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cities of the plain

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.
Yessir.

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.

vaquero

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.

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.

Gracias.

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.

atphq1

God. Is that not just beautiful?

All The Pretty Horses is a departure from the Cormac McCarthy I’m used to. Having read Blood Meridian, Child of God and The Road, arguably three of his darkest works (excluding Outer Dark, which I am yet to read), I was surprised at how passionately I read this book, far more a tale of romance and growing up then the violence and depravity I’ve more commonly associated with him.

All The Pretty Horses tells us the story of John Grady Cole, a sixteen year old ranch hand who decides to leave his home of San Antonio, Texas, after the ranch he was brought up on is sold due to the death of his grandfather. Along with his friend Lacey Rawlins, they cross the border into Mexico with aspirations to become cowboys.

. . .he repeated what his father had once told him, that scared money can’t win and a worried man can’t love.

Along the way they meet Jimmy Blevins, a younger boy who claims he is older, riding an immaculate horse that John Grady and Rawlins know isn’t his, despite the young boys’ assertions to the contrary. Initially dubious of Blevins’ intentions, together they continue to travel into Mexico, until one night a storm terrifies Blevin’s and he loses his horse and his clothes and his distinctive Colt pistol.

You afraid of lightnin? said John Grady.

I’ll be struck sure as the world…

It runs in the family, said Blevins. My grandaddy was killed in a minebucket in West Virginia it run down in the hole a hunnerd and eighty feet to get him it couldnt even wait for him to get to the top.

Blevins’ takes his horse back by force, leading to the three being chased into the mountains by the locals and eventually the Mexican Rangers. Blevins splits from John Grady and Rawlins and leads the pursuers away. Grady and Rawlins travel further south and eventually discover a great ranch within the Bolsón de Cuatro Ciénegas where they are employed as ranch hands.

alltheprettyhorses

While initially their lives seem idyllic, trouble soon catches them. Upon noticing Grady’s intentions on Alejandra, her great aunt has the two boys arrested and taken into custody by Mexican Rangers (who had previously been sighted near the haicenda, searching for the Americans) and thrown into a dismal and corrupted Mexican prison, alongside the beaten and near crippled Blevins.

Blevins shot and killed a man in retrieving his horse and Colt, and en route to a larger prison Grady and Rawlins can only watch helplessly as he is taken away and executed. While incararated, the two are beaten and savagely attacked by the other inmates until they are released on account of Alejandra’s aunt-with whom Alejandra struck a deal to free the boys with the condition that Alejandra can never see John Grady again.

They do meet again – Grady persuades her to meet him in Zacatecas, for only one night. She refuses Grady’s marriage proposal with regret, stating she must keep her promise to her family, and leaves heartbroken. Grady, devastated, makes his way back to Texas, but not before returning to the corrupt Mexican captain who killed Blevins, taking him prisoner as he retrieves the horses of Rawlins and Blevins and his own.

It’s an enthralling story that allows itself to slow down and absorb the details, the nuances, the emotions of the characters, and dialogue is for the most part short and succinct. Yet McCarthy can still make it effortlessly clear what these characters are thinking and feeling.

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.

John Grady Cole helps in this respect. The 16 year old protagonist is ruthlessly relatable. His calmness and sense and knowledge of the world he loves, and how it changes through loss and sorrow and heartbreak, is so engrossing. The rash decisions in the final act, a reaction to the cruelty and unfair nature of life, leading to a redemptive conversation with a judge after a trial for ownership of Blevins’ horse, is just perfect.

I guess what I wanted to say first of all was that it kindly bothered me in the court what you said. It was like I was in the right about everything and I dont feel that way.

What way do you feel?

He sat looking at his hat. He sat for a long time. Finally he looked up. I dont feel justified, he said.

The judge watched him. Son, he said, you strike me as somebody that maybe tends to be a little hard on theirselves. I think from what you told me you done real well to get out of there with a whole hide Maybe the best thing to do might be just to go on and put it behind you. My daddy used to tell me not to chew on something that was eatin you.

At sixteen John Grady Cole has fallen in love, become heartbroken, been arrested, watched a young man die, thrown into jail, been stabbed and nearly killed, killed a man in self defence. A loss of innocence, he crosses back across the US-Mexican border a man.

He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led to nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave.

There will be people who won’t like this book, nor McCarthy’s polysyndetonic style. I’ve read criticism aimed at McCarthy for his over-the-top, verbose description, and slow moving plots. But it is a style that McCarthy does so well. I am utterly infatuated with his prose, and where others may see tedious, drawn-out inconsequential actions, I hang on every word.

All The Pretty Horses is a great American novel. The romanticism present is a change to the rest of his bibliography but it is still vintage McCarthy, writing so effortlessly on love and loss and what it means to truly grow up.

Note: I haven’t been too happy with how I’ve dealt with quotes in my posts recently. You may have noticed the opening quote; I like the idea of using a standout quote as a graphic to start a post. I also think using blockquotes (see below) is better than my previous method of simply emboldening the quotes to separate them from my main text. Any feedback or advice would be greatly appreciated.

It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I dont believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God-who knows all that can be known-seems powerless to change.