The Crossing / Cormac McCarthy

the crossing

Published in 1994 The Crossing is the second book in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and while it shares no plotlines or characters from the first entry All The Pretty Horses, its essence of adventure and the realisations of the harshness of the world remain key themes.

I fell in love with All The Pretty Horses. Emotionally strong and wrought with poetic and romantic prose. The Crossing is superbly written too, as you would expect from McCarthy, but longer in length and arguably a more challenging and potentially more polarising book. Not yet approaching the bleak and impossible worlds of The Road and Blood Meridian, McCarthy shows us a melancholic journey which shows heart and beauty with brutality and cruelty.

The first part of The Crossing is as close to perfection as I’ve encountered in literature. Sixteen year old Billy Parham captures a large wolf that has been ravaging cattle on his family’s ranch. Rather than killing it, he decides to take it on a perilous journey to return it home across the border, in the mountains of Mexico. Parham’s motives for this are never explicitly stated, but in the wolf he sees nature: ancient, pure, unbridled, inexplicable.

He woke all night with the cold. He’d rise and mend back the fire and she was always watching him. When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void. A world construed out of blood and blood’s alkahest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to devour it. He wrapped himself in the blanket and watched her. When those eyes and the nation to which they stood witness were gone at last with their dignity back into their origins there would perhaps be other fires and other witnesses and other worlds otherwise beheld. But they would not be this one.

He develops a bond, In attempting to return the wolf to a place beyond man’s reach and influence, he devastatingly realises that there is no such place. He is unable to protect the wolf, or save her, when the wolf is taken into the custody of a hacendado, whose men force the wolf to fight their dogs for sport and entertainment. Billy, who has already risked his life for the wolf, pleads for the release of the wolf. He speaks to her during her confinement, promises that he will free her and take her home. But he can’t. The men of the haicenda ignore Billy and the wolf fights for her life, heavily wounded and exhausted, defeats several dogs. Finally Billy does the only thing he can.

He stepped over the parapet and walked toward the wolf and levered a shell into the chamber of the rifle and halted ten feet from her and raised the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the bloodied head and fired.

The book title refers not to the crossing of the border between the US and Mexico, although that return trip does occur three times within the novel. The Crossing conveys a young boy’s passage into manhood. When Billy pulls the trigger, mercifully killing the wolf, he changes. The world around him changes, viewed with older eyes and a stronger heart. He returns to his home to discover his parents murdered and their horses stolen into Mexico by Indians. His younger brother Boyd, cannot understand the world and its unreserved cruelty as Billy can.

He looked up. His pale hair looked white. He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’d been sitting there and God had made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy not of fact or incident or event but of the way the world was.

They go back into Mexico, together, in an attempt to retain a sense of their family and their belongings, to track down the horses. Billy is cautious for he knows how dangerous the task is. Boyd is troubled and stubborn, and the relationship between the two brothers is strained. Billy reaches out to Boyd frequently, desperate to protect him but Boyd resists. In an argument with bandits Boyd is shot through the chest by bandits, nearly killing him. When he eventually is nursed back to health, he disappears into the heart of Mexico with a local girl, leaving Billy to make his way back alone.

border trilogy

Throughout his journey Billy travels through country, small towns, mountains, meets with Mexicans, Indians, the aged and the young. Bandits, vaqueros, gerentes, hermanos. The second half of the book can become a little bogged down in retelling of stories from years ago, some of them almost Biblical in nature and spanning pages and pages, but the allegorical feel to these storytellers is compelling and mystical.

A mormon priest converted to Catholicism living in solitude within a collapsed church surrounded by cats.

Such a man is like a dreamer who wakes from a dream of grief to a greater sorrow yet. All that he loves is now become a torment to him. The pin has been pulled from the axis of the universe. Whatever one takes one’s eye from threatens to flee away. Such a man is lost to us. He moves and speaks. But he is himself less than the merest shadow among all that he beholds. There is no picture of him possible. The smallest mark upon the page exaggerates his presence.

A blind man, living with his wife in a remote shack who had his eyes sucked out of their sockets by a large German captain.

He said that the notion that evil is seldom rewarded was greatly overspoken for if there were no advantage to it then men would shun it and how could virtue then be attached to its repudiation?

An elderly woman praying in a church, the cemetry of which holds in an unmarked grave the bones of his younger brother, which Billy aims to take back home wherever that may be.

She prayed for all. She would pray for him.


No puedo hacerlo de otro modo.

He nodded. He knew her well enough, this old woman of Mexico, her sons long dead in that blood and violence which her prayers and her prostrations seemed powerless to appease. Her frail form was a constant in that land, her silent anguishings. Beyond the church walls the night harbored a millennial dread panoplied in feathers and the scales of royal fish and yet fed upon the children still who could say what worse wastes of war and torment and despair the old woman’s constancy might not have stayed, what direr histories yet against which could be counted at last nothing more than her small figure bent and mumbling, her crone’s hands clutching her beads of fruitseed. Unmoving, austere, implacable. Before just such a God.

Wild indians living deep in the sierras who feed him and wash him and repair his clothes.

He told the boy that although he was huerfano still he must cease his wanderings and make for himself some place in the world because to wander in this way would become for him a passion and by this passion he would become estranged from men and so ultimately from himself. He said that the world could only be known as it existed in men’s hearts. For while it seemed a place which contained men it was in reality a place contained within them and therefore to know it one must look there and come to know those hearts and to do this one must live with men and not simply pass among them. He said that while the huerfano might feel that he no longer belonged among men he must set this feeling aside for he contained within him a largeness of spirit which men could see and that men would wish to know him and that the world would need him even as he needed the world for they were one. Lastly he said that while this itself was a good thing like all good things it was also a danger.

These conversations are often long and full of symbolism, like parables that Billy must chew on as he makes his way through this devastated country. With many contrasting opinions – there are those that embrace God, there are those that reject Him, there are those that believe in fate and those in free will, in good, in evil – it can be confusing as to what Billy, or McCarthy truly believes. Reflecting on the “Unmoving, austere, implacable” God at the end of the novel and it would appear that nihilism, with its notions of absurd and senseless life, have taken hold.

The last passage of the book sees Billy alone, drifting without direction. He takes shelter in an abandoned barn and encounters a badly injured dog, looking for shelter. Billy angrily shoos the dog away. In the morning he is remorseful and cries for the dog but the dog has gone. From the innocent, youthful bond with the wolf, it shows how far Billy has come. How far he has fallen. Moving and heartbreaking in a way that McCarthy can capture so well, beautiful yet impossibly sad.

It had ceased raining in the night and he walked out on the road and called for the dog. He called and called. Standing in that inexplicable darkness. Where there was no sound anywhere save only the wind. After a while he sat in the road. He took off his hat and placed it on the tarmac before him and he bowed his head and held his face in his hands and wept. He sat there for a long time and after a while the east did gray and after a while the right and godmade sun did rise, once again, for all and without distinction.

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