Books

Rest in Peace, Cormac McCarthy: Reflections on The Evening Redness in the West

I was shopping at my neighborhood supermarket when I first heard the news. It was the afternoon of June 13th. My friend phoned me and when I answered he blurted out an urgent jumble of words. For a moment I was terrified, thinking something terrible had happened. As it turned out, something terrible had, but not in the close-to-home way I initially thought. What my friend was saying was that Cormac McCarthy had died. 

It is a matter of great fortune to have a friend with whom you can engage fully in matters of literature. Reading is very personal, writing perhaps even more so. My friend and I read and discuss and write and collaborate constantly. We love literature, and since we love literature we have no choice but to love Cormac McCarthy. That he was born in Providence is happily serendipitous as well. Neither of us are completists in regards to his oeuvre, but one does not have to be to understand the man’s genius. We love No Country for Old Men in both forms and regularly quote Anton Chigurh’s best lines to each other (knowing that “just call it, friendo” is a false artifact of trailer editing). We thoroughly enjoyed The Road, which replaced zombies and gimmicks with restraint and grimness, and we liked that film as well.

But for us, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West is clearly McCarthy’s greatest gift. What a singular novel! Unfortunately the shorthand used to frame it does as much to repel as it does to invite. Yes, Blood Meridian is quite violent, and yes, it is concerned thematically with human brutality writ large. However, Blood Meridian also contains some of the most artful and intoxicating nature writing ever committed to paper. The American Southwest (and northern Mexico) as captured by McCarthy is primordial and awesome, volatile and vital and possessed of an alien force that seems borrowed from the realms of fantasy. Yet McCarthy has invented little, instead relying on indelible visual metaphor (“crumpled butcherpaper mountains”) and obscure geological phenomena (“coral shapes of fulgurite”) to set his brilliant scenes. Channeled through McCarthy’s “biblical” prose, Blood Meridian feels like a visceral, contested genesis, where man’s place in the world is more unsettled than he knows—at stake in a game few understand as being underway.

Blood Meridian is also marked by its great clarity and intention. The novel is very much entwined with history—John Joel Glanton was a real person, who led real scalp-hunting expeditions at the behest of Mexican city governments—and yet McCarthy’s heady blend of earthily grandiloquent prose, deeply laconic dialogue, litany of obscure details, and pervasive metaphysical atmosphere does not have analogues in the writings of the time—or any time, for that matter. Given the success of previous adaptations much has been made of the “unfilmable” quality of Blood Meridian (just before his passing, McCarthy had teamed up with director John Hillcoat to adapt the novel). This can be understood as an understandable reluctance to reproduce the sheer violence contained in the book—gory encounters delivered dispassionately without the usual cues or lessons, often genocidal in nature. But the structure of the novel may be the deeper challenge—Blood Meridian is essentially a serial chronicle of strange and brutal events, interspersed with quiet passages through spectacular landscapes. The overarching movements of the Glanton Gang often subsume the kid, our protagonist, to the point of his vanishing completely. The rising action is mostly a record of the otherworldly Judge Holden guiding the gang into escalating depravity, justifying their marauding all the while with his bleak, arcane philosophy. The end of the book offers a conclusion of sorts, but does little to clarify the novel’s arc. There is simply far less coherence here than the public expects from most works of film. 

Perhaps this is why Blood Meridian has a special power as literature, where language and image and meaning are absorbed differently. After my first time finishing the novel (many eons ago) I had an afterglow of mental engagement that I had not experienced with any book before. There was so much horror in this novel, such amorality without consequence… so why was it so beautiful to read? I felt as though I had just wandered about in a profound place, witnessing things I could partly sense but not fully understand. Who could tell a story of such dreadful human predators as this, and somehow turn their remote and blood-soaked vistas into the fulcrum point of man’s balancing act in the universe?

So for me, my friend, and countless others, Cormac McCarthy’s death is a great loss. We hardly knew him, for McCarthy steadily refused to become a public figure. But this may in fact be better for us all; any examinations of the man must necessarily travel through the dark heart of his work. Could a writer ask for anything more? I hope many new readers will take this moment to dive into McCarthy and see for themselves what all the hubbub is about. For those of us already in the know, many of whom have been changed somehow by one work or another, we should simply be thankful, and hope that Cormac McCarthy will rest in peace.