For the past two days I’ve been riveted to Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, an astounding book and a book of genius. It is set in 1849-50 and follows the Glanton Gang on their orgy of slaughter along the Texas-Mexico border. It is without a doubt the most violent and bloody book I’ve ever read, a study of evil and the lust for war.
We meet a character identified only as “The Kid” when he is fourteen years old and running away from his home in Tennessee. Through various misadventures he ends up in jail, from which he is sprung by The Glanton Gang, a group of bloodthirsty men bent on killing and scalping as many Apaches as possible for the bounty paid by the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The spiritual leader of the Glanton Gang is Judge Holden, who we first meet on page 6, a 7 foot tall albino “bald as a stone” with no beard or brow or lashes, and small hands and feet. He speaks all languages and knows all things. He dresses in finery and often appears naked. He rapes and kills little boys and little girls, spurs the gang on to further butchery, dances, fiddles and fucks. After speaking of how a game of cards on which the wager is death is the only real game, he says:
This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. [Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.] War is god.
We have page after page of rape, murder and bloodshed, battle after battle, more blood, more carnage, pitiless, relentless, endless. There is a magnificent story of how the gang was out of gunpowder with the Apaches mere minutes away and Holden, wizard-like, conjures gunpowder out of dirt, ashes and piss. At the end of the book (don’t read this if you want to get there yourself) there is a final confrontation between The Kid, now forty-five, and Judge Holden, untouched by time. It is the most chilling scene that I have ever read. I have already reread the whole chapter five times.
They meet by chance in a saloon, and watch a dancing bear being killed and Holden lectures the kid, now called “the man” that all dancers that are not warriors — murderers — are false dancers, since dancing is the warrior’s right, and his only. The Kid offers his laconic replies. You aint nothin he says, and Holden says, You speak truer than you know. Holden murders the Kid in an outhouse outside the saloon. Of all the murders in the books, hundreds of which are recounted in graphic detail, this one is a cipher, a void. Moments later we find Holden inside:
And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.
It makes me shudder again, rereading it.
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy.