Devils & dust

Posted on June 15, 2008


By Darran Anderson

Horse operas they used to call them, evoking stories of blood feuds, gambling and butchery. It’s a fitting title for the finest westerns: whether that’s the Zen and laissez-faire savagery of Sergio Leone, the kamikaze nihilism of Sam Peckinpah or the stunning expansive paintings of John Ford. Cormac McCarthy‘s visions have the same grandeur and punch as these luminaries whilst also being almost incomparable. He shatters our preconceptions of the West, not just the classic Manifest Destiny propaganda of cowboys good, Indians bad but also its recent antithesis – the liberal revisionism of Native Americans as noble primitives. In McCarthy’s novels, nobility, if it ever existed, was shot in the back or staked out under a Texan sun. His is a Wild West as envisaged by John the Revelator and Blood Meridian is arguably his finest moment.

Thanks in no small part to the recent Coen Brothers adaptation, McCarthy is best known today for No Country For Old Men. In a way, it’s a surprising development. For all its admitted power, No Country feels like an epilogue, a minimalist modern return to the epic themes of, to give it its full title, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. You could argue each book in McCarthy’s canon is part of a sequence held together by the morality theme that runs through them all. This isn’t morality in the righteous sense (though that does make the odd appearance with the cast of firebrand preachers and lapsed murderous priests) but instead it’s a kind of consequence. What happens when you depart from the concept of society, what happens when it’s every man for himself. And as political history has taught us from Hobbes to Thatcher, such a life is “nasty, brutish and short.”

The key to McCarthy’s work is in the title of his recent film. No Country for Old Men hails from the opening line of the Yeats poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, a rumination on age and the changing of times. And it fits with a novel in which an old backwoods patriarchs like the sheriff are forced to stand by and watch the world go to hell and can only utter comforting lies that once upon a time things were better. It’s another Yeats poem though that is the true rosetta stone. In ‘The Second Coming’, the Irish poet warned of a world slipping into the abyss – “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” For what it’s worth Yeats was right, for his was the age of Babi Yar, Katyn Forest, the monasteries of Solovki, Guernica and Nanking. What McCarthy shows us is that this netherworld was always here, it was there beneath the pioneer myths of the frontier, it will be in the post-apocalyptic world of The Road and, most importantly, it’s here right now.

The story’s a simple one. Born during the Leonids meteor storm, a troubled youth called only “the Kid” leaves a desolate homestead and, after a brief and blood-spattered period enlisted in an army regiment, is assimilated into a group of murderers and brigands known as the Glanton gang. They cross the Mexican border, or what masqueraded as one at the time, and under the pretence of protecting civilians from aboriginals they go on a grotesque killing spree, slaying innocents and combatants alike including the men, women and children they were paid to protect. Torturing and scalping virtually anyone who crosses their path, we accompany them on their raids, escapes and pitched battles, forced to grimly witness their worst excesses.

Easily one of the most violent books in mainstream literature, the most shocking aspect of the tale is its adherence to historical truth. It’s mind-blowing to consider that these things really happened, that there was an actual Glanton gang who terrorised northern Mexico and the south-west borderlands of the US, ruthlessly cutting swathes through the population. As it happened McCarthy took the framework for the book straight from the horse’s mouth, borrowing directly from gang member Samuel Chamberlain’s memoir My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue. In what can only be described as a prolonged bloodbath, McCarthy’s use of violence is visceral but authentic. Eye gouging, throat slicing, burning alive, it’s a reconstruction of a time when men kept the shrivelled hearts of the hanged as mementos, when churches lay in ruins, disabled people could be kept in cages and paraded for show and salvation was a form of cruel mockery.

We tend to think an over-exposure to violence and death is a modern phenomenon. If anything it’s the opposite. We’re sheltered from them more than ever; our meat comes pre-packaged, our children, god willing, live through their early years. For most in the West, violence now comes artificially in celluloid, digital form or on long-range news reports. In the absence of real experience with the darker side of life, we’ve grown to believe in a simplistic system of cause and effect, a childlike necessity for retribution. In terms of life and death, the guilty are punished, the innocent protected and we all sleep well at night. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t true, just so long as we believe it. In McCarthy’s world, as in the true Wild West, it’s the very banality of evil, the flippancy of it that is so disturbing and so effective. In his books, virtue and goodness have none of the protective qualities they have in the works of other lesser writers. Evil not only prevails here but it does so frivolously and without meaning. People die on a whim, for a mere joke or reasons that elude even the killers. They die in agony and no one knows of their fates or ever will. Men are killed for sitting too close to a bonfire, shot whilst taking a piss or attending the funeral of a loved one. Children are torched in their homes, wounded are abandoned to the elements. This is a place where an attempt at chivalry by a renegade group of army irregulars ends only in ignominy and devastation, the captain’s head pickled in a jar in a sideshow. There’s no honour, loyalty or duty. All these illusions are dispensed with.

A master of tension, even if it’s just a cloud of dust growing on the horizon, McCarthy has his readers actively will the brutalities not to happen and yet some part of you savours them when they do. One unforgettably vivid image, that returns to the mind long after read, involves a bloodthirsty war party of Indians descending upon the characters wearing clothes stripped from previous victims, “coats of slain dragoons…one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil.”

So effective are his depictions of these rampages, which begin feverishly and end in a sort of fatigued ennui, that the closest parallels are not other works of Southern Gothic or cinematic high noon shootouts but rather the actions of US marines in My Lai (the recurring necklaces of human ears for example) or the unimaginable deeds of the Waffen SS let loose upon Eastern Europe in the forties.

No matter how gripping the action scenes are, there is no writer alive who could sustain a complete novel on these alone, which is where the real strengths of McCarthy’s writing come to the fore. First there’s the shadowy charisma of his villains; the branded Toadvine, the mercantile Glanton, the fallen minister Tobin. The less we know of their backstories, the more intriguing they seem. All of them pale in comparison to Judge Holden, a truly diabolical creation and one of the most terrifying characters in all of American fiction.

Hairless, enormously tall, ageless, a childkiller and rapist but inexplicably a leader of men, with a warped Darwinist logic and peerless intellect, you sense that he has the same limitless jurisdiction, in space and time, as the devil himself, having appeared from out of nowhere in the desert. Holden is no simple brute killer. Rather he luxuriates in his crimes, sometimes for humour and sometimes just because he can, as when he conspires to unleash a mob upon a preacher trying to bring faith to a godless land. Holden’s attributes seem acquired through centuries, millennia even, as if he is the very embodiment of evil itself and has always been and always will be. He speaks a multitude of languages, is an expert in legal matters, philosophy and geology and has a quote from the classics engraved on his gun. He is a skilled draftsman and botanist, has travelled the world on unspoken missions and can create gunpowder from earth. A man who regards, “whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,” an educated pitiless man who would be as much at home in the Third Reich as the badlands. In a frontier world where God is conspicuous by his absence, it’s clear his opposite number still walks the earth.

Paradoxically, the beauty demonstrated in Blood Meridian reveals McCarthy to be a masterful poet. Whether it’s in descriptions of fever-struck plains of sand, slate and bones, lakes of gypsum, sandstone cities and packs of wolves or travelling medicine shows and gypsy circus acts or in language itself (“aint that the drizzling shits” for example), McCarthy has a sublime talent for imagery and metaphor. In terms of originality and the placing of previously disparate words together, the book’s closest, and unlikeliest, relative is Dylan ThomasUnder Milk Wood, both employing the marriage of words to startling rich effect (Dylan’s “bible-black” night, for example, “moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind” would fit perfectly in this novel). With a vast knowledge of the flora and fauna of the desertlands and of the grammar and vocabulary of its inhabitants, McCarthy spins a world that is at once grand and personal, exotic and arcane, a location so unforgiving and concealing, for all its exquisiteness, so many dangers that the very land itself seems a malevolent presence.

The best way to experience this, to be floored by it, is to simply sample his prose, in this case the vision of a ragged squadron traversing the desert at night, “under the moonlight a strange party of elders…moved on and the stars jostled and arced across the firmament and died beyond the inkblack mountains… the sand lay blue in the midnight…and the polished shoes of the horses kept hasping up like a myriad of eyes winking across the desert floor. They watched storms out there so distant they could not be heard…they saw wild horses racing on the plain, pounding their shadows down the night and leaving in the moonlight a vaporous dust like the palest stain of their passing.”

Though it’s presented in ways like an old junkstore novel or piece of Victoriana (each chapter comes with a brief melodramatic overview of what will come – “An inquest concerning teeth – The judge collects specimens – A risky encounter”), Blood Meridian defies convention or at least what we lazily anticipate from a western. If McCarthy rewrote Shane, it’d see the hero enter the town, assassinate the occupants and leave before anyone had guessed his name. That’s to say if you’re looking for a hero in Blood Meridian, you’ll be waiting an eternity. It’s more sophisticated than the mock-heroics you’d expect in traditional cowboy potboilers (containing amongst other things a substantial nod to King Lear). Each character is implicated in the collective guilt to different degrees, which makes how it unravels all the more intriguing.

Added to this are original touches that McCarthy brings to a medium that you’d think had been squeezed dry. He leaves the Spanish conversations of some characters untranslated, to add to the realism and mystery, and deviates from linear storytelling occasionally with tantalising effect, “on the inside of his lower arm was tattooed a number which Toadvine would see in a Chihuahua bathhouse and again when he would cut down the man’s torso where it hung skewered by its heels from a treelimb in the wastes of Pimeria Alta in the fall of that year.”

At other times, McCarthy puts the Wild West in its historic, even cosmic, context as when native warriors wear pieces of rusting armour belonging to long dead Spanish conquistadors or when the characters come across fossils or plot their position by the North American stars reminding you the West did not just appear out of nowhere but had a history all of its own, most of which we’ll never truly know.

Reading the novel again (in advance of its cinematic release next year), I’m drawn to something William S Burroughs once said, to the effect that there was something terrible waiting for man before he came to the Americas, something dark, ancient and impossibly malevolent. Except Burroughs was wrong: it’s not just in the landscape but resides everywhere. It’s in us and it remains that way. And the strength of Cormac McCarthy’s books from the then of Blood Meridian to the now of No Country for Old Men and to the future of The Road is that they demonstrate what we should not be and, by implication, suggests what we should.


Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

Posted in: Essays