I don’t trust Cormac McCarthy with children, old people or animals. If Mr. McCarthy introduces any of those three things as characters in a book, then you can almost bet that unseemly things are in store. Take my word on this. I’ve read enough of his books to know.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the man’s work. Any author who can write a lyrical and eloquent account of a violent necrophiliac (Child of God) in rural Appalachia is going to get points from me.
I have just finished McCarthy’s first book, The Orchard Keeper, published in 1965. It was pure McCarthy: sparse, poetic, violent, filled with the most amazing words strung together in the most amazing ways. I am sometimes so caught up in his words that the realization of what he is saying makes me shudder.
“Then Sylder stood, still in that somnambulant slow motion as if time itself were running down, and watched the man turn, seeming to labor not under water but in some more viscous fluid, torturous slow, and the jack itself falling down on an angle over the dying forces of gravity, leaving Sylder’s own hand and bouncing slowly in the road while his leaden arm rose in a stiff arc and his fingers cocked like a cat’s claws unsheathing and buried themselves in the cheesy neckflesh of the man who fled from him without apparent headway as in a nightmare” (The Orchard Keeper, 1993 Vintage International Edition, pg. 38).
“A loosed box of kittens came tottering aimlessly over the floor, rocking on their stub legs and mewling. Their eyes were closed and festered with mucus as if they might have been struck simultaneously with some biblical blight” (Vintage International Edition, pg. 180).And then there are the single lines:“The oaks stirred restlessly, low admonitions, shhh…” (Vintage International Edition, pg. 65).“Across the yard, brilliant against the façade of pines beyond, a cardinal shot like a drop of blood” (Vintage International Edition, pg. 133).
Not long ago, I read Blood Meridian. It, too, is pure McCarthy (he cannot be otherwise), and as much as that book made me uneasy, I loved every single word of it. A fictional account of historical events from the mid-1800s, McCarthy takes readers on a horrifying journey with a fourteen-year-old boy named the Kid as he travels around the Texas-Mexico boarder. There are other characters, unsavory and otherwise (worse), with whom the kid meets up and travels, but none as unforgettable and frightening as the Judge.
Potential spoiler alert: Clearly, McCarthy meant the Judge's character to be that of death, as any other character who has the great misfortune to meet the Judge ends up quite thoroughly deceased. But never in my life have I read an ending written like the one this book has. Where throughout the book, death is described in vivid detail, the death at the end of the book, arguably the most important death, is not well described at all. We are not even given so much as a hint as to what happened, except that whatever happened was too horrifying to describe, as evidenced by the reaction of a character who stumbles upon the scene after the fact. And that is the genius of McCarthy. He uses our own minds against us, because he knows that we can do the most damage to ourselves.
A taste of Blood Meridian:
"How these things end. In confusion and curses and blood. They drank on and the wind blew in the streets and the stars that had been overhead lay low in the west and these young men fell afoul of others and words were said that could not be put right again and in the dawn the kid and the second corporal knelt over the boy from Missouri who had been named Earl and they spoke his name but he never spoke back" (Vintage First International Edition, pg. 43)."...a howl of such outrage as to stitch a caesura in the pulsebeat of the world" (Vintage First International Edition, pg. 69)."A man's vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgements ultimately he must submit them before a higher court. Here there can be no special pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all question of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural" (Vintage First International Edition, pg. 261).
So good, it hurts.