Pay very close attention.
You are being led somewhere by someone who is very skilled. And you may get lost on the way if you don’t pay attention (maybe I am?). But, have no fear, even if you did get lost, the view is outstanding and you can always find your way back to the beginning and pick up the pieces that you missed along the way.
The prose is beautiful. The sentences long. The words difficult. The violence exhausting. But it seems to me that it is more than that. Here McCarthy is building something. Something big. But he is doing it slowly. And like a few pennies taken here and there from a large stack of cash it can get lost in all the chaos until the end when you realize that you are not sure how he is so unaccountably wealthy. And in the end he pulls the sheet away and like the chef exclaims voila and you are left amazed and sometimes scratching your head at what you have before you but knowing it is truly delicious.
Making things more difficult it would seem are the reviews that you read here (to which I add my own percolating thoughts). You will read things here where you may say to yourself that you never read that in the book but since it was difficult and this reviewer says its in the book you must have just not been smart enough to catch it (the Kid stuffed in a commode?). Have no fear – its not because you lack the intellect to truly get it. It just seems that we all have left a little of ourselves in this book, and things that seem obvious are not as obvious as they seem.
But I can honestly say that the ending may not be as ambiguous as you thought. Like a good illusionist, McCarthy dangles a tantalizing tidbit in front of you – the Judge – causing you to forget (or at least relegate to lesser status) other characters in the book. But, let us leave aside questions regarding the supernatural character of this horrible being who appears to revel in mayhem (but is often not the central actor in the drama). I suggest that it doesn’t matter. And let us ask questions that may help us tease out what exactly did and did not happen.
First – why is it important to tell us several times of children missing after the Glanton gang pulls into town, most conspicuous of which is the girl who handles the bear in the end? Many people have posited that this is the work of the Judge, but is there a passage in all of the gratuitous descriptions that places the Judge with these or any children (other than at the river crossing with the idiot)? Is the Judge ever suggested or shown to have any sexual appetite?
Second – who is the expriest and why, when both the Kid and Tobin are pursued by them, does he insist that the Judge is not talking to him but rather the kid? Why does it seem that both are interacting not directly with each other but rather through the Kid? And where does the expriest disappear to in San Diego when the Kid is arrested?
Finally – who is the third character at the “jakes”? Why does it seem that although he has knowledge of what is present but seems blatantly un-appalled by whatever is in there? And why, after all the gratuity in the novel (think of the description of dead babies hanging from trees) do we just get a reaction rather than a description of what exactly the person who exclaims “Good Lord” sees?
“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
Masticating all of this I come to the conclusion that the Kid is the house swept clean – both the Judge and Tobin pull at his soul (it matters not what exactly they are) and Tobin appears to overcome. He repents and confesses his horrible deeds. He wanders the desert with his bible, attempting to help those in need. But the bible he carries he can not read. And with Tobin gone, he has no guide, no interpreter. And he at last is found by the Judge, his broken will no match for the Judge’s whispering. And he finds himself in the end in the fleshy arms of this Judge, unable to overcome his most violent desires…
And so we find him like Humbert Humbert or Meursault – rudderless. And finding himself rudderless, life itself lacks meaning – only a series of opportunities to indulge our own fleshy desires until one day you are met with oblivion and all that you are is no more.