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The Devil You Know–Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”

“Books lie,” says the judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, when confronted with resistance to his modern views on geology as opposed to the Biblical account of creation. The exchange goes on between the judge and the more naturally drawn members of the murderous Glanton gang.

God dont lie.
No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.
He held up a chunk of rock.
He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.
The squatters in their rags nodded among themselves and were soon reckoning him correct, this man of learning, in all his speculations, and this the judge encouraged until they were right proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools.

The center of McCarthy’s novel, drenched in blood and senseless violence, follows the historical gang led by John Joel Glanton, who, in 1849, were hired by the Mexican government to hunt down and kill a marauding Apache band. Glanton’s crew so utterly oversteps their commission that they became the hunted, branded, for good cause, as outlaws. This passage is the heart of the novel, comprising perhaps two thirds of its bulk, but it is not the entire novel. Instead, the book follows the young man known only as the kid, who drifts into the southwest, joins an ill-fated military expedition into Mexico, barely survives an attack by the Apache, falls under arrest by the Mexicans, and then eventually is liberated by Glanton. After Glanton’s death, we follow the kid as he escapes the clutches of the judge, kills a boy who threatens him pointlessly, and then lives out the next several decades of life. It is years later that the kid again encounters the judge in a saloon. The boy goes to an outhouse for typical outhouse business and is apparently murdered by the judge there. The book closes with an odd scene of the judge back in the saloon:

He is naked and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. . . . He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judges. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

Clearly Blood Meridian is not simply a novel of the Glanton gang. Instead, it uses that event as a major portion of describing the history between the kid and the judge. The kid first encounters the judge at a tent revival, where the judge turns the congregants into a lynch mob by slandering the preacher. The reader can imagine the judge lurking in the darkness when, late in the book, the kid is forced to shoot his young visitor.

Critics have suggested a most naturalistic motivation for the judge’s murder of the kid in the end. The kid is the last witness who can implicate the judge in the depredations of the Glanton gang. Such an argument strikes me as silly. Obviously the kid is just as vulnerable to those stories as is the judge, and after some thirty years, his threat has surely diminished. Plus, another, historical survivor of the group,

Some scholars have seen the judge as a gnostic figure, but that strikes me as traveling unnecessarily far into the fringes of western tradition. Judge Holden, I would say, is one and the same with the man who walks along with Young Goodman Brown. He is a figure of Mephistopheles, the character whom Mick Jagger plays when he sings, “Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed my name.”

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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