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Gristmill: After Cormac

Thu, 09/21/2023 - 05:44
Apaches at the turn of the last century in an Edward Curtis photo titled “The Lost Trail.”
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Edward S. Curtis Collection

When Cormac McCarthy died in June at the age of 89, I didn’t go to one of his late novels. Very late: “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris” came out more or less in tandem at the end of last year.

As good as “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” were, I’ve become wary, thinking that more of our literary heavyweights should pull a Philip Roth and know when to call it quits while ahead.

But then, as I searched for some Lawrence Block comfort reading involving his inveterate drinker and shabby sort-of private eye, Matthew Scudder, I spotted high on a shelf in the living room a yellowed paperback of McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” from 1985.

Let me put it this way, this is as close as any North American is ever going to get to the hair-raising language of Shakespeare, who may have been uniquely attuned to another dimension.

“All the sky seemed troubled and night came quickly over the evening land and small gray birds flew crying softly after the fled sun. He chucked the horse. He passed and so passed all into the problematical destruction of darkness.”

Just one inventive snippet there from this novel set in the middle of the 19th century in an American West incarnadine (thank you, Bard) with blood, such is its violence. The kid, as he’s called throughout, joins riders in the lawless company of one John Joel Glanton on a lengthy, dusty, arduous excursion to collect for payment as many Indian scalps as they can.

And no, there is no honor among thieves, one of whom in particular stands out, the judge, an erudite and hairless giant of a man. There is a touch of Kurtz from “Heart of Darkness” about him, but for me he first recalled the albino, the disconcertingly competent-in-all-things figure from one of the great Native American novels, N. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn.” Neither can be bested.

“It makes no difference what men think of war,” the judge says. “War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him.”

No doubt Vladimir Putin isn’t the only one who would agree. As the judge might say, ’twas ever thus. 


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