Westerns aren't particularly fashionable in the literary world. They bear the label of lowbrow or pulp. The writing is simplistic. Little attention is given to style, while plot is sacred.
It would seem Cormac McCarthy was unconcerned by this when he wrote Blood Meridian. His novel takes the stale form of the western, and with an infusion of style and unadulterated emotion, he elevates both the subject matter and reader and creates a thoroughly balanced and detailed world; the sum of which is an invigorating novel that toys with perfection.
The narrative focuses primarily on 'the kid', who survives a brief period working as a mercenary before joining a band of scalpers led by Captain Glanton and The Judge. There is a market for Native American scalps upon which the band of murderers aim to capitalise. Blood is spilt indiscriminately throughout.
At the beginning Blood Meridian is difficult to digest. The prose, raw and wily, requires perseverance; this style is an acquired taste, then, gradually, you acclimatise and begin to appreciate the spare beauty of each sentence.
For instance, here is a section where the group take shelter in a barn:
No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam's flank.
Faulkner's influence is clear: in one of his only televised interviews, McCarthy told Oprah that William Faulkner, James Joyce and MacKinlay Kantor are his biggest influences. The latter he attributes to his lack of quotation marks, saying that it was in Mr Kantor's work he first came across this absence. Indeed, his use of all punctuation is minimalist. There is a definite lack of the semi-colon, colon and even an economy to his use of the coma.
According to John Banville, with all good sentences, structure mimics content. It appears Mr McCarthy follows a similar ethos: each sentence reeks of gunpowder, horse breath and guts:
He slept curled among the stones, the pistol clutched at his chest. His feet thawed and burned and he woke and lay staring up at a sky of china blue where very high there circled two black hawks about the sun slowly and perfectly opposed like paper birds upon a pole.
Nature is very much involved in the taut struggle for existence; it craves death and is waiting for you to make a mistake.
What's more, the frankness with which he delivers violence adds to the menace and ultimately lends a hypnotic beauty to the most gruesome acts of barbarity. In a bar Jackson has a stand-off with the barman, Owens: “The big pistol jumped and a double handful of Owens's brains went out the back of his skull and plopped in the floor behind him.”
Just as when you read Lolita and begin to sympathise with Humbert Humbert and the plight of the paedophile, you read Blood Meridian and forget to dislike racist psychopaths, and you become softened to their vile acts. Then, when you believe you are immune, some new level of revulsion is achieved. A fresh massacre is never too distant.
The most interesting character in the novel is The Judge. He is the most contemplative and learned individual, while also being the most violent; a rather terrifying combination. His murders are always premeditated and enjoyed. He takes pride in being a malignant animal, yet also he seeks to catalogue everything he comes in contact with: he is read in geology, a talented sketcher, can speak numerous tongues, he is, in his own way, a man of science. He is also villainous. The Judge on war:
You can buy Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy here or check out your local library.
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 not some other way.