Celebrated American novelist Corman McCarthy’s 1985 novel is a violent account of life close to the Mexican border in mid-Nineteenth Century America. Bloodthirsty and often gruesome, ‘Blood Meridian’ is a novel that is epic in scale, starkly capturing a period in history of a country still in its infancy. Groups of Mexicans and Native Americans clash with Americans in a bleak, undeveloped and often lawless land. The modern classic has now been added to The Folio Society’s range, which last year published McCarthy’s 2006 novel ‘The Road‘.
‘Blood Meridian’ ostensibly follows the story of ‘the kid’, the nameless protagonist who was born in 1833 and quickly finds himself away from his family and without a home. For the rest of his life he is tossed about in a tumult of world events. In many ways, ‘the kid’ can’t really be called the main character because he does so little to shape events around him. Instead, he participates in historical moments such as the Mexican-American War as they unfold. Whilst in Texas, the kid is persuaded to join Captain White’s illegal campaign against Mexicans. They are set upon by the Comanche and most are massacred. After this time, the kid falls into the orbit of Judge Holden and John Joel Glanton, two charismatic and psychotic men who lead a gang of nomadic scalphunters. Much of the rest of the novel is taken up with their exploits as they roam between countries engaging in bloodlust in every town along the way.
The character of Sproule is a fine illustration of the lack of sentimentality found in ‘Blood Meridian’. He is the kid’s friend when they are recruited into Captain White’s army. He is injured during the massacre but escapes with his life, only to slowly die as his wound becomes infected and increasingly gangrenous. Life is cheap. No character anticipates dying in bed at a ripe old age. There is slaughter of humans and animals on almost every page. The sheer scale of the violence can take some adjusting to, and it’s hard not to become desensitised at least in part to the multitudinous descriptions of man’s cruelty to man.
The often shocking passages of the novel may entice or discourage readers, to taste, but there’s no doubt that ‘Blood Meridian’ is a fine literary achievement. It is written in McCarthy’s familiar stripped back, acoustic style. There are no speech marks and even few commas. Characters talk in short sentences even when they orate. Despite that, the prose, always dense and requiring close attention, can be poetic and is always vivid. This is not the novel for readers who prefer the narrator to spell out everything clearly. The enigmatic ending will delight or frustrate, depending on whether you prefer the author to allow you to make up your own mind on how it resolves, or to definitively tie up loose ends.
‘Blood Meridian’ is written like a classic novel. Though McCarthy has developed a literary style all of his own, this book is influenced by Nineteenth Century writers whose works are hard to condense into a neat, linear synopsis. Rather, it is character-led and is reflective of the messiness of life. Although often focussed on the kid, he fades into the background for large tracts of text as other characters take centre stage. Modern fiction books tend to read like novelisations of films rather than classic literature, with a clear and well-defined act structure. The complete absence of this in ‘Blood Meridian’ is probably why several attempts to create a big screen adaptation have collapsed. The only way to faithfully appreciate the story is to read it.
No review of ‘Blood Meridian’ would be complete without mentioning Judge Holden, or ‘the judge’ as he is more commonly called. He is without doubt the most charismatic and memorable of all of the many characters that drift in and out of the novel. The kid encounters him early on at a religious gathering, where the judge makes a false accusation against the preacher. It gives the reader an idea of the kind of man he is. Physically repellent, the fat, completely bald man often strips naked, but he is also highly educated and a fine orator. It is easy to see why company, especially adolescents, can be attracted to him. He lives for war and for violence, and revels in the carnage that he creates. Coming to the end of the book, I found myself firmly in the camp of those who view the judge as an analogy for the Devil, whose music is seductively attractive.
In the final analysis, ‘Blood Meridian’ is a dark, multi-faceted, complex and unsettling novel. Once you are sucked into the world of the story, it is a compelling read. It can feel wearying as the text is relentlessly bleak and dense, and the lack of a protagonist in any meaningful sense is alienating. It is perhaps more about the formation of land rather than about the day-to-day activities of individuals. Despite that, it’s the small, intimate moments such as gang member Brown’s encounter with a farrier who refuses to saw the barrel off a shotgun for him that really stand out.
The starkness of the events is mirrored by the unadorned prose. The bleak and confrontational nature of the story is ably captured by the blood-red hardcover jacket of this edition from The Folio Society. It depicts a dead horse and a vulture pecking at its eye. Full-colour illustrations by Gérard DuBois reinforce the savagery of the prose and bring to life its memorable characters, including the judge. Pleasingly, this edition is stylistically similar to The Folio Society’s edition of ‘The Road’, which was also illustrated by DuBois. If you are already a dedicated reader of Corman McCarthy, or if he’s a reader you’ve long been meaning to get around to, this beautifully-produced edition of the novel that first brought him wide acclaim is a great addition to your bookcase. It’s easy to see why ‘Blood Meridian’ has come to be acclaimed as a modern American classic.
The Folio Society edition of Blood Meridian, illustrated by Gérard DuBois, is exclusively available from foliosociety.com.
Publisher: The Folio Society Publication date: November 2022