Friday, August 20, 2010

Cormac McCarthy, "Cities of the Plain"

(Vintage, 1999)

"Every man's death is a standing in for every other. And since death comes to all there is no way to abate the fear of it except to love that man who stands for us. We are not waiting for his history to be written. He passed here long ago. That man who is all men and who stands in the dock for us until our own time come and we must stand for him. Do you love him, that man? Will you honour the path he has taken? Will you listen to his tale?"

The final installment of McCarthy's Border Trilogy unites John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, the protagonists of the first and second novels respectively. It takes place three years after the narrative of "All the Pretty Horses"; it is the early 1950s and John Grady is now twenty and Billy twenty-eight. The two work on a ranch near the US-Mexico border, situated on land which is soon to be bought up by the American military. Billy and John Grady share a friendship akin to brotherhood, for among other reasons John Grady in many respects reminds Billy of his long-dead younger brother Boyd.

On a short visit to a brothel across the border with Billy, John Grady is struck by the beauty of one of the brothel workers, who young and epileptic. He falls in love with her; the problem is that her pimp has fallen in love with her too. John Grady vows to marry her and live with her just off the ranch, but in order for this to happen she must somehow escape her situation. This precipitates a nailbiting climax that is arguably ultra-violent even by McCarthy's standards.

While "Cities of the Plain" does not exactly tie the preceding novels together, it does expound upon their themes and offers something by way of a repetition that is worth pondering. John Grady's tenacity and Billy's decisive, elder-brotherly comportment shine through, but in a rapidly shifting context. The wilds of the previous novels are giving way to the prerogatives of commerce and the military-industrial complex. The actions and ethical codes of the protagonists, quixotic at best in a land where gas stations and highway developments stand in for windmills, figure as positively alien or anachronistic in places; in fact the bulk of the narrative seems something of a dream in light of the novel's epilogue, which takes place fifty years later at the turn of the 21st century (to be sure, yet another improbably philosophical stranger shows up to enlighten the protagonist at this point, discoursing at length about dreams and dreamers). Perhaps the trilogy taken as a whole is best read as a kind of requiem for a certain time and place and way of life which have long since given way to the visions of other dreamers. Or perhaps the point, more accurately, is that capitalism and American empire are, properly speaking, a dream dreamt by no one in particular, though for all that making demands upon and shaping an environment and a people with brutal violence.

As is standard for McCarthy, there is however a tiny and simple glimmer of light in this novel. Billy Parham's travels reveal, perhaps, that even in a situation of violent environmental and cultural upheaval, there is a goodness waiting in the interstices of wandering lost.


Anonymous said...

Nice review. I'd be interested to know your thoughts on the part at the end with Billy and the drifter under the highway.
My take on the border trilogy is that however we live, it will all pass and be forgotten and the people we affected will be forgotten, so maybe just try to live well, be nice to your brother, be nice to your horse, chase the girl you love, because then if there is any trace left of our life, which there may not be, it will be a good trace.
PS do you remember the name of the brothel? I want to name a brothel in my own book after it.

Matthew R. McLennan said...

Thanks for your comment! I have to say I'm rather sympathetic to your view of the trilogy as a whole. As regards the epilogue under the highway, I've thought hard about it and have no one answer. But I couldn't help but feel as though McCarthy was being a bit ironical - in particular, Billy's passive resistance to the stranger's interpretations struck me as a derision of myself as reader, for trying too hard to make sense of it all.

Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the brothel either!

Chris said...

The brothel was called The White Lake.

Anonymous said...

I just finished the trilogy. Did anybody else notice that there are obscure discusions in all three of the books that are fustrating to the reader because they seem to have meaning but just can't be fully grasped. I agree with Matthew that McCarthy is being purposefully cryptic, except I think that in the last discussion under the bridge, at last we have Billy who is now as old as these seemingly wise old men and he has come to realise that his guess might just be as good as theirs. Nonetheless I think there are some interesting philosophical points (especially about free will and detirminism) in all the discussions, I just struggle to find much coherency. I think that's the point.