Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West is a 1985 Western novel by American author Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy's fifth book, it was published by Random House.
The narrative follows a teenage runaway referred to only as "the kid", with the bulk of the text devoted to his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Indians and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands in 1849 and 1850. The role of antagonist is gradually filled by Judge Holden, a large, intelligent man depicted as entirely devoid of body hair and emblematic of violence and conflict.
Although the novel initially generated only lukewarm critical and commercial reception, it has since become highly acclaimed and is widely recognized as McCarthy's masterpiece.
Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Three epigraphs open the book: quotes from French writer Paul Valéry, from German Christian mystic Jacob Boehme, and a 1982 news clipping from the Yuma Sun reporting the claim of members of an Ethiopian archeological excavation that a 300,000-year-old human skull had been scalped.
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Traveling alone on his mule through the plains of East Texas, the kid spends a night in the shelter of a recluse before arriving in "Bexar" (modern day San Antonio). After a violent encounter with a bartender which establishes the kid as a formidable fighter, he joins a party of ill-armed U.S. Army irregulars on a filibustering mission led by a Captain White. Shortly after entering Mexico, they are attacked by a band of Comanche warriors. Few survive. Arrested as a filibuster in Chihuahua, the kid is set free when his cell neighbor, Toadvine, tells the authorities that they will make useful Indian hunters for the state's newly hired scalphunting operation.
Toadvine and the kid consequently join Glanton and his gang of scalphunters. The bulk of the novel is devoted to detailing their activities and conversations. The gang encounters a traveling carnival, and, in untranslated Spanish, each of their fortunes is told with Tarot cards. The gang originally contracts with various regional leaders to protect locals from marauding Apaches, and are given a bounty for each scalp they recover. Before long, however, they devolve into the murderers of innocent Indians, unprotected Mexican villagers, and eventually Mexican national guardsmen and anyone else who crosses their path.
Judge Holden, who re-enters the story as a fellow scalphunter, is presented as a profoundly mysterious and awe-inspiring figure; the others seem to regard him as not quite human. Like the historical Holden of Chamberlain's autobiography, he is a child-killer, though almost no one in the gang expresses much distress at his committing such acts. According to the kid's new companion Ben Tobin, an ex-priest, the Glanton gang first met the judge while they were fleeing for their lives from a much larger Apache group. In the middle of a desert, the gang found Holden sitting on an enormous boulder, where he seemed to be waiting for them. He took them to an extinct volcano, and told them how to manufacture gunpowder, enough to give them the advantage against their Apache pursuers. When the kid remembers seeing Holden in Nacogdoches, Tobin explains that each man in the gang claims to have met the judge at some point before joining Glanton's gang. However Tobin ends his tale by saying that this episode was his first time seeing the judge.
After months of marauding, the gang crosses into U.S. territory, where they set up a systematic and brutal robbery operation at a ferry on the Gila River at Yuma, Arizona. Local Yuma (Quechan) Indians are approached to help the gang wrest control of the ferry from its original owner, but Glanton's gang betrays them, using their presence and previously coordinated attack on the ferry as an excuse to seize the ferry's munitions and slaughter the Yuma. Because of the new operators' brutal ways, a group of U.S. Army soldiers sets up a second ferry at a ford upriver to cross--which the Yuma briefly appropriate until their ferryman Callahan is decapitated and thrown in the river. Eventually, after the gang had amassed a fortune by robbing the settlers using the ferry, the Yumas attack and kill most of them, including Glanton. The kid, Toadvine and Tobin are among the survivors who flee into the desert, though the kid takes an arrow in the leg. Heading west, the kid and Tobin encounter Holden, who first negotiates,
then threatens them for their gun and possessions. Leaving Holden behind, the wounded pair hide among bones by a desert creek. Tracking them down, Holden shoots Tobin in the neck and delivers a speech advising the kid to reveal himself. The survivors continue their travels independently, passing each other on the way. Although the kid has several opportunities to shoot the judge, he declines to do so.
Both parties end up in San Diego. The kid gets separated from Tobin and is imprisoned. Holden visits him in jail, stating that he told the jailers "the truth": that the kid alone was responsible for the end of the Glanton gang. The kid declares that the judge was responsible for the gang's evil, but the judge denies it. Holden leaves the kid in jail, stating that he "has errands". After the kid tells the authorities the truth about the Glanton gang and where their fortune can be found, he is released and seeks a doctor to treat his wound. While recovering from the "spirits of ether", he hallucinates that the judge is visiting him, along with a curious man who forges coins. The kid recovers and seeks out Tobin, with no luck. He makes his way to Los Angeles, where he witnesses Toadvine and David Brown, another member of the Glanton gang, being hanged for their crimes.
The kid again wanders across the American West, and decades are compressed into a few pages. In 1878 he makes his way to Fort Griffin, Texas, and is now referred to by the author as "the man." The lawless city is a center for processing the remains of the American bison, which have been hunted nearly to extinction. At a saloon the man meets the judge. Holden calls the man "the last of the true," and the pair talk. Holden describes the man as a disappointment, stating that he held in his heart "clemency for the heathen." Holden declares that the man has arrived at the saloon for "the dance" – the dance of violence, war, and bloodshed that the judge had so often praised. The man seems to deny all of these ideas, telling the judge "You aint nothin," and noting a trained bear at the saloon, performing a dance, states, "even a dumb animal can dance."
The man hires a prostitute, then afterwards goes to an outhouse under another meteor shower. In the outhouse, he is surprised to see the judge, naked, who "gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh." This is the last mention of the man, though in the next scene, two men come from the saloon and encounter a third man urinating near the outhouse. The unnamed third man advises the pair not to go into the outhouse. They ignore his suggestion, open the door, and can only gaze in awed horror at what they see, stating only "Good God almighty." The last paragraph finds the judge back in the saloon, dancing and playing fiddle wildly among the drunkards and the whores, claiming that he will never die.
The ambiguous fate of the kid/man is followed by an ambiguous epilogue, featuring a possibly allegorical person augering lines of holes across the prairie, perhaps for fence posts. This unidentified man sparks a fire in each of the holes, and an assortment of wanderers trails behind him.
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