Sometimes, I’ll read a book or watch a movie that is so brutal I’m left going, WTF? Then I’ll try it again and end up thinking it’s genius. I keep waiting for that to happen with Andy Kaufman, but even so many years after his death I’m still going WTF. CLOCKWORK ORANGE, on the other hand, is a good example. I found the film disturbing when I first watched it at a ripe young age and not in a good way. Years later, I watched it again and found it brilliant.
BLOOD MERIDIAN is a good example of a book that struck me that way. I recently reread it and this time it nailed me. The novel, written by the great Cormac McCarthy, is in my opinion as grim as his seminal apocalyptic work THE ROAD. It tells the story of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old boy adrift in a world of violence in the American West in the 1850s. He signs up with a group of independent operators hoping to overthrow the Mexican government and set themselves up as kings. After the Comanches end their ambitions, he ends up joining a group of homicidal maniacs contracted to hunt Apache scalps for various governors in Mexico.
The story is based on historical events occurring along the Texas-Mexico border during that time period, but McCarthy’s prose transforms the story to the mythical. BLOOD MERIDIAN subverts romantic notions of the Wild West while elevating senseless brutality to poetry. The most intriguing character is the Judge, who may be the devil, God or simply the brutal spirit of the West. He chews up every scene with his embrace of the natural world, chaos, hedonism and violence, and plays the antagonist to the Kid. McCarthy’s signature beautiful descriptions take you through myriad cultures and geographies but always bring you back to an almost nihilist outlook that people are violent and animalistic pleasure seekers, and life is cheap. The Wild West he paints is both gritty and mythical, a form of Purgatory in which the Kid lives a violent life contradicted by occasional kind deeds, and in which the Judge would make him a disciple or destroy him.
Overall, BLOOD MERIDIAN is a powerful Western epic that will stick with you and make you question the darker side of human nature.