In some respects, McCarthy’s relocation is unsurprising. Throughout his career he has focused on outsiders, outlaws – from Sylder in The Orchard Keeper and Lester Ballard in Child of God onwards – and so it seems entirely natural that he should migrate to the wild west, that untamed landscape peopled in myth and legend by the greatest outlaws of them all. In the Border Trilogy, McCarthy’s outlaws are classic standard bearers for the traditional western, outsiders with steely resolution, with a sense of mission, even destiny, and hard, uncompromising men, unafraid of combat but possessed, deep down, of a sense of decency. John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are classic, white-hatted western heroes. Their tribulations as they cross and re-cross the wilderness of America can be viewed as archetypal rites of passage. John Grady finds love, for example, but knows it must defer to his sense of mission: this is a man’s world and, as John Wayne would say, ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.’ Similarly, Billy Parham is driven, first by a sense of animistic honour to return the wolf to its natural habitat, and then by a humanist urge to return the body of his brother to their family home. The novels are, in many ways, entirely typical of the genre.
But even here, one senses that McCarthy is using the genre for his own ends. The Border Trilogy may appear straightforward, but it does not require detailed analysis before indications to the contrary appear. McCarthy is not interested in lionising these outlaws, or in perpetuating the myths of their untamed spirit. These are not heroes. Mr Johnson, in Cities of the Plain, makes it clear:
They kept comin west and about the time they got here was about the time Sam Colt invented the sixshooter and it was the first time these people could afford a gun you could carry around in your belt. That’s all there ever was to it. It had nothin to do with the country at all. The west. They’d of been the same it dont matter where they might of wound up.
The line, ‘nothin to do with country,’ echoes John Grady Cole’s lament at the end of All The Pretty Horses, ‘I dont know what happens to country.’ All he is seeking, a sense of belonging, a sense of order, some reason for the chaos of living, is unattainable. A similar, but more prosaic, sentiment is suggested by Toadvine in Blood Meridian, when he complains, "You wouldnt think that a man would run plumb out of country out here, would ye?" Even in these vast expanses, McCarthy is telling us, man cannot escape the inevitable. Back in his native Tennessee, McCarthy’s first outlaw, Marion Sylder in The Orchard Keeper, warned us that ‘they aint no more heroes’, but it is with his western novels that McCarthy explores this claim most fully. All there are are men and the world, and the world is not about to accommodate any man, no matter how possessed he is of courage or determination.
What McCarthy is doing with these western novels, then, is turning the standard mythology on its head. He is using the conventions of the form, but simultaneously subverting them. As Sara L. Spurgeon notes, ‘[h]is voice and the frontier heroes he creates are both a continuance of the tradition of Western writing and a dark and complex counterpoint to it.’ Bent Sørensen concurs, suggesting that with Blood Meridian McCarthy is ‘demythologizing and remythologizing the American West,’ while John Cant observes that, ‘[i]n classic deconstructionist mode, McCarthy writes in mythic form in order to deconstruct American mythology.’ The question that we must address, then, is why? When one considers the extraordinary savagery of Blood Meridian, the hell of nihilistic despair which attends it, one is left to question exactly what drove Cormac McCarthy to create it. Simply ‘subverting the myth of the American west’ is insufficient as an answer. There must be more to Blood Meridian than that.