“What the priest saw at last was that the lesson of a life can never be its own. Only the witness has power to take its measure. It is lived for the other only. The priest therefore saw what the anchorite could not. That God needs no witness. Neither to Himself nor against. The truth is rather that if there were no God then there could be no witness for there could be no identity to the world but only each man’s opinion of it. The priest saw that there is no man who is elect because there is no man who is not. To God every man is a heretic. The heretic’s first act is to name his brother. So that he may step free of him. Every word we speak is a vanity. Every breath taken that does not bless is an affront. Bear closely with me now. There is another who will hear what you never spoke. Stones themselves are made of air. What they have power to crush never lived. In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God. For nothing is real save his grace.”
The Crossing, 1994
As chilling as he is lucid, Cormac McCarthy’s prose leaves little room for extraneous movement. His writing reads as an amalgamation of popular arthouse directors—Lynch, Tarkovsky, and Leone each spring to mind; drenched in religious symbolism, divergent in folk-philosoph monologues, and dependent upon atmosphere over typical manners of characterization and plot development. Few writers utilize the capacity of their preferred genre such that they can deliver an unremittent and cacophonous vision of their worldview and have their books come across as both humble discourses and enjoyable stories, yet all of McCarthy’s novels are precisely such endeavors. Meditations on suffering lived through dreams and written as cathartic spiritual exorcisms.
The trilogy follows two men: John Grady Cole, a young man who first we meet in All the Pretty Horses growing up in the 1940s and adventuring in Mexico with his friend before bad ideas and worse conspirators force them to flee, and Billy Parham, central character to The Crossing, growing up during the interwar years and embarking upon three distinct border crossings into Mexico. The final book of the trilogy, Cities of the Plain, unite these two characters as ranch hands El Paso toward the end of the fifties. In each book, the themes of isolation, God’s relationship with Man (and the seeming lack thereof), and the ever deepening mystery of Woman dominate the narrative, each set against and atop the flatland of the Texas/Mexico border, where dry plains turn to arid desert.
It’s important to note that these novels function as stand-alone works. As a ‘trilogy’, very little follows from one to the next—and even Cities of the Plain, which brings together the protagonists of the previous to novels some years after their original stories, little is mentioned of their previous escapades. The binding ties across the works come into play with their juxtaposition of adventure and romanticism against the desolation of solidarity and humility before the might of God.
On one hand, things like romanticism or nostalgia seem diametrically opposed to gritty depictions of a brutal and visceral reality. But McCarthy’s particular form of romanticism forbids the opposition; the nostalgia for the Old West, for the cowboys on the plains and the lawlessness of Mexico is itself a nostalgia for the grit and the dust, the violence, the life-size conflicts of combatting death and dying through pain and hardship. Nostalgia is itself imposed upon the depiction, refracted through it as though through a prism rather than merely viewed through it as though through a window. It is a yearning for strife and a recognition that heartache, misery, and despair make up the very constitution of living; without them, life is insulated and meek, tepid, not something particularly worth writing about, something entirely unmarketable as a story. This remains the undercurrent of all of his novels, and it’s brought to the forefront most in both the Border Trilogy and its precursor, his magnum opus Blood Meridian.
Of all of his major pre-millennium novels, All the Pretty Horses has perhaps the most coherent and most traditional narrative. McCarthy’s prose has always been heavily laden with a unique blend of Faulknerian and Melvillian prose and biblical grammatical structures. While the synthesis of the latter two is at its fullest exposure in Blood Meridian, McCarthy continues the trend toward starker, more arid prose throughout the Border Trilogy. This sort of writing generally does not owe itself toward traditional storytelling, as it sacrifices edifices of characterization in favor of simple descriptors of action, and it usually undermines obvious readability into any one character’s inner thoughts and emotions. Subtlety and an even hand in editing, strict attention to detail, and the heavy reliance upon an expressionistic setting instead propel characterization. His early works—most especially Outer Dark—embody the sort of visceral atmospheres and textures of settings and characters painted with thick strokes across a violent canvas. But where this style allows for expansive indulgence in nightmarish surrealism, it generally does not owe itself well towards a bildungsroman focusing around themes of loss.
And yet, with All the Pretty Horses, he pulls it off. The friendship between John Cole and Lacey Rawlins, the stirrings of love for Alejandra, the pervasive dread when confronted by the arbiter of an arbitrary law, the fear of prison, the manic lust for revenge—all of this ever-present and obvious, brought to the forefront not in spite of McCarthy’s sparse prose, but because of it. And as the novel’s pages flip past, the romanticist behind the text comes through as brightly as the sunset in the desert it takes place in. The love not meant to be, the growth of a boy into a man, and the relinquishment of a sense of purpose whose hold upon him transitions from the wheels dragging him forward to chains holding him back: these things are clear, tangible.
By contrast, The Crossing is about as much of a brutally romantic escapade into a bildungsroman as a remake of The Wild Bunch by David Lynch would be. A story in four parts, what begins as a boy learning frontier life becomes his journey to release an alien wolf into the wilderness of the mountains from whence it came, crossing the border only to be met with obstacles of men that lead to something of an early quest termination. The boy, Billy, sojourns in Mexico for an indeterminate period, lost in the haze of sunsets and dreams, pseudo-mythical figures, and a world drenched as much in parable as in metaphor. When he returns home, he finds that his parents have been killed and his younger brother adopted. They meet up again and return to Mexico in search of property—horses—stolen from their land during Billy’s absence. The resulting crossing results in trouble with bandits and criminals, and Billy’s brother eloping with a young girl they rescue from troublesome characters. Again, the landscape of Mexico comes to resemble a biblical Canaan, wrought with nightmarish people and the weighty scorn of sin marked upon the very terrain and all who traverse it.
The isolation of Billy’s travels and the distinct foreignness of his relations with his brother, the girl they rescue, and even the wolf all indicate, perhaps paradoxically, an insurmountable self-indulgence. It characterizes the gap between man and man, one comprised not of walls or obvious barriers but of sheer distance. And it is in that indeterminable distance that Billy’s wanderings in Mexico take place, there that McCarthy depicts a struggle for survival which needs not water to quench its thirst, but companionship. And there that we come upon God.
Of the three books in the trilogy, The Crossing is doubtlessly the most difficult. The narrative strays near to a more typical story, but never really aligns to one. And low-hanging fruit of symbolism abounds—from the wolf at the beginning to the dog at the end, to the mysterious figures and places that Billy travels—yet any sort of direct interpretation of these symbols would work only to the detriment of the whole, isolating it from the sum of parts that it functions within. The more esoteric and surreal the narrative gets, the more it functions almost as a commentary on the Nevi’im or a meditation on the Gospel of John than as strictly a story with characters rife with imagery and symbols. And yet, by the end of the novel, the ultimate meditation remains the similar in spirit as in All the Pretty Horses: loss—of friends, of brothers, of time.
Cities of the Plain focuses its drama predominantly around El Paso, Texas and the city directly across the Rio Grande, Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua—the title alone drawing immediate parallels to the biblical refuges of vice and sexual depravity in Genesis. Uniting John and Billy as ranch hands, they spend much of their time musing over various ways to spend what money they make at work, riding the terrain of the ranch, and observing that soon, little would be left of cowboys in Texas or really anywhere. They visit brothels on their time off and get drunk, wake early for work on most days, tame horses, herd cattle. The lethargy of the opening chapter diminishes as John again becomes involved with a girl, a prostitute he tracks to a brothel on the other side of the river, and talks Billy into taking part in an ill-conceived plan to outwit her pimp—a formidable crime boss—and elope with her.
The striking parallels of the first two books in the trilogy are evident even from the brief synopsis; John’s romanticism and yearning for earthly companionship, Billy’s part as witness to another’s pursuit of that companionship, and the termination of that cycle. The last segment of the novel, following Billy and again lapsing into the territory of parable, follows the later years of his life, finally meeting a man who recounts to him a dream that flabbergasts Billy before leaving him otherwise unmolested. It ends in ambiguity, but not in darkness; Billy survives his ordeal even when all others in the narrative, whether due to action, fault, or timeliness, do not.
But only upon completion of the trilogy is it clear that Billy, all along, was the protagonist, a reality in himself distinguished from the nostalgic romanticism of his immediate contrast, John Cole. Cole’s stories and adventures read like adolescent escapades recaptured in their frailty by an aging storyteller, things full of grandeur and adventure, but never things to shy away from the harsh uncertainties of life and struggle. Yet Billy’s story, full of searching and acquiescence, complicity, begrudging jumps into action—these things indicate the life of a man contrary to his adventures. An inner character. A depiction of man after the externalities of narratives crumble and fade.
John’s story in All the Pretty Horses is good movie material because there is cause to everything that happens. There is a girl waiting for him at the end of his road, despite—in perhaps typical melancholic Hollywood style—her having to leave him in the end. There is danger around each corner, lessons to be learned, and trials to be overcome. At the end, he is a new man, a better man, one older and wiser than before, if jaded and somewhat closed off. But it’s a neater narrative with everything more or less falling into its place. Packaged. Clean.
Billy’s tale is not so neat, because his is the tale of the reader—and perhaps, of McCarthy himself. There is no girl waiting at the end of the road for you to make it back to after your trials, no melancholic pseudo-noir tragedy to play out across a grand dramatic stage of landscapes and sunsets. Billy’s tale tells us these things are ugly not in physical grit—we knew that already, if from nothing other than John Cole’s experiences—but in spiritual substance. The trials you face in life do not yield easy answers, and indeed, are not typically clear in their completion or results. The search for such results leads only to answers that have no questions and questions whose answers aren’t satisfying to the adventuresome mind. There is no beginning and there is no middle nor end to a narrative of that sort, save only the birth, life, and death of the man who lives it—and even then, he lives within that narrative; he does not experience the beginning nor the end and partakes in only a tiny fraction of it.
Billy’s tale is that of a man humbled by the enormity of such a story, while John Cole’s is that of a fantastical indulgence in the shaping of one’s own. It pitches the supremacy of God’s Word against the microcosmic folly of the mere writing of Man. Taken in its entirety, what the Border Trilogy reveals is not just the depiction of a world and way of life moving past these characters, it is the humbling of a storyteller in the face of a narrative greater than himself and greater than all things that can be encapsulated in his writing. As a mirror. As a meditation. A prayer.
McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, not unlike its immediate predecessor, is a work that will leave you different upon completing it than you were when you began. I recommend reading it in order and without gaps between the novels. Some debate remains as to which of the novels is the best—predictably, All the Pretty Horses tends to be a favorite among casual readers and critics alike for its conciseness and dedication to a stricter elaboration of its themes. Cities of the Plain, although in my opinion the weakest of the three novels when taken in isolation, contains some of the best pieces of McCarthy’s writing, particularly the final sequence at the end between Billy and the mysterious man. The Crossing, although the hardest to get through, is in retrospect my favorite of the bunch; it offers no easy answers and does not explain itself readily, staying true to McCarthy’s typical uncompromising dictum to his readers. Approach with caution and with an open mind and you will not be disappointed.