A few years ago I began trying to put together a list of every book I have ever read. While I cannot hope to remember all of them (especially those from my childhood), I have done a pretty fair job of recalling most of them. The list currently stands at 434 different books (not counting books that I have read on multiple occasions). There are a few books that stand out in my memory as truly great. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is one favorite. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is another. Plato’s Republic, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra will have lasting impacts on my intellect. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5 will always have a special place in my heart, as will the recently deceased Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. Yet out of all of these books there is one that has earned the distinction of the best book I have ever read. That book is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, book number twenty-six this year.
Blood Meridian is the story of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who runs away from his abusive and alcoholic father in roughly 1848. The Kid makes his way to Texas, eventually finding himself at a religious revival in Nacogdoches. Here he meets Judge Holden, an enormous and entirely hairless man who will emerge as the novel’s antagonist. Holden accuses the reverend holding the revival of impure acts with both an 11-year-old girl and a goat in Fort Smith, Arkansas, enraging the crowd and inciting them to kill the preacher. Holden later reveals that he made up the accusations. The Kid continues his travels, working his way down to San Antonio. He signs on with an expedition of ex-US Army soldiers intent on reclaiming territory returned to the Mexican government following the end of the Mexican-American War. Shortly after crossing into Mexico the party is attacked by Comanches and most of the soldiers are killed. The Kid makes it to Chihuahua, where he is arrested for participating in the illegal enterprise.
The Kid and two other Americans secure their release by signing on with a scalphunting operation headed by a man named Glanton. The scalphunters have a contract with the Chihuahuan state to protect villagers from Indian attacks (specifically Apache), and are paid for each scalp they bring in. Judge Holden is Glanton’s unofficial co-commander and is looked at with awe by most of his fellow marauders. The Kid learns that Glanton’s gang found the Judge in the middle of the desert when they were fleeing from a band of Apaches. The gang was out of gunpowder, but Holden brought them to a burned out volcano where he proceeded to mix a batch of gunpowder from the elements available. This allowed the gang to slaughter the Apaches and established Holden as an almost superhuman figure. The Kid also learns that every other member of the gang (except for Tobin, an ex-priest) claims to have met the Judge somewhere else prior to signing on with Glanton. The gang proceeds to engage the Apaches when possible, but eventually descend into butchery of anyone who crosses their path, including innocent villagers, peaceful Indians, and Mexican National Guardsmen. When word gets back to the Chihuahuan authorities, the gang flees to the borderland between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora.
In the area around Yuma, Arizona the gang seizes a ferry on the Colorado River. They use the ferry to rob and abuse travelers headed for California and fortify their position as a base from which to raid the nearby Yuma Indians. Eventually the Yumas mount an attack and slaughter the gang, scalping Glanton in the process. The Kid escapes with the ex-priest Tobin, and Holden escapes separately. Holden encounters the Kid and Tobin in the desert, and tries to talk the Kid out of his gun. The Kid refuses and sets out with Tobin. Holden eventually gets two rifles from other survivors and tracks the Kid and Tobin in the desert. After the Kid passes on several opportunities to shoot Holden, they successfully hide from Holden (although Tobin is shot in the neck). The Kid and Tobin make their way to San Diego, where they are separated and the Kid is imprisoned. He is visited in his cell by Holden, who tells him that the authorities belive the Kid to be responsible for the demise of the Glanton gang (due to Holden’s testimony). The Kid reveals the true circumstances to his jailers and is eventually released.
The final chapter takes the reader to 1878, where the Kid is now known as the Man. The Man encounters Holden in a Fort Griffin, Texas saloon. Holden does not appear to have aged at all. Holden tells the Man that his sympathy for the Indians was the seed that ultimately led to the demise of the gang. There is no room for sympathy or clemency in a world ruled by violence and bloodshed. He implies that the Man exists only for the purpose of doing violence, which the Man denies. The two go their separate ways. Later that evening, the Man enters an outhouse to find the enormous and hairless Holden waiting for him naked. The events in the outhouse are left vague, with two other men later entering and reacting with horror to what they see. The novel ends with Judge Holden dancing and fiddling back at the saloon, declaring to his fellow revelers that he will never die.
Blood Meridian is not a fun book to read. It is unbelievably violent and deeply disturbing. It is also beautifully written in prose that seems Biblical at times. McCarthy has a singular gift for creating characters and landscapes that seem larger than real life and yet entirely believable. Judge Holden is one of the most remarkable characters I have encountered in all of my reading. His seems to represent wisdom and erudition at the same time that he represents violence and depravity. The best word I can think of to describe him is haunting. He will stay with you for a very long time. He somehow exudes a magnetic quality that draws the other characters (and the reader) to him despite his despicable deeds. The Kid manages to be a sort of hero despite engaging in many of the same violent acts that are so easy to condemn in the Judge. His ultimate demise at the hands of Holden seems to imply that evil and violence will eventually extinguish even the tiniest shred of goodness in this world.
Blood Meridian is painful and depressing. It is violent and horrifying. It is exhausting and excruciating. It is also the greatest book from the greatest living American author. Read it (and then adopt a puppy to feel joy in your life again).
The Current Count
26 Read, 74 To Go