“The freedom of birds if an insult to me”.
- The Judge
Based loosely, very loosely, on historical events, the book tells the tale of a violent youth, known only as “the Kid” who joins a gang of outlaws hired to collect Apache scalps, 100$ a pop. The story isn’t really important though, it simply serves as a framework for McCarthy to showcase and exhibit human violence, and let’s be very clear here, this book is an absolute blood bath. No one is exempt from the violence in the novel, all participate, receiving and giving in equal measure, the gang members are all amoral murderers who kill with impunity and when they inevitably die, there is no emotional weight to it, they are not mourned, the reader doesn’t care about them, it simply is simply the way things are, you kill and then you are killed. The book doesn’t even allow the Apaches, whose lucrative scalps lead the gang members to massacre them, to be simple victims. McCarthy paints them in such a way that the reader can’t identify with them, an early passage describes an Apache war raid as something out of a dark carnival, dressed outlandishly and appearing otherworldly and horrible, like something out of a fevered nightmare. All this is set to a backdrop of hellish landscapes devoid of any sympathy, the old west as imagined by McCarthy is a brutal land which rolls on impassively in the face of human depravity. There are no cowboys playing a harmonica around a gentle campfire, exchanging easy comradery here, it’s kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.
McCarthy’s prose is as eloquent as always, weaving dazzling linguistic constructs with an almost fanatic hatred of punctuation marks to disorient the reader, never letting him or her be secure in their footing. I found myself going back and rereading whole swaths of the book, reorganizing details I missed, but also to enjoy some truly poignant moments. This is, in my opinion, McCarthy’s best work, I read a review on amazon that called this one of the great American novels and I agree wholeheartedly.
The main philosophical underpinnings of the novel are voiced by the Judge, rarely have I read a villain who caught my attention as completely as the Judge, a giant, bald, erudite and possibly supernatural creature of pure evil and chaos. In several memorable moments he sits, naked and covered in blood and pontificates to his band of cutthroats and degenerates (and by extension to us), explaining to them how war is a game and violence is the not an aberration of human civilization but rather its very essence. This book was a slap in the face for me, secure in my western suburban comfort, debating micro-aggressions and trigger warnings and safe zones. Cormac McCarthy gave us a book to shock us, jolt us out of our complacency, to remind us all evil exists and it is dangerous to ignore it.