Cormack McCarthy is a Hobbesian. Clearly manifest in his novel is Hobbes’ famous dictum: Life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (xiii). His novel abounds with examples of this truth, contrasting it constantly with the breath taking beauty and harshness of the South West. All men are engaged in a “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes), and those who refuse to engage in it are simply punished for their timidity.

The protagonist is passive youth known only as ‘the kid’, who journeys in the company of Glanton and his band of violent and ammoral scalp hunters. From the first we are told that even as a youth “there brooded in him a taste for mindless violence”, and it doesn’t take long for him to indulge in it. ‘The kid’ is almost completely without emotion, opinion or self awareness; his defining characteristic is his taciturn recourse to violence, which rather than disqualifying him as a neutral vehicle through which to experience the novel, shows us what McCormack considers ‘neutral’ or ‘natural’ in his world.

Nominally Ganton’s band hunts the scalps of Indians for recompense, but this is but a facade for their true goal: like Ahab in search of his whale, they quest for some form of truth, they seek to understand life through violence, as if it were only in moments of shocking violence that life’s true nature could be understood. They are near mindless in their pursuit, but the epic and near-biblical tone in which they are described, especially when contrasted with the sublime descriptions of the South West, make it implicit that they are seeking something.

Their mindless, almost bestial pursuit is contrasted sharply with the twisted brilliance of Judge Holden, a loquacious avatar of the devil who dances and fiddles and glories in the decadence, brutality and violence of that age. Ah, Judge Holden! As beguiling a villain as ever I’ve met, and a sheer joy to watch as he dominates the page! He is the only character who holds his own against the sheer grandeur of the landscape, and that is because he’s larger than life, or as McCarthy might put it, ‘an issue of the bloody dam of war herself’.

Blood Meridian: enthralling in its language, magnificent in its descriptions, harrowing in its violence. A paean to the Hobbesian state of nature, a dirge to the passing of its truest moment, and perhaps fatally flawed due to its very strengths: the towering heights of sublime grandeur to which he raises his venerance of death unbalances the tale.

Phil’s opinion: awesome and faintly silly at the same time.