The West's end
Cormac McCarthy's fearless and poetic language portrays a
world without refuge where loss and disenchantment are interlaced with
by Tom Scocca
CITIES OF THE PLAIN, by Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages,
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.
He's done inside.
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
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,
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
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.