Did you ever play cowboys and Indians? Did the cowboys ever rape and mutilate the Indians? I thought not. You were with me up to the second part, right? Like most of Cormac McCarthy’s readership in the 1980s, you like Westerns, just not the whole “rape and mutilation” hootenanny. The trouble for prospective readers of McCarthy’s 1985 magnum opus Blood Meridian (and for any potential movie adaptation) is that the atavistic violence starts on page one and continues, roughly one act of violence per page, throughout the novel. If you took the words “they rode on” and “blood” out of the writing, you’d be left with a gibbering description of a desert.
It starts with a Christian preacher getting lynched. He’s telling his congregation about God (somewhere in Texas in 1850) when the Devil strolls up and accuses him of falsehood. The Devil is a man “bald as a stone” and “close on to seven feet in height”. He calls himself “the judge” and he will be the only survivor of this story. Watching him work is a character called “the kid”. He’s an orphan, a bar-fighter and a fourteen-year-old (in that order). The kid and the judge and some other people (who have names, but no character besides “horse-riding psychopath”) are all bound for Mexico. They are going to massacre Indians. The reason being: “War is God”.
There isn’t a page of Blood Meridian goes by without something appalling happening. So many people get their brains blown out it’s a wonder anybody can think. Killing is a constant itch. When the kid wants a job in a bar, he kills the bartender. When two men share the same name, one of them must die. A dancing bear is shot in the gut for dancing. Self-flagellating pilgrims are shot to pieces. People die in churches, routinely. A man’s skull is split “to the thrapple” (I don’t know what it means, but I bet it hurts). When, on a single miraculous occasion, the kid actually tries to help an old woman, it turns out she’s been dead for years; he’s trying to help ashes. The Old West is so bloody in McCarthy’s imagination, it’s like Sitting Bull was sat in a blender. Cormac is the Poet Laureate of viscera.
Plans to make a movie out of Blood Meridian are career-ending. I know McCarthy writes pretty metaphors (trees “assassinated by storms” and “frayed wires” of lightning), but: a) there are no sympathetic characters in the book, b) it reads like it was written by (the guy who stabbed) Christopher Marlowe. The only thing that makes Blood Meridian bearable is the beauty of the prose. Lose that and it’s just a bunch of cowboys hacking at Indians. Oh, and “the judge”, who, like the character of Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, speaks like a blood-thirsty thesaurus. On screen, it would be like watching a zombie movie with dialogue in iambic pentameter.
Casting would be like rounding up mountain men. You literally need people who’ve come out of the wilderness. Men, like those guys in strip clubs who look at strippers like rotisserie chicken. Savages. Guys who draw penises on walls everywhere they go. They’d have to know the world McCarthy writes about: that man’s world where you pass the ketchup with your fist. Mickey Rourke’s world. The place Charlie Sheen visits nightly when he’s done taping Two and a Half Men. Like that godforsaken sit-com, there is no good in Blood Meridian. There is only the urge to kill everybody, everywhere. The killer’s niggle. Even the parables in the book are moral-less.
In Cormac McCarthy’s version of Little House on the Prairie, the little house is on fire and the prairie is barren. The corpses of the Ingalls family no doubt litter the sun-leeched rock. Indians are copulating, primeval-ly, in the scrub. And all the cowboys are knife-happy drunks. It’s not a world where goodness is rewarded. Rather, it’s a place where men’s faith in goodness is bludgeoned with a poly-syllabic club. Don’t look to McCarthy for heroes. He’s into Dialectics. Goodness is Blood Meridian is a carapace for badness. Pretentiousness is all. As the judge tells the kid: “This desert upon which so many have been broken is vast…but it is also ultimately empty.”