Those with weak stomachs need not open the pages of this book. From beginning to end, this is one long travail of unadulterated gore and brutality. It's major mythic character, the Judge, states that war is divine, that nothing on the earth is beyond his notice or does not require his permission to die. And brutal, violent death occurs with great regularity within this book, every couple of pages or so.
The setting is the West and Mexico around the period of 1847, and the license to kill without discrimination is enabled by the Judge's charter of killing and scalping renegade Indians for bounty. If that was all that this group did, perhaps the reader could make some allowance for the portrayed actions, but it quickly becomes apparent that anyone is a target, regardless of guilt, innocence, age, occupation, race, gender, or prior actions. The book becomes a dark celebration of violence for violence's sake.
The Kid, fourteen years old at the start of this book, is the nominal protagonist, drawn into the Judge's group mainly because he had nothing better to do, without other skills or any ambitions. And he is practically the only ray of light within this whole concoction, as he (once or twice) actually shows a little feeling for persons besides himself.
The Judge is an enigmatic super-something, ageless, multilingual, educated, interested in ecology, and much larger than life. Who (or what) the Judge is is clearly central to this book's theme, but he certainly can stand as an avatar of an element of human nature that most people would rather not think about.
McCarthy's prose is very distinct, with odd syntax, unquoted dialogue, and considerable use of some rather rare words. His descriptions of the country are, in some places, nearly prose poems. But this style also leads to what I think is the major flaw with this book, as he never gets inside the heads of any of his characters, remains distant, such that none of his people ever came `alive' to me. Some descriptions of the privations the group experiences while crossing a desert, while quite accurate, remained something happening to a group of stick figures, rather than recognizable humans. Perhaps this is exactly what he wanted, written more as an allegory or parable than any conventional type of story. Certainly there isn't any real plot, as the story careens from one brutal incident to the next.
Perhaps this book can best be described as an archetypal anti-Western, the antithesis of the standard Western, which, amid all the violence, has its focus on heroes. There are no heroes here.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)