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“Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenelated heat.”

Of all Cormac McCarthy’s novels, Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness In The West is perhaps his most poetic, the most rhythmically and symbolically unrestrained, and the most unceasingly brutal. To be sure, death is always at hand in McCarthy’s novels, with killers who take as much joy in their methods as in their results. No use in naming names, or characters from his other novels: right now you’re probably thinking of a knife fight in a dusty street, a child threatened in chilled woods, or cold-blooded murder by the side of a desert road. Whether tracing the American taste for violence and brutality back to the lawless West, or projecting our blood lust into a lawless dystopia, the prospect of spilled blood is never distant in McCarthy’s work. Recall President Trump’s unfortunate vision of “American carnage” in his inaugural address? Blood Meridian is ceaseless carnage, carnage disguised as battle, carnage as retaliation, carnage for insult, carnage as instinct. McCarthy can never be accused of celebrating brutality, but its matter-of-fact portrayal in his novels illustrates one of the most damning accusations directed at Americans: that we are inured to violence.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. Click on the above image to order or browse at Amazon

Be that as it may, Blood Meridian also contains some of McCarthy’s most evocative and memorable prose. “At the end of the street,” he writes early in the book, “they came to a place with branches and trees where vultures huddled in foul black rookeries.” That’s poetic, all right; darkly poetic. It’s also a spare description, terse, lean, economical, conveying its dark portent with the help of only two adjectives. Two adjectives among twenty-two words, among eight nouns/pronouns and two verbs. Branches, trees, and huddled vultures. That’s what McCarthy wants us to see, and I, for one, see it as clearly as I’ve ever seen anything else in American prose. How can we not see it? It’s strikingly direct, threatening, dire, yet spare and artful. McCarthy wastes no words here (not that he ever does); he writes with precision, restraint, and above all, accuracy. They came to the end of the street. A place with branches and trees. A place with vultures in foul black rookeries. As a reader, what do you think will happen here?

Elsewhere, McCarthy’s word choice shows how only a couple of letters can make the difference between specificity and ambiguity, between explicit meaning and the meaning the reader brings to the work.

He sees a parricide hanged in a crossroads hamlet and the man’s friends run forward and pull his legs and he hangs dead from his rope while urine darkens his trousers.

Why “parricide?” I wondered. “Why not “patricide?” And what, if any, is the difference?

I had to consult my dictionary, but there is a difference, and a rather interesting one. Parricide is an inclusive word, referring to the murder of one’s father, mother, or other near relative. The more commonly known patricide is more specific and refers to the murder of one’s father.

Other than the hanging victim being a man, we do not know if he is someone’s father, or brother–or, in some murderous complexity known only to the author–both. The difference of a single letter between two similar words allows ambiguity to enter this particular scene. In my journal, I noted that McCarthy is too precise and masterful a craftsman to entertain such ambiguity by accident. As readers, all we know is that the man was murdered by family members for reasons left unexplained. Neither do we know how the character passing by, “the Kid,” intuited that the man was hanged as the result of parricide. It’s merely a given, as much of the natural order of things as the other acts of unspeakable violence which populate the book.

American carnage? Perhaps only by facing such cruelty, by staring down the vultures in their foul black rookeries, by facing the darkness within ourselves, can we reject it in favor of a less violent society.

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