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I knew quick that I was falling for this book, which I’d been meaning to read for thirty years but finally got to only after a house guest left his battered copy behind. It was when I noticed Cormac McCarthy using the word “lambaste” in its correct historical sense and not as the dead metaphor we have since come to accept: “He balled his fist and lambasted the door about five times.” No, he was not harshly criticizing the door. I appreciate that. I don’t think I’ve come across such recondite diction since the last time I read Edward Dahlberg, and that was a long time ago. Thanks to Blood Meridian, I’ve learned, at least temporarily, the meanings of “quirt,” “pritchel,” and even the seemingly ultra-rare “malandered.” (By the time you read this I’ll probably have forgotten.) Oh god, and then there’s “esker,” “thrapple,” “peltries,” “apishamore,” “surbated,” and so many others! But although the book is worth reading for its stunning word hoard alone, or the curiously whorled and colorfully feathered sentences in which that verbal swag has been deposited, it is more than just a stylistic exercise. More’s the pity. It also has a sort of philosophy, or so it seems: a kind of crude sub-Nietzschean nihilism articulated through the running commentary supplied by the character generally referred to as “the judge,” whom I imagine being played in a movie by Sidney Greenstreet. I know it’s dodgy to equate the views of any character in a novel with those of its author, but the judge does seem to have the clearest view of what’s going on amidst the novel’s rampant murder and mayhem, a view consonant with the narrator’s sense of “the transit of those riders” ( scalp hunters in mid-19th-century Texas) as “a thing so profoundly terrible as to register even to the utmost granulation of reality,” a reality sufficiently inhuman that “in the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence.” Basically, this is Matthew Arnold’s famous “darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night,” divested of that “love, let us be true / To one another!” stuff that was supposed to compensate. In fact, there’s one passage about two-thirds of the way through the book that seems expressly modeled on Arnold, in which the novel’s other main character, the kid, witnesses “from that high rimland the collision of armies remote and silent upon the plain below. […] He watched all this pass below him mute and ordered and senseless until the warring horsemen were gone in the sudden rush of dark that fell over the desert.” The armies may be ignorant, but there is one consciousness somewhere that is less so. The judge: “It is not necessary, he said, that the principals here be in possession of the facts concerning their case, for their acts will ultimately accommodate history with or without their understanding. But it is consistent with notions of right principle that these facts […] should find a repository in the witness of some third party.” Perhaps. But by the last page I was less convinced of the value of repeatedly witnessing the aimless and unreasoning clash of ignorant armies than I might have been at the book’s midpoint. Donald Trump would say I just lack stamina.
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