Cities of the Plain is the concluding novel of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, following All The Pretty Horses (1992) and The Crossing (1994). The critical and commercial success of these books—All the Pretty Horses won a National Book Award, and Cities of the Plain has followed both of its predecessors onto the best-seller lists—transformed their author from the object of a small, devoted cult of readers into a major figure on the contemporary literary scene. (A degree of cultishness remains: according to a recent article in Texas Monthly, an “international colloquy” on the notoriously reclusive writer will take place in El Paso in October under the auspices of the Cormac McCarthy Society, whose adherents hold frequent and informal discussions on the Internet. Among other activities, the society collects paintings of McCarthy’s house, gleanings from his household trash, and members who can quote choice passages from memory.) A number of his reviewers have invoked the names of Faulkner and Melville, and invoking these invocations has become something of a critical habit.
Such comparisons, while useful, are of course superficial: a novelist who has claims to being southern (McCarthy, born in Providence, Rhode Island, has lived for most of his writing life in Tennessee and Texas) and who reaches for a certain lyrical intensity in his prose will summon the name of Faulkner from the shallows of the critical mind; for its part, the name Melville signifies obscure symbolism and the monomaniacal pursuit of literary importance. But while some of McCarthy’s novels—in particular Suttree and Child of God—recall the Gothic brutality of Sanctuary, he is for the most part indifferent to the questions of history, kinship, and racial identity that dominate Faulkner’s major fiction. Though set at more or less specific moments in the past, McCarthy’s novels concern themselves less with history than with metaphysics:
He said that men believe death’s elections to be a thing inscrutable yet every act invites the act which follows and to the extent that men put one foot before the other they are accomplices in their own deaths as in all such facts of destiny. He said that moreover it could not be otherwise that men’s ends are dictated at their birth and that they will seek their deaths in the face of every obstacle. He said that both views were one view and that while men may meet with death in strange and obscure places which they might well have avoided it was more correct to say that no matter how hidden or crooked the path to that destruction yet they would seek it out.
A passage like this—not untypical though, in the new book, somewhat less frequent than before—may have some affinities with the speculations that haunt some of Melville’s characters. But such philosophizing does not so much drive McCarthy’s fiction as decorate it. His heroes are not motivated, like Ahab or Pierre, by a thirst for ultimate knowledge; the unattainability of such knowledge is usually granted at the outset, and reiterated as a way of passing the time and breaking up the monotony of a clipped, declarative mode of narration that derives most clearly from Hemingway:
She said that she had not known the nephew. She said that when she came to work the nephew was already dead. She said that she had seen his picture and that he was very handsome.
He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.
Hemingway, Faulkner, and Melville are of course pervasive influences in American fiction, and the traces we find of their styles and favored themes in McCarthy’s novels may not tell us much about the defining qualities of his own writing. But it is striking how frequently, in attempts to characterize these qualities, critics seem drawn to describing them with reference to the work of other writers. Sara Mosle, reviewing Cities of the Plain in The New York Times Book Review, argued for McCarthy’s allegiance to a tradition of popular writing about the West whose exemplars include Larry McMurtry and J. Frank Dobie. Denis Donoghue, writing about All the Pretty Horses in these pages several years ago, noted McCarthy’s affinities with Kafka and Beckett. Conrad and Dostoevsky are frequently mentioned. And visitors to the Cormac McCarthy Society’s Website can peruse a page devoted to “The Intertextual McCarthy” and elaborate theories of their own.
My own sense is that McCarthy circles back to the American masters—Faulkner and Hemingway, to be sure, but also Edgar Allan Poe—by way of Latin American writers who have absorbed their influences. I am thinking particularly of Jorge Luis Borges and the Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo. The Mexico in which much of the action of the trilogy takes place seems, in its surreal desolation, and in the decorous fatalism of its inhabitants, contiguous with the land depicted in Rulfo’s masterpiece Pedro Páramo. “Paramo” is indeed how the name of Billy Parham, the hero of The Crossing, is rendered at one point in the speech of a Mexican character. And the novels are full of self-contained tales—paradoxical disquisitions on the relationships between appearance and reality, chance and fate, man and the universe offered up by public officials, madmen, and itinerant sages—which read like lost parables from the Borges variorum.
The tracing of such lines of affiliation is not simply a pastime for critics and cultists: it is a nearly primal response to a reader’s inescapable sense, upon entering the world of McCarthy’s recent novels, that this world is, for all its artfully conveyed strangeness, a familiar place. In the books that have won him his great reputation—The Border Trilogy and, before it, Blood Meridian (1985)—McCarthy cannily and deliberately strikes out for well-traveled territory. Fiction self-consciously composed of borrowings from previous fiction is often called postmodern, but this term implies a playful, ironical manner drastically at odds with the earnest, at times ponderous tone of McCarthy’s prose. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his intent is not to demystify the literature of the past, but to recapture something of its mystery and power—to breathe new life into a rather shopworn mythology.
The mythology McCarthy has chosen to explore is that of the American West, and the more he has explored it, the less critically he has chosen to present it. The author of Cormac McCarthy’s first four novels—The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God, and Suttree—was, by temperament and subject matter if not by background, a southern writer. With Blood Meridian, he reinvented himself as a western writer. But as an elderly New Mexico rancher in Cities of the Plain observes, such regional distinctions mask important historical continuities:
He looked out across the country to the west where the sky was darkening. Tales of the old west, he said.
Lot of people shot and killed.
Why were they?
Mr. Johnson passed the tips of his fingers across his jaw. Well, he said. I think these people mostly come from Tennessee and Kentucky. Edgefield district in South Carolina. Southern Missouri. They were mountain people. They come from mountain people in the old country. They always would shoot you. It wasnt just here. They kept comin west and about the time they got here was about the time Sam Colt invented the sixshooter and it was the first time these people could afford a gun you could carry around in your belt. That’s all there ever was to it. It had nothin to do with the country at all. The west. They’d of been the same it dont matter where they might of wound up. I’ve thought about it and that’s the only conclusion I could ever come to.
The old rancher could be offering a synopsis of Blood Meridian, a brutal saga which begins with the flight of a footloose killer called the Kid from the hills of Tennessee to Nacogdoches, Texas, and then, with a band of marauding “filibusters,” into the Sonoran desert in the aftermath of the Mexican War. The Kid, though he is McCarthy’s own creation (and one of his most memorable), is struck from the template of Davy Crockett, a native of the Volunteer State who gave his life for the cause of Texas at the battle of the Alamo.
Crockett is, along with James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, the chief nineteenth-century embodiment of the western hero. But just as the widely circulated tales of Crockett’s exploits—the bears he slaughtered, the scalps he collected—helped to popularize the romance of the frontier, the Crockett legend, embedded in a tall tale-telling tradition of “southwestern humor,” travestied the very romance it promoted. And in the extremity of its violence and the often comical grotesquerie of its characters, Blood Meridian shows a similar doubleness: it is at once a restatement of the western myth and an unmasking of it. The fearless gunfighters making their way across virgin land turn out to be a rapacious, undisciplined mob killing anything in its path. Without law or honor, the West is revealed as a place of Hobbesian cruelty, in which only the most nasty and brutish survive. The book and its hero epitomize D.H. Lawrence’s contention, in Studies in Classic American Literature, that beneath the high-toned chivalry of the Leatherstocking tales lurks the irreducible “essential American soul”: “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”
In the manner of “revisionist” western movies like Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Blood Meridian at once strips away the myths of the West and reduces them to a bare, brutal essence. Like these films, the novel assumes that its audience already knows plenty of tales of the old West. The revisionist western has the double aim of restoring to such tales their atavistic, epic force while at the same time exposing the bleak, violent reality behind them, what Lawrence called “the pioneering brute invasion of the West, crime-tinged!” The last scenes of Blood Meridian feature no solitary hero riding off into the sunset, but rather a butchered bear, a naked, dancing lunatic, and “a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground” trailed by “wanderers in search of bones”—a vision of the West as bedlam and mass grave.
The opening pages of All the Pretty Horses advance a rather more familiar—and less disturbing—vision:
He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west. He turned south along the old war trail and he rode out to the crest of a low rise and dismounted and dropped the reins and walked out and stood like a man come to the end of something.
The lone rider is John Grady Cole, who has come to the end of his childhood: his girlfriend has dumped him, his parents have separated, and his mother has sold off the family spread. In due course we learn that he was born in 1933, the same year as his creator, and that he is, when the story begins, sixteen years old. But this information is crucially withheld from the book’s opening scenes, which swell with intimations of timelessness. We are therefore rather startled to discover that this story takes place not at the twilight of the era of westward expansion but at the dawn of the nuclear age.
Even more startling is the fact that this seems to make no difference: the narrative unfolds with the episodic inevitability of a fairy tale, in language whittled clean of any reference that would betray a specific historical setting. The years of John Grady Cole’s boyhood (and, perhaps more pertinently, of Cormac McCarthy’s) saw the release of such classic westerns as Stagecoach, Red River, and The Gunfighter, but John Grady Cole seems more like a character in one of these films than a member of their audience. And All the Pretty Horses, for all its high literary mannerisms, aims for the simple grandeur—and the moral simplicity—of those films. Coming as it does after Blood Meridian both in its author’s career and in the history of the West, it forsakes that novel’s nightmarish realism in favor of a dreamier, more romantic atmosphere. And it is crucial to establishing this atmosphere that John Grady betray no consciousness of the mythology in which he participates. He does not set out on his adventures, like a latter-day Don Quixote in spurs, in order to find in the world the romance he has gleaned from movies or books. John Grady is driven into the world of romance, the only world he recognizes, by a deep, inexpressible impulse, on a quest as noble as it is vague. The only book he admits to having read is a manual on the training of horses.
With his friend Lacey Rawlins—no cowboy can be without his sidekick—John Grady sets out across the border into Mexico, a land unblemished by anything modern. Along the way they meet an even younger boy named Jimmy Blevins, who is often referred to as “the kid.” Indeed, Blevins—who will come to be known as “the assassin Blevins” by the Mexican authorities—has something in common with the protagonist of Blood Meridian. As they make their picaresque way across the plains of Mexico, the three encounter violence, treachery, and the relentless propensity of Mexicans, regardless of gender, rank, or station, to speak in parables and philosophical riddles:
She waved her hand. It’s not so much that I dont believe in fate. I dont subscribe to its nomination. If fate is the law then is fate also subject to that law? At some point we cannot escape naming responsibility. It’s in our nature. Sometimes I think we are all like that myopic coiner at his press, taking the blind slugs one by one from the tray, all of us bent so jealously at our work, determined that not even chaos be outside of our own making.
In due course, Blevins meets a bad end. And in due course, like the disinherited prince in a fairy tale, John Grady falls for a princess—the lovely, impetuous daughter of the hacendero for whom he works as a vaquero. (The reader of these novels encounters a lot of untranslated Spanish—terms of cowboy art, imprecations, and even substantial passages of dialogue. When the speech of Mexicans is Englished, it retains a stately, slightly florid diction, as evident in the passage quoted above. In their native idiom, the deadpan cowboys pronounce participles without the final g and routinely employ double negatives. Nobody uses quotation marks.) Complications ensue—Mexico is a land governed by elaborate codes of honor and unfathomable networks of corruption—and John Grady and Rawlins wind up in an infernal jail, where John Grady kills a man, a cuchillero, or knife-fighter, in self-defense, and survives to appear again in Cities of the Plain.
While different in detail and in mood—its mysticism is more insistent, its fable-spinning Mexicans more prodigiously voluble—The Crossing has a structure similar to that of All the Pretty Horses. There is the flight into Mexico of two boys—in this case seventeen-year-old Billy Parham and his younger brother Boyd—from a blasted home, on an urgent, dubious quest. This time it is the sidekick, Boyd, who falls for the beautiful, elusive Mexican girl, and who meets a violent end. (In a haunting, Quixote-esque touch, Boyd is instantly memorialized in the Mexican folk ballads called corridas, which, like these novels, project even recent events into a timeless, legend-shrouded past, and which amplify the confused contingencies of life into acts of great majesty and consequence.)
Both novels unfold against the archaic vastness of Mexico—its mountains and deserts, its isolated farmsteads and sun-bleached villages. And both are perhaps most remarkable for their accounts of relationships between men and animals—relationships far more complex emotionally than those between men and women. The extraordinary first section of The Crossing tracks Billy Parham’s uncompromising, inexplicable devotion to a wounded she-wolf, whom he undertakes to return to her native mountains. Their evolving intimacy produces the most convincing love story McCarthy has written, and the end of the story, in which Billy shoots the wolf rather than allow her to be subjected to a slow death fighting dogs as a carnival attraction, is perhaps the most authentically tragic moment in all of McCarthy’s oeuvre. Similarly arresting is the tender sadomasochism of the passages in All the Pretty Horses devoted to John Grady’s breaking of wild horses:
Before the colt could struggle up John Grady had squatted on its neck and pulled its head up and to one side and was holding the horse by the muzzle with the long bony head pressed against his chest and the hot sweet breath of it flooding up from the dark wells of its nostrils over his face and neck like news from another world…. He held the horse’s face against his chest and he could feel along his inner thighs the blood pumping through the arteries and he could smell the fear and he cupped his hand over the horse’s eyes and stroked them and he did not stop talking to the horse at all, speaking in a low steady voice and telling it all that he intended to do and cupping the animal’s eyes and stroking the terror out.
At the end of each book, the hero returns across the border, defeated in his quest, a solitary figure in the landscape. Billy Parham looks out at the dawn, and John Grady rides into the sunset once again:
He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come.
In the world to come the two solitary heroes join forces. Cities of the Plain finds Billy and John Grady employed as hands on a New Mexico ranch. The year is 1952, a mere three years after All the Pretty Horses, and a decade after the end of The Crossing. But the world has changed, almost beyond recognition. In the flicker between Truman and Eisenhower, between Red River and High Noon, the sun has set on the old West. The cowboys—a sociable, downright chatty bunch—sit around and muse about the way of life vanishing around them, as the government annexes range land for military installations. Instead of the rescue of a wolf or the taming of a wild colt, this novel’s set piece on the relations between men and animals involves the slaughter of a pack of feral dogs.
While the border is still there, what’s on the other side seems altered and diminished. Mexico, a land of endless deserts and ranges in the earlier books, has shrunk to Juárez, a gaudy place of cantinas and whorehouses, where the only philosophers of consequence are a blind piano player and a suave and murderous pimp who, in a climactic knife fight with John Grady, proposes not only a revised theory of metaphysics, but also a commentary on his adversary’s adventures:
In his dying perhaps the suitor will see that it was his hunger for mysteries that has undone him. Whores. Superstition. Finally death. For that is what has brought you here. That is what you were seeking….
That is what has brought you here and what will always bring you here. Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary. That it contain nothing save what stands before one. But the Mexican world is a world of adornment only and underneath it is very plain indeed. While your world—he passed the blade back and forth like a shuttle through a loom—your world totters upon an unspoken labyrinth of questions. And we will devour you, my friend. You and all your pale empire.
The world may have changed, but John Grady Cole has not. Set against the feckless, funny banter of his fellow ranch hands, the tragic, single-minded nobility of his character stands out in bold relief. In the wake of the dog-killing, in which his buddies participate with great abandon, he rides back onto the mesa to rescue a litter of orphaned pups. Above all, he retains his preternatural sensitivity to the ways of the equine soul—“a good horse has justice in his heart,” he tells his comrades—and his fatal weakness for beautiful, sad, Mexican girls.
Drinking one night in Juárez, John Grady falls hard for a young epileptic prostitute from Chiapas, and she, wordlessly and irrevocably, falls for him. Their doomed romance echoes John Grady’s earlier dalliance, in All the Pretty Horses, with Alejandra, the hacendero’s daughter. That love was thwarted by a stubborn grandmother and an ancient tradition of family honor; this one is menaced by the greed and possessiveness of the eloquent pimp, who refuses John Grady’s offer to buy Magdalena and bring her across the border. But the tawdriness of its circumstance hardly compromises the purity of their love; it serves rather to emphasize it:
She sat on the log beside him and he took her feet in his hands each in turn and dried them with his kerchief and fastened with his own fingers the small buckles of her shoes. She leaned and put her head on his shoulder and he kissed her and he touched her hair and her breasts and her face as a blind man might.
Y mi respuesta? he said.
She took his hand and kissed it and held it against her heart and she said that she was his and that she would do whatever he asked her if it take her life.
“Son, aint there no girls on this side of the damn river?” demands Billy Parham, who has already lost a brother to the treacherous beauty of the other side. It’s a reasonable enough question, but on the evidence of this novel the answer seems to be no, or at any rate none who can be found alive anywhere near the ranch. Critics have often noted McCarthy’s difficulty in creating convincing female characters; the women in the first two novels of this trilogy—nearly all of them Mexican—are either silent, maternal farmwives and servants or sad, elusive girls joined to the heroes in tragic and exalted passion. Cities of the Plain adds another category: loyal, goodhearted wives, most of whom happen to be dead or otherwise absent, and who exist only as objects of memory. Every so often a minor character will be shown thinking back on the good woman who shared his hard life, or a conversation will turn to the virtues of marriage and home. But if McCarthy is able to recognize the existence, in principle, of a world where men and women live together from day to day, he seems unable to describe such a world, or to imagine the living women who might inhabit it. The whole sphere of domestic life—which is to say of social life in any sense beyond the camaraderie of cowboys and their mounts—exists entirely outside the frame of his vast canvas.
“This story like all stories has its beginnings in a question,” a Mexican vagrant tells Billy Parham in the epilogue to Cities of the Plain, which takes place, disconcertingly, in “the second year of the new millennium.” The story he is referring to is the longest, most convoluted Borgesian puzzle yet, and he is telling it to the aged cowboy, now a drifter in a world of freeways and radar stations. But if the general principle applies, the question in which The Border Trilogy originates may be one Alejandra asks John Grady Cole in All the Pretty Horses: “What are men?”
The answer appears to be that men are hard, solitary, stoic, and compassionate. That they are strong, silent, and impetuous, wedded to honor and horses, chaste and ardent, sensitive and loyal. Men are also the intended readers of Cormac McCarthy’s fiction: a portion of Cities of the Plain—the section on the killing of the dogs—was excerpted last May in a magazine called Men’s Journal, where it took its place among articles on fighter-jet pilots, drinking with women, and something called “extreme golf.” And while it would be unfair to McCarthy to judge his writing by the company it keeps, there is an unmistakable congruence between the fantasies offered in the pages of Men’s Journal and those that unfold in the pages of his novels. Both offer to men living late in the history of civilization a consoling picture of their own inner wildness, and allow them safe passage across the border into a familiar world of romance.
McCarthy’s work is thus part of a burgeoning popular literature of masculine sentimentality: his books fit neatly alongside—and share space on the best-seller lists with—novels like Snow Falling on Cedars, Cold Mountain, and The Horse Whisperer. These books cannily mingle the conventions of the boys’ adventure story with the ideological demands of the post-feminist men’s movement. In them, manhood is at once the perpetual evasion of maturity and the achievement of a wisdom beyond measure—a game played for mortal stakes. “A man is always right to pursue the thing he loves,” a blind seer advises John Grady.
No matter even if it kills him?
I think so. Yes. No matter even that.
To quote Hemingway: Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.
Admiration Society December 3, 1998