The West's End
Cormac McCarthy's fearless and poetic language portrays aworld without refuge where loss and disenchantment are interlaced with gut-wrenching violence.
By Tom Scocca
JUNE 15, 1998:
CITIES OF THE PLAIN, by Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $24.
Where's the all-american cowboy at?So, with this piece of dialogue on the opening page of Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy lays his cards on the table and sets about closing his Border Trilogy. The first voice is that of Billy Parham, protagonist of the middle volume, The Crossing; the "all-american cowboy" of whom he speaks is John Grady Cole, last seen as the hero of the National Book Award-winning trilogy opener, All the Pretty Horses. The year is 1949, and the two characters' previously separate lives have come together: 19-year-old John Grady, just off his coming-of-age adventures in Mexico, works with the now 28-year-old Billy on a ranch in New Mexico. But as McCarthy suggests from page one, their cowboy world is not what it used to be.
Any sensible writer of serious fiction might want to get as far away from that sort of theme as possible. But McCarthy is not a sensible novelist; he is an admirably bullheaded and grandiose one. The conclusion to his Border Trilogy does not mourn the passing of an enchanted West; rather, it turns its back on the notion that the frontier offers any hope of redemption or salvation.
This is not, perhaps, what those of us hooked by the elegance of 1991's best-selling All the Pretty Horses were hoping for. But from McCarthy's earliest Appalachian Gothic novels, laden with incest and murder, through the unrelenting gore of his 1985 epic anti-Western, Blood Meridian, the author always held out scant hope for humanity. His protagonists were doomed or haunted misfits -- alienated, dispossessed, brutalized and brutalizing.
Such darkness, coupled with his gorgeous but risky prose style and a tendency to philosophize, made the pre-Border Trilogy
McCarthy a tough nut to crack. Some critics worshipped him; others loathed him. Those who wanted to avoid fanaticism threw up their hands and pronounced each novel a "flawed masterpiece" or an "ambitious failure."
But All the Pretty Horses was unequivocally brilliant, his most focused and engaging book. And for once the human spirit got the upper hand: John Grady Cole was sane and self-possessed, expert at handling horses, an upright youth who rode across the border into danger and then rode back out again, scarred and wiser.
Popular success, however, did not change McCarthy's obsessions. The Crossing made an odd sequel: set a decade before the first book, it told the same basic story of a young American crossing into Mexico. But this second teen, Billy Parham, found himself in more familiar McCarthy territory, his journey a crescendo of futility and despair, ending with a scene of absolute, enigmatic terror.
Now, at the start of the final book, the trouble has shifted from mortal danger to simple decline. The ranch where the two work is due to be taken over by the military; Billy is idly hunting other prospects, while John Grady -- still the savant with horses -- steadfastly ignores job offers. And their Mexico is not a distant wilderness: the cowboys' journey across the border this time consists of a short drive or ride to the whorehouses of Juárez.
Against this backdrop of aimlessness, it's John Grady who gets the plot going, falling in love with a teenage prostitute named Magdalena, dreaming of building a life with her out in the country. Billy warns him against it -- "Have you lost your rabbit-assed mind?" -- and sure enough, her pimp does not welcome the suitor. What develops is a sort of bleak, intermittent Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers enmeshed in obstructions and misconnections, pitting themselves against hostile fate.
Romance has never been McCarthy's strong suit. His female characters tend to be ciphers, brought into the world to redeem men, and there's something annoyingly interchangeable about John Grady's great love for Magdalena and the great love he had with his romantic lead in the first novel. Certainly, the love affair seems pallidly imagined next to the finely drawn friendship between Billy and John Grady. But on the question of hostile fate -- well, on fate, McCarthy has no equal. As John Grady sells off his gun and his horse to finance his courtship, the sense of things gone irrevocably wrong hangs over every page.
McCarthy's language remains thrilling and demanding, hovering at the edge of comprehension, a distilled and minimally punctuated prose that requires absorbed attention. As in the first two books, dialogue in Spanish is rendered in Spanish, with no translation; the dialogue in English is laconic, often piercingly funny. The exposition is precise, the mechanics of horse-trading and calf-roping laid out plainly.
Violence, a McCarthy staple, is held in abeyance most of the way. Midway through, there is one ghastly interlude in which the cowboys hunt down and slaughter a pack of feral dogs that have been killing cattle; they use their ropes to drag and tear the dogs to death. Such is life on the range. But when the brawling and killing finally comes -- and it does, as inevitable as John Grady's stubbornness -- it comes in the city. McCarthy has carried his story, and his readers, clear out of the mythic West to a place distinctly and terribly his own.
Tom Scocca is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix.
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