I bought The Road by Cormac McCarthy for a second father's day gift when it turned out the first book I bought him he had already read (I'm not a very creative gift giver). Of course, by that time, my father had already headed off somewhere on vacation and The Road was just sitting in my apartment begging me to read it. So, a couple weeks later, my father returned from his trip and received a slightly used book, and I had become a fan of Cormac McCarthy. I hadn't been expecting too much from The Road when I started it. I had read someone's review somewhere or other that had described it as boring, and I wasn't sure how well I would relate to McCarthy. But I found The Road surprisingly enthralling. The story is simple and powerful. A man and his son are trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, surrounded by dust, darkness, violence, starvation, and desperation. The survival aspects of the story made it immediately engrossing and tense, but overlaid on their journey is the question of whether all this pain and suffering is worth it. To be or not to be; but when that question is placed in an existence of such stark hopelessness, the fight for something good becomes even more emotional and powerful. Even looking back on the plot, I can't quite understand how The Road affected me so strongly, but it is a book I will never forget. Thus, I had to move on to some other Cormac McCarthy novels.
And Blood Meridian (1985) was the next Cormac McCarthy novel that I chose. I found it much more of a complex and difficult read than The Road. The worlds of the two books are eerily similar in some ways: wastelands with little life and roving bands of marauders who are a danger to anyone they come across. A life where power is all important and derives directly from guns and weapons and the will to use them. But instead of focusing on the humane father and son as in The Road, McCarthy centers Blood Meridian on a roving band of marauders, whose violence and depravity are psychotic and almost inhuman. There is so much going on in this novel that I kind of want to just sit and think and re-read for a week or month or so before I can even get enough of a handle on this book to write down my impressions.
In a novel that is consistently vague about time, places, and ages, Blood Meridian is bookended by a couple of dates. The story begins in 1847 when the fourteen-year-old “kid” runs away from home and eventually ends up with a gang of mercenaries offered a bounty by a Mexican governor for every Apache scalp they return. The gang travels throughout the territory searching for Indians to kill, often avoiding the war parties and preying on the weak and helpless, eventually killing even those they had been hired to protect. In their bid to rid “civilization” of the problem with the Indians, the gang became incapable of any kind of society themselves. The town that celebrated the gang’s return by grotesquely hanging the scalps about in celebration could not handle the day-to-day violence and depravity of actually sharing living space with them.
This gang is led by Glanton, a ruthless leader, generally fair to his men, and primarily focused on gaining wealth by any means possible. Although he was loyal to his men, he did not appear to suffer from any kind of conscience. “The kid,” in contrast, although he did not shy from violence did have some idea of right and wrong and did not always murder as thoughtlessly as some of the others. If we had been allowed into his mind, there might have been some remorse within, especially as he grew older. However, perhaps the most important, thought-provoking, and enigmatic character was Glanton’s second-in-command and known as “the Judge.” The Judge is a huge man, often walking around shirtless or naked, and completely without hair on his entire body, including even his eyelashes. His actions were often completely unpredictable, mysterious as to his purpose, and cruel. He is intelligent and knowledgeable and in many ways bigger than life. No matter what the situation or how hopeless the predicament, the Judge could come out on top. He was almost all powerful. I spent much of this book trying to figure out the meaning of the Judge’s actions or trying to find out what he might have represented in McCarthy’s mind. Was he a symbol of the United States in its infancy? Was he Death? Progression? Man? The actions of “the Judge” always brought more questions than answers.
This book was a challenge to read for a number of reasons. The violence that permeates this story is disturbing. McCarthy is never sentimental, and he doesn’t glorify it, but the pain and suffering was neverending. Sometimes the violence is described so quickly, almost glossed over, that with the paucity of any reaction from the characters I would wonder if the horror just described had actually occurred or if I had misread. Another challenge for me was simply following the complexity of the story. McCarthy focuses on the characters and the landscape, but besides the couple of dates he throws out for his readers there wasn’t any explanation of social or political context. This was often hard for me as my knowledge of this time in history is not great. In addition, I know I could also use a larger vocabulary, but McCarthy seems to know and use every rare, Spanish originated word for desert landscape or tools and equipment, many of which I had never heard before. In addition, some entire conversations occurred in Spanish, which, unfortunately, I do not speak. This made for a much richer story that really sucked you into McCarthy’s world, but it also makes the book a little more unapproachable. I feel like I could study this book for years and still find new nuances and meaning throughout. I will definitely be reading some more of McCarthy’s books.