HAWKS UNDEFEATED SINCE MASCOT PRINCE TRIBUTE
Paul Millsap scores 45, Hawks lose. Below is a review of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” from The New York Times, a novel that is somehow more lighthearted than being an Atlanta sports fan.
BLOOD MERIDIAN” comes at the reader like a slap in the face, an affront that asks us to endure a vision of the Old West full of charred human skulls, blood-soaked scalps, a tree hung with the bodies of dead infants. But while Cormac McCarthy’s fifth novel is hard to get through, it is harder to ignore. Any page of his work reveals his originality, a passionate voice given equally to ugliness and lyricism. Over the past 20 years the brutality of his subjects may have kept readers away, but the power of his writing has earned high critical repute. Three early novels, in fact – ”The Orchard Keeper,” ”Outer Dark” and ”Child of God” – have been reissued in the Ecco Press series, ”Neglected Works of the Twentieth Century.”
This latest book is his most important, for it puts in perspective the Faulknerian language and unprovoked violence running through the previous works, which were often viewed as exercises in style or studies of evil. ”Blood Meridian” makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.
Loosely based on historical events, the novel follows a fictitious 14-year-old called only ”the kid” – born in 1833, exactly 100 years before the author – as he drifts through the Southwest. He soon joins an outlaw band of Indian hunters who have been hired by a Mexican governor to return Apache scalps at $100 apiece. These misfits – including an ex-priest, a man with initials tattooed on his forehead and a mysterious, erudite judge named Holden – have a taste for blood and death that Mr. McCarthy seems to revel in.
Grotesque descriptions are alleviated by scenes that might have come off a movie screen. Indians pass through the novel like extras in a Fellini film, ”wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery . . . one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a blood stained weddingveil.” The kid’s terseness is a mild parody of B-movie westerns. Looking at a severed head, ”he spat and wiped his mouth. He aint no kin to me, he said.” The horrifying details stick in our minds, however, while the surreal elements melt away. That imbalance is a problem, for Mr. McCarthy’s emphasis is not on the violent set pieces but on the characters’ reactions to them. The kid recedes into the background as the judge comes forward, in scene after scene sounding the novel’s major themes and hinting at the author’s strategy. Half-naked, the judge sits among the others by the fire ”like an icon” and pontificates. One who observed a conflict between two enemies ”expressed the very nature of the witness and . . . was no third thing but rather the prime, for what could be said to occur unobserved?” Pointing to the surrounding Indian ruins he announces, ”Here are the dead fathers” against whom their descendants define themselves.
The kid and the judge are our own dead fathers, whom Mr. McCarthy resurrects for us to witness. He distances us not only from the historical past, not only from our cowboy-and-Indian images of it, but also from revisionist theories that make white men the villains and Indians the victims. All men are unremittingly bloodthirsty here, poised at a peak of violence, the ”meridian” from which their civilization will quickly fall. War is a civilized ritual beyond morality for the judge, but not for Mr. McCarthy, who positions his readers to evaluate the characters’ moral and philosophical stances. The kid frequently responds to the judge’s grandiose speeches by saying, ”You’re crazy” – a notion so plausible that it effectively undermines the judge’s authority.
Mr. McCarthy carefully builds this dialectic only to let us down with a stylistically dazzling but facile conclusion. Years later, in a saloon where a bear dances on stage, the kid encounters the judge, who calls himself a ”true dancer” of history, one who recognizes ”the sanctity of blood.” There is a hint that he kills the kid. Last seen as a towering figure on stage, the judge is ”naked, dancing . . . He says that he will never die.” H E is denied the last word, though. Mr. McCarthy’s half-page epilogue presents a man crossing the plain making holes in the ground, blindly followed by other men who search for meaning in this pattern of holes. The judge’s enigmatic dance and the long ordeal of the novel’s violence demand more than this easy ambiguity. There are, of course, no answers to the life-and-death issues Mr. McCarthy raises, but there are more rigorous, coherent ways to frame the questions.