Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Books I Read:
All the Pretty Horses
The Crossing
Cities of the Plains

by Cormac McCarthy

Years can go by within a lifetime of reading where nothing shakes you to the core so much as having read a powerful book. The book itself ceases to be a stack of bound papers, but transcends into something else - a dangerous thing that exudes its own life, like a wild dog you lock in a closet, or a loaded gun, a diamond you hide from others eyes, or a talisman that grants power. Books like that become something you want to talk less about to others. You treat such a book as a secret bestowed, something that would be a betrayal if offered to others. I can remember various books from my life that requited such tribute: A Clockwork Orange, 1984, The Fountainhead, Foucault's Pendulum. Most recently, after a lull of years, another book joined this roster: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
While this review is not about Blood Meridian, it has relevance with the "Border Trilogy" of books headlining this post. Blood Meridian detailed the ferocity of a band of American outlaws traversing the US/Mexico borderland pursuing carnage for the sake of carnage itself. The band being led by "The Judge", a literary character akin to Marlon Brando's Kurtz. McCarthy's hallucinatory narrative of hellishness speaks through starkly written prose. A portal into a landscape imaginable by Hieronymus Bosch.

In contrast with Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy humanizes this landscape, narrowing down to more personalized encounters with the land south of the border. The first two books each detail personal journeys of their protagonists. In All the Pretty Horses, young John Grady Cole decides south Texas doesn't do much for him, so he and a friend strike out for Mexico to serve as ranch hands. Cole ends up falling in love with the daughter of a wealthy hacienda owner, a match disapproved of by the family matriarch. A violent past catches up with Cole, landing him and his friend in jail. Release from jail and getting back the girl mark then second half of the book.

The Crossing, the second book of the trilogy, shifts in tone and narrative structure. The book is not the romantic tale of its predecessor but instead an odyssey told in three parts. The first part details young Billy Parham working the ranchlands of borderland New Mexico. He and his father are tracking a wolf terrorizing the cattle herds of the region. Billy's father teaches his son the ropes of tracking the animal, leading to a protracted match of hunter and hunted. A chance encounter with an old Mexican mystic reveals the soul of the animal, an understanding of the wolf from the wolf's point of view. Billy is armed with an insight into the animal. Eventually, Billy captures the she-wolf which forces a choice: return the wolf to the ranchers to collect the bounty, or return the wolf to Mexico, its land of origination. Empathetic of the wolf, Billy eschews a return home and crosses the border with the wolf muzzled and in-tow behind his horse. In Mexico, Billy's attempt to return the wolf to the Mexican hinterlands is thwarted by a band of men involved in animal fighting carnivals. These men commandeer the wolf from Billy and employ it in dog-fighting carnage. As literature, McCarthy's set-piece scene culminates in force and power, sadness and triumph. The tragic conclusion of the scene marks a transformation in the soul of Billy and is followed by several chapters of Billy wandering the Mexican countryside trying to make sense of the loss of the wolf.

After an untold time of travel, Billy returns to his homeland, only to find out his family murdered and his brother Boyd orphaned. This shift in narrative marks the second section of the book which details the journey of Billy and Boyd back to Mexico to track down their father's horses. Whomever murdered their father stole the family's horses and sold them to a hacienda owner in Mexico. This second crossing into Mexico takes up a large section of the book and is marked by visionary and dreamlike descriptions of escalating events whose conclusion leads to the third and final portion of the book, a final crossing back into Mexico to set things to rights as best as can be done. With each subsequent crossing, Billy's soul is irreversibly altered and transformed.

The last book of the trilogy, Cities of the Plains is set a few years later. The main characters of the first two books, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are, in this story, ranchhands working for the same family just outside of El Paso, Texas. A shorter book, McCarthy employs a straightforward narrative to illustrate a story involving John Grady Cole's love and obsession with a Mexican prostitute working just across the Rio Grande in Juarez, Mexico. Cole's intention is to marry the prostitute and bring her back to America for a new life. Standing in the way of his intentions is her pimp, a calm, businesslike man capable of quick bursts of temper and extreme violence. The conclusion of the book encapsulates what we have come to know of the characters Cole and Parham having journeyed with them throughout the Border Trilogy of books.

The US/Mexico border serves as both a geographic boundary and also an existential boundary. It is the existential boundary that provides the depth of McCarthy's writing. The orderliness of America is contrasted with the difference found below the border. The American characters traverse a mystical and alien culture that they cannot fully comprehend. A weight of ancestry guides the fate and fatalism of the people. The aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, only a few years distant history in the time of the narratives, deepens the aura of disorder and chaos guiding the land. This is the Mexico that the characters are immersed in. The order and predictability of their American experience that they bring with them to Mexico serves them well at times and at times serves them not at all. McCarthy's use of this device, of a nether land beyond a boundary, provides the narrative dreamscape which elevates the books of the Border Trilogy into great literature. Life is marked by borders that beckon. Lines to be crossed, choices to be made, transformational decisions to be reckoned with.


At 8:52 AM, Blogger gagknee said...

just finished the trilogy...great stuff.

i've only got one book of mccarthy's left to read, blood meridian.


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