McCarthy: The Border Trilogy

October 28, 2011

The Border Trilogy
All The Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain
Cormac McCarthy
(Everyman’s Library, 1999) [1992; 1994; 1998]
302 p.; 426 p.; 292 p.

Set in the period spanning the 1930s to 1950s, the Border Trilogy — considered on the most superficial level, at least — shows us the cowboy’s life pushed to the brink of extinction by the modern world. Yet it would be wrong to say that the books are about the conflict between the old and new, for the new, considered in itself, is barely visible. McCarthy achieves a deft reversal of figure and ground: it is not the cattle trail that crosses the interstate, but the interstate that crosses the cattle trail. The world of these characters is dominated by the horse; motorized vehicles appear only as temporary interlopers. No, the precariousness of the horseman’s life is conveyed not so much through encroachments by industrial society as by the narrow, dangerous space into which these men are pushed in order to preserve their way of life.

All three stories take place along the borderland between Mexico and the United States. In all three, young American men cross the border to seek their fortunes on the Mexican side, where horse and rider still dominate the landscape. And in all three — this is Cormac McCarthy, after all — the results are harrowing. Here is no heroic tale of saloons and sharp-shooters, high-noon showdowns and corrals, riders and sunsets. When they cross the border to Mexico they enter a world where the law is weak or corrupt, and where violence is brutal and pervasive. It is a dark vision. In each story, a light — whether it is love, friendship, or the simple desire for adventure — is held up in the face of this darkness, and a battle ensues.

I cannot remember when last I read a book, much less a series of books, in which male friendship was so central. In All the Pretty Horses, it is the friendship of John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, two young Texans seeking work on a Mexican ranch. In The Crossing it is the fraternal bond between Billy and Boyd Parham, who seek revenge when their parents are killed by horse thieves. Cities of the Plain brings together, some years later, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, now friends. I remark on this because for some reason our modern culture seems particularly inept at portraying friendships between men. Boorishness we can manage, chummy frivolity we can manage, but genuine friendship, founded on trust and affection between rough and intelligent men, is rarer in our popular imagination than it ought to be. McCarthy’s achievement in these novels, in which the central friendships are wholly believable, is therefore all the more praiseworthy.

As I noted when I read The Road a few years ago, McCarthy’s prose strikes me with its close observation of actions and objects. There is a minuteness of detail about his descriptions of things that stands in contrast to, and perhaps in place of, the almost complete absence of psychological detail. We are shown characters doing things, and we hear them saying things, but we are almost never granted direct access to their thoughts. This is not as alienating as you might think. Here is an example, selected partly because it illustrates the point and partly because it consists of just one, fairly amazing, sentence:

They rode the high country for weeks and they grew thin and gaunted man and horse and the horse grazed on the sparse winter grass in the mountains and gnawed the lichens from the rock and the boy shot trout with his arrows where they stood above their shadows on the cold stone floors of the pools and ate them and ate green nopal and then on a windy day traversing a high saddle in the mountains a hawk passed before the sun and its shadow ran so quick in the grass before them that it caused the horse to shy and the boy looked up where the bird turned high above them and he took the bow from his shoulder and nocked and loosed an arrow and watched it rise with the wind rattling the fletching slotted into the cane and watched it turning and arcing and the hawk wheeling and then flaring suddenly with the arrow locked in its pale breast. (The Crossing, 129)

There is a lot of landscape description in these novels, and both land and weather are important to their atmosphere. I was surprised to find quite a lot of humour, albeit edgy and often bleak, in the books. (There was no humour in The Road.) There is a good deal of Spanish dialogue in all three books, which left me in the dark more than a few times. And, as the passage above indicates, McCarthy’s trademark negligence of grammatical niceties is well in evidence throughout. I am still not entirely convinced by this practice. It risks being an affectation, and if McCarthy were a literary noodler, rather than the steely-eyed craftsman that he is, I believe his style would be his undoing. As its best, his narrative voice achieves a kind of primitive power, and occasionally breaks through into the realm of poetry. Consider, for example, this passage, in which repetition and variation seem to suspend time, conveying something of the ecstatic and dizzying experience of the characters — the experience, in this case, being that of young love:

The nightdamp laid the dust going up the ciénaga road and they rode the horses side by side at a walk, sitting the animals bareback and riding with hackamores. Leading the horses by hand out through the gate into the road and mounting up and riding the horses side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west and some dogs barking over toward the shearing-sheds and the greyhounds answering back from their pens and him closing the gate and turning and holding his cupped hands for her to step into and lifting her onto the black horse’s naked back and then untying the stallion from the gate and stepping once onto the gateslat and mounting up all in one motion and turning the horse and them riding side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west like a moon of white linen hung from wires and some dogs barking. (All the Pretty Horses, 140)

The trilogy, though in a sense rather loosely connected, works well as a whole. Of the three volumes, I judge the last, Cities of the Plain, to be the weakest. The first two books are quest stories; the third lacks that satisfying shape, and, despite a strong finish, seems to me to lack direction. The first quarter of The Crossing could be carved off to stand on its own, and I am not entirely sure what role it serves in the trilogy as a whole, but I will say that it was one of my favourite sections. In each panel of the trilogy, but especially in the second, there is an element that reminded me, if you can believe it, of Homer: the quest is interrupted at intervals by strangers, encountered on the road, who deliver speeches and then move on.

The books are more or less full of violence and lawlessness, though not so much as to confuse the distinction between good and evil. The Mexico of McCarthy’s world is a land where justice can hardly be hoped for, where civilization itself has only a precarious hold. The viciousness of the Mexican criminal set is balanced, however, by the consistent generosity of the Mexican poor, who repeatedly take the Americans into their homes and under their wings. And at a deeper level, too, there are glimmers here and there of a more foundational goodness:

That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow as far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and rails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised. (All the Pretty Horses, 161-2)

The significance of such passages is ambiguous, however, for threaded through the trilogy, and growing more prominent as it proceeds, is a streak of fatalism, a sense that the good or evil that happens is inevitable, and that nothing can be done to help or hinder it — the destruction of the specifically moral dimension of life, in other words. Arguably, this is expressed implicitly in McCarthy’s avoidance, mentioned above, of psychological detail about his characters. The dream sequence above is an exception to the general rule, which might be called a behavioural approach to fiction: a veil is drawn over the inner life, including the moral life, and while we might infer intention or desire from action, we never experience them directly, and so could, if so inclined, doubt their reality. More explicitly, too, the role of fate is given expression on numerous occasions:

For me the world has always been more of a puppet show. But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upward he finds they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn, and so on. In my own life I saw these strings whose origins were endless enact the deaths of great men in violence and madness. Enact the ruin of a nation. (All the Pretty Horses, 231)

This view of life reaches an apotheosis in the Epilogue to Cities of the Plain, which is an extended dialogue on the ultimate sovereignty of fate, and serves as a rather dispiriting conclusion to the trilogy as a whole. In McCarthy’s next novel, No Country for Old Men, this fate found personification (arguably) in the character of Anton Chigurh. But that is a tale for another time.

***

[Religion, tame and otherwise]
“And the priest? A man of broad principles. Of liberal sentiments. Even a generous man. Something of a philosopher. Yet one might say that his way through the world was so broad it scarcely made a path at all. He carried within himself a great reverence for the world, this priest. He heard the voice of the Deity in the murmur of the wind in the trees. Even the stones were sacred. He was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart.

There was not. Nor does God whisper through the trees. His voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay His presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair. Trees and stones are no part of it. So. The priest in the very generosity of his spirit stood in mortal peril and knew it not. He believed in a boundless God without center or circumference. By this very formlessness he’d sought to make God manageable. This was his colindancia. In his grandness he had ceded all terrain. And in this colindancia God had no say at all.

To see God everywhere is to see Him nowhere. We go from day to day, one day much like the next, and then on a certain day all unannounced we come upon a man or we see this man who is perhaps already known to us and is a man like all men but who makes a certain gesture of himself that is like the piling of one’s goods upon an altar and in this gesture we recognize that which is buried in our hearts and is never truly lost to us nor ever can be and it is this moment, you see. This same moment. It is this which we long for and are afraid to seek and which alone can save us.” (The Crossing, 152-3)

***

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12 Responses to “McCarthy: The Border Trilogy”

  1. Doug Says:

    Thanks for this review Craig! I’ve been considering ordering this trilogy for awhile now.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I think it is well worth reading. I am trying now to decide whether I should go forward (from the Border Trilogy) to No Country for Old Men, or backward to Suttree or Blood Meridian. I suppose I have some time to decide.

  3. Janet Says:

    I didn’t like these as well as No Country for Old Men, and The Road. There is a scene, I think in All the Pretty Horses, involving jackrabbits and the grill of an Oldsmobile that I found quite enchanting.

    AMDG

  4. cburrell Says:

    Do you remember the exploding dog (from Cities of the Plain)?

  5. Janet Says:

    Try as I may, I can’t remember it, and you would think that was the kind of thing I ought to be able to remember. It’s been a few years since I read it, though.

    AMDG

  6. cburrell Says:

    This might jog your memory. I confess I laughed when I read it, most inappropriately.

  7. Janet Says:

    I just don’t remember. It seems so strange.

    AMDG

  8. Mac Says:

    I’ve only read No Country, and on the basis of your excerpts here suspect I would not like these as well, mainly because of the prose style. It does indeed strike me as affected, as well as imitative of Faulkner, whose prose I don’t uniformly admire, although when it’s good it’s great. Still, they sound like good stories. I do like that last passage you quoted.

    Have either of you read any of Elmore Leonard’s thrillers? He seems to me to have been a big influence on No Country, in that device you mention of sticking mostly to the externals of a character, and also in the ability to create suspense. When you do get the thoughts of Leonard’s characters, it’s usually at a very functional level, e.g. “She wondered if she could reach the gun.” Also–I haven’t read a lot of Leonard, but I can see something of some of his killers in Chigur.

  9. cburrell Says:

    I had grouped Elmore Leonard together with folks like James Patterson and Michael Crichton — that is, authors of entertaining but not very good potboilers. I gather that I have wrongly judged him? Certainly I’d not put McCarthy into that category.

    You might be interested to know that, on the strength of some approving remarks you made to me some months ago, I recently bought a couple of books by Raymond Chandler, another author whom I had pre-judged as merely a ‘genre’ author. I am looking forward to trying them.

  10. Mac Says:

    Well, I don’t know Patterson, and of Crichton I’ve only read Jurassic Park, which I enjoyed, but I think I’d rate Leonard higher than him as an artist. I wouldn’t make any huge claims for Leonard. He’s one of those genre writers–I think he started as a writer of Westerns back in the ’50s–who at some point late in their careers attract the notice of critics who say he transcends the genre. I think I would say rather that he executes the genre piece superbly. In this case the genre is a sort of action-thriller, usually involving very bad people in pursuit of good or at least less bad ones. I’ve read three, and can only remember the name of one of them, Bandits. I think I only remember that one because it was made into a fairly successful movie, because it’s the other two that have really stayed with me. There are some scenes in both of those that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I wouldn’t make great literary claims for him, and he doesn’t really try to get above his station, so to speak, at least in the ones I’ve read. But the characters are quite convincing, and they pack a narrative punch comparable to No Country. They’re pretty sleazy, though–I mean, sleazy people feature prominently in them, and they do sleazy things. They’re not very graphically violent or sexual, but there is a lot of violence and sex in them.

    So…make of that what you will. I’ll try to remember the name of the one book that made the biggest impression on me. It’s about an American Marine who’s a guard at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, and a sleazy American crook who’s hiding out from his enemies in Tel Aviv. The enemies locate the sleazeball and the Marine gets involved with trying to help him escape.

  11. Mac Says:

    Ok, it’s The Hunted, and was originally called Hat Trick, which is very appropriate.

  12. cburrell Says:

    I was going to guess An American Sleazeball in Tel Aviv. Thanks for the pointer. I’ll not rush to this, but I will make a note on my list of interesting books.


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