Book Review: ‘Blood Meridian’ by Cormac McCarthy – How Much Do You Like Your Scalp?

When should you read this book? Roaming the American west – or at any point when you’re feeling particularly bleak about life.

First off, apologies for my lengthy absence – my laptop has died an ignoble death. While I nurse it back to life, I am writing as and when I can get to a computer, but hoping next week things should be back to normal.

The good thing about not having a computer means that you read a lot more, so I have built up quite a few reads to talk to you about. The first is Blood Meridian, which the bookseller warned me about.

It’s about ‘The Kid’ – a teenager who gets caught up with a team of marauding scalp collectors in the wild, wild west.

Making their way on an epic, but overall pointless, journey across bleak landscapes and committing acts of brutality along the way, the band of ex-soldiers and renegades makes its way across the border into Mexico.

Their own barbarity is matched by the troops of ‘Indians’ (don’t expect political correctness here) they meet. Much of the novel’s time is spent lingering in anatomical detail over who is chopping up whom at any given time.

Travelling with them is the Judge, an enigmatic (and frequently naked) genius who demonstrates amorality at its bleakest.

A travelling man

The Kid is a nomad, even before he meets his scalp-loving buddies, and the book centres around the journey he makes through barren territory.

But I’m not sure you could call Blood Meridian a ‘journey story’.

That would imply that the journey has a purpose, a beginning, and end, or any kind of resolution. Not so here!

The question of whether The Kid learns anything after his adventures would make a good point of discussion – and more on that below – but the journey itself leads nowhere.

Landscape from American WestCowboys and Indians

For the first half or so, I thought the cowboys were the heroes. Then the indians were the heroes. Then I realised that nobody was the hero.

Blood Meridian has been described as an ‘anti-Western’ as neither side is ever glamourised.

There are no cowboys or indians – just men. Being awful. In different clubs.

Watch out for grislies

If you’re faint of heart, the descriptions of scalpings, hackings and the occasional ‘dead baby tree’ may not be for you.

When it comes to gore I am of the squeamish persuasion, but I can suffer it if I feel if has a purpose. Here it does; it is necessary to make the point that mankind’s baser side not only tends toward violence, but positively embraces it.

However, approach this bloodbath with caution if you are easily offended.

Who is the Judge?

The most enigmatic character of all is the Judge. A completely bald, very intelligent figure who forms part of the scalp collector’s group with no discernible reason for doing so.

He is also often, inexplicably, naked.

The cornerstone of really understanding ‘Blood Meridian’ is understanding who the Judge is. He is capable of acts of extreme and pointless cruelty, but also saves the life of a vulnerable character.

He haunts The Kid, resulting in a bizarre final showdown which is left totally up to the reader’s interpretation.

But although he is a functioning character in the story, to my mind he is a metaphor for the worst application of human talents.

He uses his intelligence to save his own skin, inflict violence, create victims out of innocent people and finally to embrace war as the ultimate nihilistic expression of man’s purpose: coming up with a clever strategy in order to wipe out members of our own species.

He rebukes The Kid for demonstrating any moral leanings at all. A grim interpretation of our nature? Well, yes, I’d say so.

But there is the suggestion at the novel’s close that, after all he has seen on the journey, The Kid himself rejects the idea that this is all humans were put on earth to do.

You can decide for yourselves how well that works out for him.

Overall Blood Meridian was pretty unique but also a quite gruelling read.

McCarthy’s writing is peppered with the most brilliant, sweeping descriptions of such the desolate landscape of the American West, and is a joy to read.

The unrelenting bleakness of his outlook didn’t make it any less so – but what can I say? If you are after a beach read, look elsewhere.

Light 8/10.

Indeed if you really are after a beach read, stay tuned for my next post on holiday reads…

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