There are no likable characters in this book, at least not ones that survive to a chapter’s end. There are, however, many enthralling characters. The book is set in the borderlands in the mid-19th century and it follows the exploits of a violence-prone teenage kid, called “the kid,” who ends up among his ilk in a band of men who are nominally hunting down violent Indian tribes for bounty, but which soon devolves into what it really is–a gang of outlaws.
While the kid is considered the lead because the story follows him from its beginning to its end, the most intriguing character is arguably the judge (Judge Holden.) He’s not the gang’s leader, but neither is he led. He comes across as a co-leader to Glanton, and is so much the ultimate villain that he’d be cliché in the hands of a writer less masterful than McCarthy. What makes him such an ultimate villain? For starters, he’s physically imposing, but he’s also physically abnormal in a way that sits counter to that might—specifically, he has something like alopecia that makes him pink and hairless over his entire body. (He’s described as looking like a gigantic baby when nude.) He’s also an incredibly smart man over multiple dimensions of intelligence. He speaks so eloquently that one can almost become convinced that he’s noble, despite his vile and ruthless behavior. [His soliloquies remind me of those in the books of the Marquis de Sade, except much more compelling and focused on war as opposed to domination. But he puts non-virtuous behavior on a footing of being inevitable in the state of nature.] Still, he’s as rational as he is ruthless. When he’s acting on his best behavior you’d think him the stalwart professional that his nickname implies, but when he’s vicious he’s vicious without shame or guilt.
Having discussed only characters, and knowing that this is literary fiction, one might wonder if there’s a story. In fact, there is a story—sort of an anti-hero’s anti-journey, if you will. The Glanton gang starts out with victory and accolades and while they face challenges (e.g. running out of gunpowder) they are a strong force through most of the story. However, they aren’t always the hunters, but sometimes become the hunted. As the story reaches toward its climax, the tables begin to turn and one begins to wonder whether there can be a peaceful end for men of violence.
The prose is beautiful and evocative, and at the same the writing style is sparse. The descriptions paint the scenes for one in vivid detail. You’ll likely learn some new words, but it’s not so much that there’s a choice to be pretentious with vocabulary, but rather the fact that it’s historical fiction necessitates a specialty vocabulary.
I’d recommend this for readers of fiction, but keep in mind that it is brutally violent and offers a depressing commentary on man’s inhumanity to man.