Cormac McCarthy has insisted in each of his works on the preeminent existence of evil in the world, but never before has he presented his readers with such a complex, demanding, and unrelieved exposition of it as in his fifth novel, Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West. Set in the American Southwest at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, it is, on the surface, a tale of the settling of the frontier, although the story is stripped of any noble pretense on the part of the settlers. Instead, the region is portrayed as a wilderness into which come the outcasts, the bandits and murderers and misfits of established society.
McCarthy’s protagonist is the kid. Born in 1833 (the year the stars fell, as William Faulkner reminds the reader in Go Down, Moses), the kid runs away from his broken Tennessee home when he is fourteen. By the time he reaches Texas in 1849, he has already abandoned the last vestiges of his childhood and has entered a world of incredible violence and depravity. Shortly after his arrival, he gets in a fight with a Mexican barman and gouges out the man’s eye with a broken whiskey bottle. Having thus proved his courage and willingness to fight, the kid is recruited by a Captain White, a former officer in the war with Mexico. White, who is insane, intends to lead a band of mercenaries back into Mexico, there to impose his rule and enslave the people. It is a godless land anyway, White argues, and the people are less than human. The kid, with nothing better to do, goes along, but after days of horrible suffering in the desert, the motley army is attacked and butchered by a band of Apache Indians. Only the kid and a few others miraculously manage to escape.
Making his way to a Mexican village (where he sees White’s head preserved in a jar of mescal), the kid is arrested and sent to Chihuahua City, where he is made to crawl on his hands and knees cleaning the gutters of the town. He is taken from jail by Captain John Joel Glanton, who has been contracted by Governor Trias of Chihuahua to kill the Apache. The Governor offers a bounty of one hundred dollars for each scalp—man, woman, child—they bring in. The group sets out and proceeds to match the Apache, atrocity for atrocity. There is no difference between the savagery practiced by the Indians and that shown by the white scalpers. No human life is respected in this terra damnata, this land of heat and dust and blood. Glanton and his men kill and scalp without remorse. When they return with their gory possessions and are paid, they turn on the inhabitants of Chihuahua and terrorize them during days of mad drinking and brutal revelry.
Finally, the scalpers themselves become the pursued, chased by the Mexican army, and they move on toward the West. After numerous episodes of carnage and unspeakable cruelty, they arrive at Yuma Crossing, in 1850. They take over the settlement there and shortly thereafter are massacred by a band of Indians they have attempted to betray. Once again, only the kid and a few others escape the slaughter.
Although the basic story and some of the main characters in Blood Meridian come from recorded fact, McCarthy has employed them for his own purposes, and his book is less a historical account of a particularly violent aspect of the settling of the West than it is a philosophical and even metaphysical examination of the motives behind the settling. The land itself is described as abandoned by God. Churches lie in ruins; figures of the Christ or of saints and martyrs are toppled and mutilated in the dirt. More than one church serves as a site for carnage rather than sanctuary. McCarthy holds no brief for Manifest Destiny. He presents no appointed agents of God bringing order and civilization into a heathen world. He sees man as naturally given to violence, whether he be Christian or pagan. McCarthy illustrates this view of man throughout the novel in the many acts of atrocity committed. “It’s a mystery,” an old hermit, a former slave trader, tells the kid near the beginning of the book:A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.
This view of man is repeated by other voices and proved by other deeds in the story, but the figure that most clearly, and complexly, embodies the nature of evil is Judge...