on the Mexican border, where he sentences a perfectly innocent preacher to a beating by the mob for no other apparent reason than his own personal amusement. We then run into him again as a companion to the Glanton Gang—not a member of it, as the difference will turn out to be crucial—a relationship he would later explain as part of his project to look at humanity in its lowest depths of depravity and barbarism.
A very tall, large man with not a hair on his body, Judge Holden has an allegorical dimension to him: an erudite scholar, avid dancer and musician, a man generally skilled in all fields of Western knowledge, yet so enamored with the destruction of Indians and their civilizations, he represents in some sense Progress as it was understood in the 19th Century, scary and unfair, but in the final analysis inescapable. Others have made parallels between the Judge and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Others, still, see him a representation of the Devil. The Judge can be interpreted in a few different ways because of the quasi-fantastic light that surrounds him.
He appeared to Glanton’s Gang in the middle of the desert, he doesn’t seem to grow old, he has an unnatural talent at everything he tries, the extreme contrast between his erudition and his barbaric cruelty, his complete lack of compassion… As I kept reading on, I couldn’t help but think of Frank, the ruthless, cold-hearted murderer in Ruy Murakami’s In the Miso Soup. Like Frank, the Judge’s character is a bit too over-the-top to be fully believable as only a man, yet the author keeps the supernatural references to the level of suggestions, overall giving the character a slightly mystic air.
A word on the style of the book: the author painstakingly recreates a lost language, the American English of the mid 19th century Southwest, for the length of the book. At times it can make for a difficult lecture, as some of the words or expressions are hard to decipher even with a dictionary. But it certainly adds a distinct feel to the novel. Finally, this is a book about violence, seen mostly from the eyes of the perpetrators, and as such it is almost completely devoid of women. Fittingly or not (would it be sexist to say that women are not capable of these levels of violence?), women do not feature much in the book, except as victims, among the old men and children that are indiscriminately massacred by the Gang.
All in all, Blood Meridian is not for the faint of heart. While its ever-present violence and gore can make the reader flinch at times, it is a profound study on the depravity of men (especially White men), as well as the thin dividing line between the moral, the immoral and the amoral. And if your only mental images of the “Conquest of the West” come from Winnetou novels or John Wayne Westerns, Blood Meridian is a must. Beware though, this book will haunt you for quite some time…