God Help You if You're a Baby in a Cormac McCarthy Book
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
Did you read The Road? Yeah, me too. Maybe, like me, a kind friend handed it to you with this warning: “It’s really good, but there are images in here that you will never forget” and then you devoured it in a single sitting, staying up till 3am on a work night. Does The Road contain extreme violence, including cannibalized babies? Yes, indeed. But is it also powerfully-sentimental and kind of hopeful? Also, yes.
Having read no other Cormac McCarthy books, and having listened to many a dude in a bar talk at me** about how great Blood Meridian is, I thought maybe I’d use these pandemic times to finally read this beloved (???) classic.
Blood Meridian’s main character, “The Kid”, is born with a “taste for mindless violence” and leaves home at the age of fourteen. He ultimately joins a group of men who have made it their job to fight the Apaches in Mexico. Rewards offered in exchange for collected scalps ensure the group has food and weapons as they travel across a scorching and desolate landscape. Loads of people die.
I’m going to be straight with you: I did not enjoy this book. And we can talk later about whether all books are out there for us to enjoy, or some are there for us to learn from, but this particular book, in my opinion, could not be enjoyed by anyone. That’s not what it’s for. It is relentlessly bleak. The Kid is surrounded by violence, routinely shot at with guns and arrows, and connected (by task of opening the west?) to what Shakespeare would call a “band of lawless resolutes” whose loyalty remains always and only with their own individual self-interest. At any time, The Kid’s closest travelling companions could kill him for an extraordinarily inconsequential thing. (I kept being reminded of the Jack Palance ads from the 1980s for the Time Life series on the Wild West, which described a gunslinger so mean he once “killed a man just for snoring.” Feel free to watch it here. You’re welcome).
Some people - I’m going out on a limb here to say white dudes - find McCarthy’s use of language to be compelling or, even, “the major esthetic achievement of any living American author” (uber white guy who loves the canon Harold Bloom). There is something biblically gorgeous about the book’s descriptions, even of incredibly disgusting things. But I simply couldn’t abide the unrelenting horror and lack of humanity in the story. The arguable beauty of the language was not nearly enough to mitigate the awfulness of the events being described.
And is this book a comment on the devastation caused by Manifest Destiny and American colonialism? It certainly could be, given its many descriptions of conflicts created by the desire of the “Americans” to defeat both Mexicans (aka “niggers”) and Native Americans (aka “savages”). But never is it suggested that The Kid and his crew have embarked on this journey for their love of a unified and vast America. It seems more as though they are a bunch of guys with guns looking for work. The money they acquire in exchange for scalps is quickly spent on booze and prostitutes in their brief furloughs into town. They stay long enough for the money to run out and to cook up some bad blood with the locals, and then carry on, back into the endless desert, looking for enemies. So no, I would not say any meaningful commentary is offered on the ugliness of America’ colonial past.
In fact, The Judge, who acts as The Kid’s mentor and later his nemesis, really succinctly conveys his own (and, I would argue, America’s) desire to possess the hellish landscape they travel in:
“Whatever exists...Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” (207)
Suzerain***. Nice one. Fear of the tiniest thing, fear of the unknown, that is what drives The Judge and his team to destroy all the non-white populations they encounter. That is what drives the story.
But look. I’m already living in a world created and destroyed by white dudes with saviour complexes. I know how hellish that world is, and I don’t need Cormac McCarthy to describe it to me in a way that makes it feel worse. God bless you if you love this book. But I can’t recommend it and I’m going to humbly suggest you spend your precious reading time on a story that does not contain any mutilated babies in it.
** don’t get me started, but see also: J.R.R. Tolkein, Charles Bukowski, Herman Hesse, Phillip K. Dick
*** suzerain = “a sovereign or state exercising political control over a dependent state” thanks Dictionary.com