This is the violent tale of a boy of fourteen, referred to in the story only as “the kid,” except toward the end, when his referred to as “the man,” who leaves home and gets involved with the Glanton gang, which ran around Mexico and the regions of the U.S. bordering on it, to collect Indian scalps. The story is at least loosely based on a real gang of such men.
This is the most violent and brutal thing I have ever read. It makes “A Clockwork Orange” look like a
Sunday School picnic. I saw videos of two separate literature professors who both said they tried twice to read it before they were actually able to get through it. So, unless you like a lot of killing, scalping, murder of innocents and otherwise extremely graphic violence, go read something else. In its defense, though, the nature of the acts contained in the story are pretty much what happened in that part of the world at that time (1849-50).
The Glanton gang has been hired to kill Indians, in particular Apaches, and bring back their scalps, for which they will paid by the scalp. Now, this was before DNA testing, and any old scalp with black hair will do, at least in the minds of the gang. So, they proceed to kill not only warring Apache, who in their own right were viciously and barbarously violent, but nice peaceful tribes, and even plain old Mexican villagers, whose hair looks a hell of a lot like that of an Indian, particularly when surgically removed. And old women and children will do, as well.
Most of the story, then, follows the gang through the wilderness doing their vile and horrific deeds. Most of the time, though, the kid is not heard from. We never hear any reaction he might have to these acts, and really get the impression that he is happy to go about the business.
One of the central characters is Judge Holden, a huge, fat, and hairless albino who is seemingly able to speak any language, knows about nearly everything, and keeps a journal of sketches of what he sees, and a collection of animals and bones, à la Charles Darwin. He is inhumanly strong and knows everything; i.e., all powerful and all knowing; i.e., God.
We rarely see the Judge engaged directly in any of the atrocities, but he looks upon everything with a benevolent eye. I will not spoil the ending of the book, but the kid and the Judge come into conflict to the detriment of the health of the kid. The kid has a couple of chances to kill the Judge, which would have been the prudent thing to do, but he is not able to pull the trigger.
I see this as a Bible story. The Bible is littered with acts just as heinous, and all instigated, or at least countenanced, by God. The Judge lectures that war will last for ever, as men love it. The war and the violence that takes place in the story is due to man’s very nature. There is no limit to the evil men do, particularly to other men (or women, or children, or animals).
In the end, the Judge is singing and dancing, saying that he never sleeps and can never die. Some people see him as Satan, but I see him as God, though the distinction is rather fine.
Cormac McCarthy is looked upon as one of, if not the single most important living writer in America. The language of the book is what carries it, as the plot is thin–a series of violent events, really, with some bits of philosophy tossed in. It is brilliantly written, almost poetic. This book is thought to be his masterpiece. I agree. I also agree that McCarthy is one of the two or three greatest American writers living, and probably one of the dozen greatest of all time. Read this book.