Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one of the most brutally violent books I’ve ever read, but in spite of that, it’s also one of the most beautifully written.
McCarthy’s prose is often compared to Faulkner’s, and while some of that is because they’re both from the South (just like every right-handed pitcher from Stanford is automatically compared to Mike Mussina), there are definite similarities in their styles. There’s a lilting quality to many of McCarthy’s sentences, even when he defies conventional sentence structure. He can be sparse with details when it suits his purpose (the novel’s protagonist is never identified beyond “the kid”), but can also fire off a stream of seemingly minute details that in the end paint a rich picture of a scene, a character, a moment. He never descends into the sheer inscrutability that scares so many readers away from Faulkner, who was an original in many ways but who’ll always be loved and reviled most strongly for his prose.
The story revolves around the aforementioned kid, a fourteen-year-old who runs away from his father (his mother died giving birth to him) to head out west and falls in with a group of mercenaries who are hunting an outlaw named GÃ³mez while also collecting scalps of Apaches, all under the auspices of the Mexican government. And that’s where it gets violent – ruthlessly, sociopathically so. The violence isn’t disturbing because it’s graphic – it is, somewhat – but because it’s so effortless and is achieved on so grand a scale. It is genocide writ small, and it’s made all the worse by the fact that McCarthy based it loosely on the real-life Glanton gang, using Glanton’s top lieutenant, Judge Holden, as the primary villain.
The plot didn’t pick up until I was about halfway through the book; the kid seems to take forever to fall in with Glanton/Holden’s gang, and it’s not until things start to go awry that the plot gets interesting, with the kid and Judge Holden gradually forming the central conflict that defines the last third of the book.
If you’ve got the stomach to get through several scenes of extreme – but, as TIME wrote in its summary of the book, never gratuitous – violence, then I would certainly recommend Blood Meridian to anyone who enjoys Faulkner, morality plays (even ones where the moral lines are blurred), or great American literature. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when the scalps start flying.