(Masterpieces of American Literature)

With Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West, a novel of epic proportions and startling originality, McCarthy shifts his eye from Tennessee to the American Southwest and northern Mexico. The novel, set in the 1840’s, when the border between the United States and Mexico was under dispute, is an orgy of violence, vain striving, and desperate marauding. It gives form to the frontier theory, the idea of manifest destiny, which inspired Americans to seek dominion over the land and to expel, murder, or subjugate those peoples who stood in the way of their dominion over the mission. As the subtitle of the novel suggests, the book has elements of the Western, though McCarthy rigorously subverts the convention and its values. There are indeed cowboys, Indians, and Mexicans, but the shoot-outs, massacres, and raids (all depicted in graphic detail) take place in a vacuum of values where there is no such thing as a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” Alan Cheuse is on track in calling Blood Meridian “a Western that evokes the styles of both [film director] Sam Peckinpah and [artist] Hieronymus Bosch.”

The narrative loosely follows a young protagonist whom the reader knows only as “the kid” (born a hundred years before his creator, in 1833) as he leaves his Tennessee home at the age of fourteen, winds his way west to Texas, and is enlisted in a vigilante army of Americans who, under the command of Captain Glanton, march through the inhospitable plains, deserts, and mountains of Texas, Chihuahua, Sonora, Arizona, and southern California, terrorizing Indians, Mexicans, and one another along their wrathful path. Hosts of colorful characters appear and vanish through the journey’s course. Most important among them is Judge Holden, who first meets and observes the kid early in the novel and then picks up his trail later, following him until their ultimate showdown near the novel’s end.

Early in the novel, the kid meets a hermit who propounds his belief in evil and its mysterious, self-generating nature. This is one...

(The entire section is 843 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Based on historical events and actual personages, Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West recounts the exploits of a brutal band of professional scalp hunters who, employed by local governments in the American Southwest and in Mexico, murder Indians for bounty. The novel emphasizes the violent manner in which “civilization” is imposed on a savage land and thus challenges accepted notions concerning Manifest Destiny and the settling of the West.

McCarthy’s protagonist is “the kid,” an unnamed boy who runs away from home in Tennessee and heads west, arriving in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 1849. Although only sixteen years old, the kid is an experienced fighter, a survivor in a vicious world. Moving on to Bexar, Texas, he is offered a position with a Captain White, who is leading an expedition into Sonora, Mexico. White argues that the Mexicans are a degenerate race, deserving of conquest, and that the land is godless and needful of salvation. White proves to be mad, but the kid accompanies the group. After days in the desert, they are attacked and slaughtered by a Comanche war party; the kid is among the few survivors of the exceedingly brutal massacre. Finally reaching a town, he is arrested by the local authorities and sent with other remnants of the group to Chihuahua City, where they are put to work cleaning filth from gutters in the street.

Into Chihuahua City rides a party of professional scalp hunters, led by Captain John Joel Glanton, with the monstrous, mysterious Judge Holden as second-in-command. Holden arranges freedom for those prisoners who wish to join the scalpers, and the kid takes the offer. Glanton has been hired by Angel Trias, governor of the state of Chihuahua, to eradicate Indians in the vicinity; the fee set is one hundred dollars for each scalp brought in. Thus, the small gang of men sets out into the Mexican territory, searching for prey. Roving through the wild land, the scalp hunters find and...

(The entire section is 806 words.)