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The Sun Also Sets

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.

Yessir.

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.

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