Cities of the Plain / Cormac McCarthy

And so The Border Trilogy – Cormac McCarthy’s sprawling coming-of-age epic set in the Southwest and Mexico – comes to a close. In All The Pretty Horses young John Grady Cole leaves home with a friend and throws himself deep into an impossible relationship in a dangerous land. And in The Crossing we are introduced to Billy Parham, whose multiple crossings into the unforgiving country of Mexico leave him battling his inner demons and chasing the ghosts of his past for years to come.

There were grounds in the bottom of the cup and he swirled the cup and looked at them. Then he swirled them the other way as if he’d put them back the way they’d been.

Cities Of The Plain sees these two cowboys together, working on a ranch in New Mexico. In 1952 John Grady Cole is twenty, Billy Parham twenty-eight. They are brothers and friends, working amongst other brothers and friends. Life is good on the ranch, for these two still enjoy and revel in the cowboy life and the old ways of the west, ways which are not long for their world or time. Billy has matured and his experience in the years that have passed stand him in good stead for the harshness of the West. He looks out for John Grady as he used to look out for his brother Boyd, whom he lost in The Crossing. John Grady remains a romantic, enthusiastic chasing his passions with optimism and hope. During a visit to a whorehouse he spots a young girl, Magdalena. She is beautiful and John Grady has fallen for her. Boy, he sure knows how to pick them. For Magdalena not only is a whore, but she is epileptic and her health frail, and the owner of The White Lake – the malicious and possessive Eduardo – is in love with her too.

border trilogy

I didn’t mean I’d seen everything, John Grady said.
I know you didn’t.
I just meant I’d seen some things I’d as soon not of.
I know it. There’s hard lessons in this world.
What’s the hardest?
I dont know. Maybe it’s just that when things are gone they’re gone. They aint comin back.

A tale is set in motion by an author with a masterful, mystical grip on the language. John Grady’s justifcation for his hearts wants, his anxiety waiting for his girl to make it out of Mexico and the clutches of evil, his desperation and despair as he realises he has lost her. Magdalena, murdered at the command of Eduardo, who is unable to allow her to leave to have a different life, to have happiness with another man.

Eduardo as a villain is sophisticated malevolence in the small glimpses we get but in the final act we see extended dialogue from him, to both Billy and John Grady. His jealousy and innate desire for superiority over his rivals builds to a brutal climax with a tense knife fight that sees Eduardo taunting and playing with John Grady, the two intertwined in a ritualistic dance to the death with John Grady the narrow victor.


When John Grady took his plate to the sideboard and went out it was just breaking day. The old man was still sitting at the table in his hat. He’d been born in east Texas in eighteen sixty-seven and come out to this country as a young man. In his time the country had gone from the oil lamp and the horse and buggy to jet planes and the atomic bomb but that wasnt what confused him. It was the fact that his daughter was dead that he couldnt get the hang of.

Cities Of The Plain in comparison to its predecessors is dialogue heavy. Of course there are still wonderful passages of McCarthy’s meandering prose, but in this book the pace seems quicker due to the increased talk between ranch owners and ranch hands and friends and prospective horse sellers and Mexican street vendors and perhaps, because of the inescapable feeling that this vaquero lifestyle is doomed for all that continue to live it so impassionately. The emotional weight of the conclusion between these two characters is tragic but in a way fitting. With the world changing around them a man like John Grady needs to adapt to survive, something that he and his ruthless idealism are ultimately unable to do.

When you’re a kid you have these notions about how things are goin to be, Billy said. You get a little older and you pull back some on that. I think you just wind up tryin to minimize the pain. Anyway this country aint the same. Nor anything in it. The war changed everthing. I dont think people even know it yet.

The epilogue of the book (and the trilogy) sees Billy Parham at 78, an aged vagabond, travelling through America to nowhere in particular, with hands ‘gnarled, ropescarred, speckled from the sun and the years of it’. He has a meandering conversation with a man he believes to be Death about dreams, and dreams within dreams, and the whole ordeal leaves him thoroughly confused. Finally, Billy questions his identity, his purpose, his life, to a kind woman who takes him in; she assures him that she does know him, and to go to sleep. Perhaps in the release of consciousness and the escape of dreams Billy can finally rest.

He sat a long time and he thought about his life and how little of it he could ever have foreseen and he wondered for all his will and all his intent how much of it was his doing.

I can’t recommend these books enough.

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