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…

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