By Jay Stringer
"When this world was made, was never meant to save, everyone in kind.
I don't believe that God much had me, had me much in mind."
Today I'm doing something that Dave's spoken of before. I'm discussing the ending of a book. If you've not read Blood Meridian then you may not want to read on. I don't think knowing the journey's end ruins the book, but by the same token it never improves it.
Go, read the book. It's worth it.
Okay. The ending of the book is something of an obsession of mine. I can put it away in a drawer for months at a time, but when it gets loose, it takes over my brain for days. It's one of my favourite books, and I reckon this obsession with the ending is one of the main reasons behind that.
Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness In The West, is an unapologetic and difficult book. It challenges you to read it, with a more dense and stylised prose than we see from Cormac McCarthy's later work. Just as the prose challenges us with its style, the story challenges us with its themes. And after a long brutal journey, some people can be thrown off by the ending. But I'm not one of them.
The plot of the book follows The Kid, a teenage runaway, and his journey into the heart of darkness. Sometimes the narrator seems to be The Kid, but at other times its far less clear. We follow him through brutality and violence, through some of the worst acts possible to mankind, but somehow there's something inside him that we root for. There's something very human about the kid. Contrasted against this is the antagonist, tormentor, mentor, companion and demon; Judge Holden.
The two characters don't come into contact often, but they circle each other across the narrative. If the Kid is our occasional guide on the journey, Holden is the lure that's dragging us both along.
He's a force of nature, large and hairless, capable of great violence and great mirth. When we first see him, he is inciting a townspeople to kill a preacher by claiming that the holy man had sex with an eleven year old girl. It's an accusation that Holden made up, just to sit back and watch the violence.
I remember watching The Dark Knight and seeing more than a little of Judge Holden in Ledger's Joker. As Alfred says in that film, "some men just want to watch the world burn." And as the clown himself says, "I'm like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do if I caught one, I just do things."
Holden rises and falls above the plot, he dances around us like a demon around a campfire. He knows the hearts and minds of the people around him, and he seeks to own them completely. Many people read him to literally be the devil, but that's something I'll return to a little later.
If those two characters mark the dark strings pulling on the Kid's heart, there are two characters who show the other side, something that could save him. Tobin is an ex-preacher, a man who has traded in a life of God for the harsh truth's of scalp hunting. Although, as with Toadvine and Jones, he has bathed himself in blood, he still holds onto his belief in God, and opposes the Judge. His fate is left ambiguous, he gets shot but it's never stated that he died. A man with a similar end (or lack of) is Chambers, a man who has fallen into the violent life of the scalping gang, but holds dreams of a better life. His death is ambiguous, we never see the body. I think your views on the fates of Tobin and Chambers will be informed by your take on the ending. Do you want to believe in a story of redemption? Or do you read a book in which nobody gets out alive?
"There must be a place, where this world and grace, are made to meet."
So what's all this hoopla over the ending? Why, I'm glad you asked.
The Kid, now an adult by the end of the book, encounters Holden one final time. In an outhouse, a "jake," the Kid comes across the Judge, who is large and naked. The narrative tells us that Holden takes the Kid "in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh." And that's pretty much it. We never see, nor hear, of the Kid again. All we know is that whatever fate he meets in that outhouse is so dark, so troubling, that when men come along later and witness the scene, they are stunned into silence and quickly leave.
So what happens?
"Drink up, drink up. 'Cuz tonight your soul's required of you."
The popular theory seems to be sodomy. The Judge doesn't want to simply kill the Kid, he wants to humiliate him, destroy him. That's why he's naked while he waits for him, and why he does it in such a public place.
Fair enough. There's enough evidence in that scene to support that, if that's the way you want to take it. But there's precious little evidence elsewhere of the Judge being a sexual creature. He's a force of nature, yes, but his appetites seem to lean more towards satisfaction through violence and manipulation rather than simply getting any rocks off. And his description seems to point to someone who is either more or less human, as if there's an effort to make his motives seem other-worldly. Why go 333 pages without showing any real sign of being a sexual predator, to then carry out such an act "off screen?"
Another argument is that the Judge is a supernatural figure. That he literally is the devil, as many allude to, and that he is taking his pound of flesh from everyone in turn and that, by the end of the novel, it's simply time for the Kid to be taken.
Again, there's evidence aplenty for this reading. But it seems too easy. The book is such a challenging exploration of human violence, and the dark heart of man, that it would seem to me to be too much of a simple answer to make the Judge into a supernatural being. The book is the horrors of humanity, not the horrors of demons. We can come up with far more depraved acts than any creature of hell.
Is the clue elsewhere in the book? The whole thing is about violence. It's about the extremes that the characters go to, and how they slowly make themselves inhuman, how they become desensitised to brutality, and wear necklaces made of earrings. Each character slowly becomes removed from humanity, from the "normal" people that they encounter, and those who fight against it, who take a stand against the Judge's world view, seem to die off screen.
Why would the book go to such length's to portray violence and darkness, only to draw the curtain across its final act? And what could be so nasty, so disturbing, that it can't be described?
I often try to get into the Judge's head. To figure out how he sees his role. Does he believe himself to be the devil? Is he acting out a role that he has chosen for himself, sitting in judgement of humanity around him, and figuratively taking the souls of people he can own, and killing those that he can't? He knows each character in the book. He can read their hearts and minds in a way that does border on the supernatural, which would lead back toward the devil theory. After the dark actions in the outhouse, we see him dancing, loud and free, the life and soul of the party. "He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."
If the book is about violence and our own darker places, then those are also the very things that "will never die." So does the Judge even exist, or is he a manifestation of the thing all of us have, but won't admit to? Is he a creation of the omniscient narrator, the voice who sometimes seems to be the Kid but at other times doesn't? Or are both characters creations? If the Kid and Holden seem to be circling each other, opposite ends of the same story, are we seeing the internal struggle of a war torn veteran? Is this someone losing the last vestiges of their humanity, of Holden's ID smothering the Kid's morals? Is this a Tyler Durden-style swerve?
Is Holden a throwback? Is he a creature from our dark past, a reminder that we've not come far? Or is he the future? Is he someone who has evolved beyond the constraints of humanity and morals? Is he, as the Joker says in The Dark Knight, "just ahead of the curve."
You know what?
I don't think it matters.
I think that, just as the Judge shows each of the characters something about themselves, he shows each reader something, too. I don' think the book is the journey of Kid, or Toadvine, or Tobin, or any of them. It's the journey of the reader. The characters are our totems, our spirit guides, and the Judge is, as his name suggests, the mirror that casts something of us back at ourselves.
We hold the book up and see what comes back at us. McCarthy doesn't tell us what happens in that outhouse because nothing does. Not really. It's a black space that we fill in. The judge is a blank face, he's a plot device. Whatever scares you goes into the space behind his eyes, and whatever small hope keeps you going goes into the Kid, and you fill that outhouse with your own world view.
Read the book, and see what it throws back at you.
And I'll leave you with a song. Ben Nichols -lead singer of Lucero- recorded a concept album a couple years ago that was inspired by Blood Meridian. Each song is a character study from the book, each tells a snippet of a character's life, their hopes, dreams and failures. Tellingly, the track dedicated to the Judge has no lyrics. It's dark and ominous, and let's you fill in the blanks.
The album was called The Last Pale Light In The West, and whenever my Blood Meridian obsession comes calling, so does the need to listen to this album on constant rotation. The quotes that I've been sprinkling through this post are lifted from the songs. Here's one of them, both to act as a soundtrack to this post and to try and convince you to buy the album.
"You wouldn't think that out here, a man can simply run clear, out of country but oh my, oh my, nothing but the light."