Vince Passaro on Cormac McCarthy's 'Cities of the Plain,' conclusion to the trilogy of novels that began with National Book Award winner, 'All the Pretty Horses'
I first heard of Cormac McCarthy when he won a MacArthur Fellowship (one ofthe so-called genius grants) in the early 1980s. The MacArthur is
intended to be a life-changingly sizable award for otherwise obscure
achievers — biologists who have fallen off the career track, social
workers, mimes, garage inventors, people who construct beautiful objects
in the desert — and I supposed that McCarthy, who lived in El Paso, Texas,
was the writer-version of one of these.
Not long after, in the mid-1980s, I went to work for the Ecco Press, a very
small operation then located in two rooms on 30th Street in Manhattan amid
antique wholesalers and Korean-toy importers. Ecco at that time held the
paperback rights to several of McCarthy’s novels, it turned out. McCarthy
had published five books over a span of more than 20 years, but he was then
still so little known outside the world of writers and serious readers that
his reprint rights were available for the pittance a press the size of
Ecco could pay. I got hold of his novels by the means those who work
for publishers (even small ones) do, took them home and shelved them, full
of the usual good intentions.
A few years later I read “Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the
West,” a novel set in southwest Texas and the Mexican state of Chihuahua
in the years after the Civil War, tracing the crooked travelings of a band
of drifters and ex-soldiers turned marauders and assassins. I discovered
that I had been sitting on one of the neglected masterpieces of postwar
American fiction, a book of immense lyrical power and symphonic violence.
McCarthy, it so happened, had indeed been making beautiful objects in the
desert, for the desert of the American Southwest and north Mexico was in
his hands a landscape of almost monstrous beauty.
They were crossing the western edge of the playa when Glanton
halted. He turned and placed one hand on the wooden cantle and looked
toward the sun where it sat new risen above the bald and flyspecked
mountains to the east. The floor of the playa lay smooth and unbroken by
any track and the mountains in their blue islands stood footless in the
void like floating temples.
Toadvine and the kid sat their horses and gazed upon that desolation with
the others. Out on the playa a cold sea broke and water gone these thousand
years lay riffled silver in the morning wind.
[Shortly after this tableau is established, Apaches attack from the east.]
… By the time the animals were secured and [the men] had
thrown themselves on the ground under the creosote bushes with their
weapons readied the riders were beginning to appear far out on the lake
bed, a thin frieze of mounted archers that trembled and veered in the
rising heat. They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and
reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that
vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up
the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the
lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they
augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began
to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their
ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate
trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant
from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying in
that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some
misweave in the weft of things into the world below.
I was prompted to read “Blood Meridian” in 1991, some six years after it was
published, when Don DeLillo called it one of the
best American novels he’d read in the previous decade. That I’d never heard
the title uttered by anyone before that, or seen it mentioned in print, was
a shock that kept intruding on my reading.
Now McCarthy, a bona fide bestselling, National Book Award-winning author,
has published “Cities of the Plain,” the last of three novels he
together calls his “Border Trilogy.” The first, “All the Pretty
Horses,” appeared in 1992, won the aforementioned and other awards and sold
an immense number of copies. “The Crossing” followed in 1994. A dreamy, at
times lovely, but fundamentally chaotic book, it was greeted with mixed
reviews and a quick ride to the remainder tables.
“Cities of the Plain” brings together the two surviving cowhands from each
of the previous novels: John Grady Cole, the original horse whisperer, now
19 years old (he was 16 at the end of “All the Pretty Horses,” riding off,
literally, into the sunset) and Billy Parham, now 28. The year is 1952.
They work and live together on Mac McGovern’s ranch, a large cattle spread
(once much larger) located in the far southeast corner of New Mexico a few
miles from El Paso and Juarez over the Texas and Mexico borders. As young
men they are painfully aware that the life they have chosen is on the verge
of disappearing, that their futures hang in the balance. What’s left of the
operation from its more robust years is now fully doomed: The Army, we are
told, will soon be taking it over. McCarthy doesn’t bother to speculate for
what purpose, but given the year and the locale, you are seeing mushroom
clouds in your mind’s eye. Modernity with a bang.
McCarthy’s main preoccupation in “Cities of the Plain” is with that turning
moment after the war (the war changed everything, one of his characters
says) when an old kind of life, including life between men and women, was
being lost and something newer and more horrible was in the offing. The old
men in this book have lived, have married well on the whole, have made
themselves on the land. The young men stand at the opening of this same
path, milling around, unwilling to go down it because they can already see
the landslide that has blocked the route forever. They enjoy, as best they
can, the waning time: They chase cows, they hunt down wild dogs, they break
horses, they eat the good food of the border after long days of work.
If you’ve read any or most of McCarthy’s first five novels, you may think
of his fictional imagination as overpowering and baroque, especially in its
renderings of violence. But, in fact, his imagination has an astonishing
range. I found myself at first strongly affected, and then admiring, of the
following passage, an elegiac preparation for an evening game of chess
between the young John Grady Cole and the recent widower Mac, his boss and
the owner of the ranch:
He walked back up the hallway. Socorro brought the pot from the
stove and spooned the last of the caldillo onto his plate. She brought him
more coffee and poured a cup for Mac and left it steaming on the far side
of the table. When he was done eating he rose and carried his plate and cup
to the sink and he poured more coffee and then went to the old cherrywood
press hauled overland in a wagon from Kentucky eighty years ago and opened
the door and took out the chess set from among the old cattleman’s journals
and the halfbound ledgers and leather daybooks and the old green Remington
boxes of shotgun shells and rifle cartridges. On the upper shelf a
dove-tailed wooden box that held brass scaleweights. A leather folder of
drawing instruments. A glass horsecarriage that once held candy for a
Christmas in the long ago.
You can see here, too, even in the lovely precision of this evocation, a
deep sentimentality to McCarthy’s writing that is never far from view, in
his violence at times, in his sense of loss and history at others, and
in his romance always. In “Cities of the Plain” he offers up, without a
hint of apology, that durable creature of male |ber-narrative, the Whore
With a Heart of Gold. Of course, he is too good a writer to try fobbing off
a straight Whore With a Heart of Gold: The symbolically named Magdalena,
McCarthy’s lady of the sorrows, is afflicted with seizures and a wan
saintliness, an Evita-meets-St. Teresa type. The other Mexican whores
gather around her and light candles. She spasms and bites through sticks.
We gather that she makes love quite well. John Grady Cole falls in love
with her just looking at her, and from that moment forward McCarthy, who
does just as well with no plot at all, has burdened himself with a story to
tell. Much, much blood will be shed over this Idea of Woman before the book
comes to a close.
What McCarthy is after in the “Border Trilogy,” what he has always been
after in a way, is an American re-creation of an Elizabethan, or you could
even say Shakespearean, literature — lyrical, neologistic, tragic,
allegorical. Often he is not so much employing a language as creating one,
a condition the Elizabethans found themselves faced with by historical
coincidence and that McCarthy has created by force of his geographical
sensibility and his imaginative will. He blends the uncomfortable tongues
of the past and the present. He litters the stage with corpses. He is
capable of moving from the witty to the horrifying and from the ornate to
the severe with a certainty of footing and speed worthy of Shakespeare. He
is forgivable (mostly) where he is too broad and brilliant where he is
narrow, also in the way of Shakespeare. In the “Border Trilogy” he has
created a kind of Romeo and Juliet tragedy, rehearsed in “All the Pretty
Horses” and fully realized in “Cities of the Plain.” These are doomed,
ultimately fatal romances of American boy with Mexican girl, and in
McCarthy’s vision the two nations are the Montagues and the Capulets,
forever hostile yet inseparably, catastrophically linked.
‘You think you’ll ever go back there?’
‘I don’t know. I’d like to. You?’
‘I don’t think so. I think I’m done …’ Billy sat with his hands crossed
palm down on the pommel of his saddle. He leaned and spat. ‘I went down
there three separate trips. I never once come back with what I started
after … Sooner or later they’re goin to run all the white people out of
that country. Even the Babmcora wont survive. … I damn sure dont
know what Mexico is. I think it’s in your head. Mexico. I rode a lot of
ground down there. The first ranchera you hear sung you understand the
whole country. By the time you’ve heard a hundred you dont know nothin. You
never will. I concluded my business down there a long time
You may well end up mildly
irritated by the sentimentality of “Cities of the Plains,” by its muscular promises put aside in
favor of romantic melodrama. And yet as the book settled back into my
remembering imagination I found myself wiping away the excesses, the oils
and dust spilled at its edges. The characters are thoroughly likable, the
landscape a vast seduction (as it always is in McCarthy’s novels) and
certain scenes — most, in fact — stand unblemished, lovely or harrowing
or both, by any soppiness of the plot. I can say why a writer has succeeded
to my way of thinking, or failed, but I’m harder pressed to explain why I’m
more willing to forgive one author or work more than another. Perhaps this:
McCarthy is a genius, like the old MacArthur crowd said almost 20 years
ago. On every page, he still shows it.
Vince Passaro is a contributing editor for Harper's magazine and is finishing a novel. More Vince Passaro.
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