on 12 March 2001
I guess the greatest gift that I writer can give is a little of his own soul. All three books in "The Border Trilogy" give the reader such a profound feeling of having been written from the heart, that to finish each book is like parting with a friend, and the completion of the Trilogy is like bereavement. One of the aspects that make these books so affecting is that they concern ordinary people who try extraordinarily hard to do the right thing against the overwhelming opposition of landscape, history and the future as other, lesser people, see it. "Cities of the Plain" brings together the protagonists from the two earlier works and as friends they reprise the doomed enterprise of the earlier works. This revisiting by McCarthy of similar themes throughout the Trilogy serves to highlight his concept that we are all pawns in a bigger game but nonetheless we should endeavour to play to some higher rule in order that collectively we may amount to something better. If all this sounds rather grandiose, well, it is, and it matters. In a very different way Richard Ford illuminates a similar area in his Frank Bascombe books, but whereas Ford's characters are found in everyday settings, both McCarthy's settings and language are epic. I have read criticism that he goes too far with his archaic language and tumbling sentences. Well, he may do occasionally, but I would read McCarthy for the prose alone, and consider plot, characterisation etc a bonus. I can think only of Annie Proulx right now whose prose is such a delight for its own sake and both make much other good reading seem turgid in comparison. Harold Bloom states that we read to enrich our experience, our wisdom, our healing. This is true of literature of this calibre. Cities of the Plain is a fine conclusion to an ennobling reading experience. I anticipate that I will read this Trilogy many times.
This final novel in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy of the southwest brings together the themes McCarthy has developed throughout the trilogy. In the first novel, All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy stresses the romanticism of John Grady Cole, who runs away to become a cowboy, suffers a heart-breaking loss at love, and returns, sadder and perhaps wiser, to find solace in the solitude of his work on the plains.
Times are changing as the 20th century progresses, however, and the independent life of ranchers is threatened. In The Crossing, a far darker novel which takes place a few years later, Billy Parham, another young man, takes off with his brother, crossing the border into Mexico, to explore its older traditions and ways of life. Cities of the Plain, with Biblical suggestions in the title, brings young John Grady Cole and the older Billy Parham together, as they work on the McGovern ranch in Texas in the 1950s. The wilderness is disappearing, cities are encroaching, and an army base may take their land.
Focusing less on the harshness of ranch life than in past novels, McCarthy here concentrates more on character, in this case, that of John Grady Cole, who falls in love with a prostitute from Juarez and wants to bring her across the border to his way of life. Billy Parham counsels him against marrying her, but John Grady is determined to wrest her away from Eduardo, her manager, and give her the peace that she has never known. Life is harsh, however, and outcomes are bleak for dreamers and altruists. John Grady soon finds himself engaged in a struggle with Eduardo which is vicious and unrelenting, a metaphorical struggle between honor and evil, and between civilized values and the "justice" of tooth and claw, hope and desperation, and acceptance of change and adherence to the past.
McCarthy's gorgeous descriptions of this vanishing way of life on the ranch are as effective here as they are in the other novels in the trilogy, though they seem to be presented nostalgically. Times are changing, and the "old man," the ranch owner, is now becoming senile. Civilization is drawing closer, and John Grady, the cowboy, uses taxis instead of horses when he is in a hurry to travel. As McCarthy draws the reader into John Grady's story, the reader knows that the struggle between him and Eduardo is a mythic struggle, and s/he also knows what the likely outcome will be. The elegance with which the ending is drawn, however, gives both potency and poignancy to McCarthy's message. Mary Whipple
on 4 October 2010
Readers, there are many problems with the Border Trilogy: the infuriating too-clever-by-half use of Spanish, which to someone with little more than a basic grasp of the language, leaves large chucks of dialogue opaque; McCarthy's difficulty, at times, in rendering what he is describing as truly and eloquently visible; a penchant for repetitious overly dragged out scenes (how many times in The Crossing did Billy really have to wander from town to town, towards the end of the book?) - but the Cities of the Plain completes what is unquestionably a masterpiece of American literature. What great work of art is not flawed? Thank God for the flaws, in fact, so we have them to counter-pose against the great moments in the three books and therefore see them as truly rare pieces of writing.
So many reviewers have questioned the ending of Cities of the Plain. I fail - so sadly - to see why. Quite simply it is heart-breaking, devastatingly beautiful. Billy's final scene - the very last pages of the book - are almost too painful to read. Few books reduce me to tears - and to be able to do so is, for me, the mark of greatness - but McCarthy tore the heart from my body in the final moments of his trilogy. All I can say is, 'Poor, poor Billy'. To make a reader love a character is perhaps the surest sign of a talent that verges on brilliance. The epilogue has to stand with the work of Beckett in its ruthlessly bleak, but loving and tender, summation of human life.
Like the most memorable books, the characters McCarthy has created - John Grady and Billy - will stay with you forever. Leaving them will be terrible. But remembering them as clay in the hands of a great writer - and the lives they lived for us - will remain a life-affirming gift.
But please, for the love of God, read the books in the correct order - to do otherwise would reduce a reckoning with literature, that should change your soul, to an experience that is all but pointless.
You will enjoy these novels - although there are moments where you will be angry with McCarthy for letting himself down and not living up to the peerless standards he has set for himself as a writer - but in the end, when you close Cities of the Plain and put the trilogy down, you will be a better - if sadder - human being.
on 1 February 1999
Mccarthy has created another masterpiece of modern American writing to add to his formidable works. The characters from the first two books in the "trllogy" take on the raw world of ranching on the mexican border and a fateful tale beyond normal imagination is played out in Mccarthy's inimitable technicolour of language.
on 10 July 1998
Having completed the entire trilogy in the last three weeks, I was deeply moved by the sadness of how death cut down these youth in their prime. From the first book's exciting evocative descriptions of the West, there was never again anything so lyrical as the author's ability to paint pictures of sky, horses, cowboys at work and their shorthand communication. I loved the compassionate portrayal of poor honest Mexicans and the fatalistic violence controlling the destinies of so many people. [I struggled with the spanish - but I think I caught most of it - what a master of dialogue!] I most confess that I had real problems appreciating the epilogue - I guess I have to go back and re-read that!
This is the third volume of the "Border Trilogy." The first two volume are All the Pretty Horses (Border Trilogy 1): 1/3 and The Crossing, both of which I have read and reviewed. The "border" is the Mexican-American one, in the area centering around El Paso, where Cormac McCarthy lived for a number of years. The author is reticent in giving interviews. What I'd love to know is what led this man, born in Rhode Island, and having spent some of his formative young adult years in Appalachia, to decide to move to El Paso, truly in the border zone, surrounded by bleak lands, as he notes in this novel. But even more so, I'd love to know what he did in order to learn so much about the ranching - horse culture of the American West that he could so vividly and authentically portray it in this trilogy.
McCarthy placed a couple very unlikely places on the "literary map," almost certainly the only author to do so. The Crossing commences in the "boot heel" of New Mexico, where very few, even New Mexicans, have been (including myself). His depiction of the land there makes it a "must see." (Much of the novel does unfold in Mexico, hence the title). And this, the last of the trilogy, is primarily set on a ranch near Orogrande, New Mexico, which is approximately 35 miles north of El Paso. It is a hard-scrabble landscape, filled with those ranchers and cowboys trying to scratch out an existence, but the landscape seems to only be suitable for a military base, a fate that McCarthy alludes to, as it would become part of Ft. Bliss. The novel commences in a whore house, in Juarez, and it is raining outside. Given the aforementioned reticence, it is unlikely that we will ever learn if that scene was inspired by Bob Dylan's song "Tom Thumb's Blues": "When you are lost in the rain in Juarez, and it is Easter time too,... she speaks good English and invites you up into her room, and you try to be so kind and careful, and not go to her too soon."
And that is the "heart" of this novel. The "john" is, literally, John Grady, who was depicted in the first novel of this trilogy, growing up way too soon. And he links up with Billy Parham, who was the central character in the second novel. They are ranch hands, on that aforementioned ranch near Orogrande. Grady, who is now all of 19, falls in love with a Mexican prostitute, who is all of 16. She speaks no English, unlike in Dylan's song. He, however, does speak Spanish. As one might suspect, they have not nurtured a long-term relationship when cupid's arrows found Grady, and he decides to "liberate" her from her current occupation, and bring her to the "pale empire," as McCarthy says, north of the river. Who knows what sort of apparition that Grady "saw" in front of him, but it surely was not the girl who he thought would be happy in a ramshackle ranch house with no running water.
Juarez then, as it is now, is no place for gentle souls to take a Sunday stroll in the park. It is marked by violence, and for the White Swan, as the 16-year olds place of abode is known, to lose one of its star assets, will not go down well with those "asset tenders." Or, as Grady is told, by the prime "tender,": "And we will devour you, my friend. You and all your pale empire." McCarthy never philosophizes about how and why that thin ribbon of water, misnamed "Grande" separates men of modest means, but with a relative fortune to women eager for their own small part of it. But he sure can vividly describe a knife fight.
McCarthy concludes with an epilogue, which reinforced my thoughts about who might be living under those interstate overpasses that I sometimes bike by. All part of the underbelly of that pale empire. 5-stars, plus.
on 4 December 2011
McCarthy finishes off the Border Trilogy with this absolute game killer of a book. This final part of the trilogy set in the early fifties in a rapidly changing America. John Grady (protagonist from the first book; All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (protagonist from the second book; The Crossing, are friends working on a ranch just outside of Alamogordo New Mexico. The military is about to buy the land in which the small downtrodden ranch is located and is a signal that the old western ways are fast dying out. From the get go we know that this book is going to be a little different. It opens with us finding John and Billy in a brothel. The comedic interaction between the two facilitated by stunning dialogue had me laughing out loud. Although the rest of the book features the Cormac standard descriptions of tough life in the borderlands, the author lays on story of John finding love in a young, troubled Mexican prostitute who suffers from an unspecified malady. With increasing desperation John tries to come up with a scheme to rescue his love from the high end Mexican brothel she works in in Juarez and bring her back over the border to come and live with him in a small adobe shack he has renovated for them both. His friend Billy, tries to reason with him - citing that the villains that run the brothel as one of many problems John's plan faces - again via some brilliant and funny dialogue but begrudgingly lends a hand. It would impossible to go into more without giving too much away, but just when you think this is going to be the same old same old. McCarthy hits us with a conclusion and epilogue that is quite out of character for his usual. And by god it was juts the thing. An absolute classic story. do read All The Pretty Horses and The Crossing before this'un. But this book is way out there in terms of storytelling. As an author myself I could only look on in awe at the masterstrokes of who I consider to be the greatest living writer.
on 16 November 2014
Page 206: "the last time he was to see her was....." .... and that's the end of Cormac McCarthy for me. No need to torture myself reading the last x pages: I know what happens. I know, as in the first two novels - here's a writer who includes his own spoilers. So farewell to New / Mexico, whorehouses, horses, pithy cowboy dialogue and a side-order of the Cormac McCarthy Society translation of Spanish terms into English. And adios to an annoying and overrated writer.
The concluding part in the Border Trilogy brings together the main character from each of the preceding novels, John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses, and Billy Parham from The Crossing. It is set after the war, John Grady is nineteen and Billy some ten years older, they are working together on a ranch at a time when the traditional life of the cowboy is threatened.
This book is very much about the friendship between these two young men, a friendship closer perhaps than they realise, with Billy seeing himself very much as looking out for John Grady. The story centres around their life on the ranch and John Grady's ill-advised love for a young prostitute. We get to know also their co-workers on the ranch, and along the way there are little vignettes involving additional characters very much in the vein of the other books in the Trilogy.
Cities of the Plain is every bit as good as the preceding books, beautifully written the sparse prose yet evokes the setting and the life of these men in a time of change. It is a most enjoyable read, there is humour, but is also heart-warming and at times heart-rending, deep in meaning; a worthy conclusion to a superb Trilogy.
on 26 January 2010
No less than its two predecessors, this novel is unrelenting in its stark treatment of the themes that sustain this trilogy: change (tradition v modernity), good, evil, the nature of free will and the man's place in the cosmos, as articulated via the epic descriptions of the landscape. More poignantly, this is a novel of tragedy; of an outcome foretold. From the moment John Grady Cole meets Magdalena, the outcome is clear to Billy and prophetically so. It is ultimately this inability; a futility in the face of events seemingly beyond influence or control which also becomes his undoing. It seems that the remainder of Billy's life (although we are not really told)is lived without purpose, as if he is unable to release himself from the events that prefigure his life: the murder of his parents and the deaths of his brother and best friend.
For no small reason is McCarthy regarded as one of America's greatest living authors. Frankly, other fiction is rendered insipid by comparison.