The novel’s protagonist, if it can be said to have one, is the kid, born in 1833 during the Leonid meteor shower. His mother died in childbirth, and he was raised by his father, formerly a schoolmaster, now a drunk who quotes from forgotten poets. Even at the age of fourteen, the kid, thin, ragged, and illiterate, has “a taste for mindless violence,” which the narrator claims will define his whole life.
The kid’s birth is littered with portents of his violent nature. First, an astrological portent: the meteor shower he is born during, named for Leo, the bloodthirsty lion. Second, the kid’s very life begins with his mother’s death; as his life begins in blood, so too shall it end in blood.
At the age of fourteen years, the kid runs away from his family, never again to see his father, sister, or his childhood home in Tennessee. He wanders west. Within a year, he is on a steamboat bound for New Orleans, where he soon takes up residence. At night, he descends from his room to fight with sailors from all over the world. Despite this, his eyes remain “oddly innocent.”
Throughout Blood Meridian, the west presents opportunities for freedom (or anarchy, as the case may be) as well as getting rich quick. Even though the kid is already violent, he nonetheless has eyes that remain “innocent,” foreshadowing his acts of mercy unique in the novel.
One night, a Maltese boatswain shoots the kid in the back during a tavern brawl, then in the heart. Even as the kid bleeds, those around him in the tavern look away, save for the tavernkeeper’s wife, who tends to the kid for a couple of weeks. Once he is healed, the kid, moneyless, slips away in the night, and boards a boat bound for Galveston, Texas.
Like the people in the tavern, most characters in the novel refuse to witness the bloodshed around them, or, even more perversely, they revel in it. The tavernkeeper’s wife is a rarity: someone who witnesses suffering and intervenes.
By now, the kid has lost almost all memory of his childhood and his youthful state of innocence. In Galveston, he earns some money and wanders through nearby marshlands. He manually labors by day, wandering from settlement to settlement. One day he sees a man who killed his father hanged at a crossroads. He goes on to work in a sawmill and a pesthouse where people sick with diphtheria are quarantined. He works for a farmer and earns an old mule, which in 1849 he rides into the town of Nacogdoches.
The kid falls from the merciful world of innocence into the brutal world of experience. The hanged man at the crossroads symbolically reflects this fall: he killed his own father and so ceased to be a son, a child. Once he violated the rules of the family and created disorder in this way, an authority even more powerful than the father, the law of the community, asserted itself by hanging him.
In Nacogdoches, the Reverend Green is delivering a sermon in a ratty, rain-pelted tent. The kid ducks in and stands in the back, listening; he is the only person unarmed in the tent. The Reverend denounces the hellholes of the world and claims that, wherever we go, Jesus Christ follows us. He asks his congregation if they’d be willing to drag the son of God into a hellhole. A mustachioed man standing next to the kid makes small talk with the kid about the rain.
The Reverend Green suggests that most people would not be willing to force Jesus to witness their sins, given how disgusting those sins are. However, this moral doesn’t seem important to the kid, because instead of listening he makes small talk about the weather. Throughout the novel, such messages go unheeded, to the characters’ detriment.
A giant man, later revealed to be Judge Holden, enters the tent; he has a serene, childlike face and small hands. Addressing the congregation, the Judge announces that Reverend Green is an impostor, without any qualifications to sermonize, who is totally illiterate and wanted by the law in multiple states. The Judge claims that Green sexually assaulted a girl of eleven. The crowd moans; a woman sinks to her knees. The Reverend, sobbing, cries that the Judge is none other than the devil.
Unlike the kid, who grows up too fast because of his viciousness, the Judge seems forever young, as though his eminent viciousness doesn’t age so much as rejuvenate him. Perhaps this is because, as it will be revealed, the Judge revels and believes in viciousness and war so completely. Here he bears false witness, claiming Green committed crimes that he didn’t. Green denounces the Judge as the devil, a notion that the novel does not accept outright—nor does it reject it.
An ugly thug in the back of the tent proposes that the crowd hang Green. Judge Holden, playing on the increasingly violent mob mentality, levels another accusation at Green, that he had sex with a goat. Disgusted with Green, a man in the tent draws his pistol and fires. Violence breaks out. The man the kid spoke to earlier cuts an opening in the tent and the kid follows him out into the rain. They make for a nearby hotel, from the gallery of which they watch Green’s tent sway and collapse, people screaming and stampeding.
That the Judge so efficiently perverts a moral ceremony into a violent frenzy suggests not only his bloodthirsty cunning, but also a deep affinity between religious and violent experience. The fervor of one can easily become the fervor of the other. The fallen tent is one of many indices in the novel for how Christianity and its doctrines of mercy and redemption have decayed.
The Judge is already at the bar of the hotel drinking when the kid and his companion enter. The two order drinks, and the bartender tells them that the Judge has paid for them. Men pile into the bar; a posse is being assembled to hunt down Reverend Green. One of the men asks the Judge how he knew about Green’s crimes. The Judge announces that he had never seen Green in his life before today, and had never even heard of him. Eventually someone laughs, then everyone begins to laugh. Someone buys the Judge a drink.
Though ready to shoot at Green, the men in the bar don’t prosecute the Judge for his deception. It would seem that it was not so much moral outrage that motivated them in the tent as an appetite for violence, which has been temporarily sated. Most characters in the novel are happy to be of the devil’s party, so long as they get to enjoy the ritual of bloodshed.
Days later, the kid finds himself in the same bar, having spent all of his money on drink. He sees a man, later identified as Louis Toadvine, coming up from the jakes, or outhouse. The kid goes out, and, when the two cross paths, Toadvine tells the kid to get out of the way. The kid kicks Toadvine in the face. The two begin fighting in the mud and the dark. Toadvine is chanting the word “kill” over and over. Another man approaches and strikes the kid with a club; the kid falls facedown in the mud.
Like much of the violence in the novel, the murderous fight between Toadvine and the kid is absurdly disproportionate to its occasion; the two fight over nothing more than yielding the path to and from the outhouse. The narrator underscores the ritualized nature of violence by comparing Toadvine’s repetition of the word “kill” to a “crazed chant.”
The kid wakes in the hotel to find Toadvine’s branded face looking over him. The two agree to quit fighting. The kid recovers his boots and his knife, which he addresses affectionately. The two go downstairs together, where Toadvine asks the bartender which room a man named Sidney is staying in. A hotel clerk warns Toadvine that Sidney intends to kill him, but Toadvine and the kid go to the room anyway.
As absurd as their fight was, the alliance between Toadvine and the kid is even more absurd. Why join up with someone who hours before tried to kill you? The answer seems to be that people have more strength in numbers—the strength to do more damage. Ironically, the knife is the first and last entity in the novel for which the kid has a kind word.
Toadvine lights some tinder on fire and pushes it under Sidney’s door. Sidney emerges; Toadvine attempts to gouge his eye out and, at Toadvine’s urging, the kid also begins to attack Sidney. By now a large part of Sidney’s room is on fire. The hotel clerk comes upstairs cursing at Toadvine, but Toadvine kicks him in the throat. The kid follows Toadvine downstairs, hitting the clerk in the side of the head as he passes.
The narrator doesn’t explain why Toadvine wants to fight with Sidney, but this hardly matters, since doing violence seems to be desirable in itself for many of the novel’s characters. The kid joins in with Toadvine ruthlessly, even though he ironically has more reason to fight against Toadvine at this point than anyone else.
Toadvine and the kid escape into the Texas morning while the hotel continues to burn. Toadvine runs through the street, laughing. The kid goes to a house at the edge of town, where a Mexican family is stabling his mule. He takes it without paying and heads out of town. As he passes the burning hotel one last time, he sees Judge Holden watching the flames. The Judge meets the kid’s eyes and smiles.
Toadvine’s laughter here demonstrates just how much he enjoys “mindless violence,” and how little human suffering means to him. When the Judge smiles on the kid, it is as though he is acknowledging a deep affinity between the two, namely, a desire to participate in warfare and violence for war’s sake.