In Cities of the Plain, the final volume of McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy, John Grady Cole, principal character of All the Pretty Horses, joins Billy Parham of The Crossing in the West Texas-Juarez border world, both men a few years older but still managing to get into trouble. As in the earlier works, the reader is turned every which way but loose by the emotional power of the fiction; also, as before, the English language is torqued and pressured to yield new veins of gold. I suspect McCarthy is the best novelist we have in the country now, perhaps even the best writing in the English language at the present moment.

The laconic humor, present almost on every page, only serves to sharpen the outlines of this dark story. The verbal horsing around, the cowboy give-and-take of the dialogue, is an important element in the narrative drive of the novel, whose plot centers on John Grady’s overwhelming passion for a teenage epileptic Mexican whore kept virtually a captive by Eduardo, the whoremaster who is also in some way a philosopher and a seer. Complicating the plot, Eduardo too is in love with the epileptic whore, although he has strange ways of expressing his affection. As always, McCarthy is on the side of a passionately lived life, his characters bearing no resemblance to those of, say, a Huxley novel: so far as intensity is concerned, they would fit comfortably in an ancient Greek tragedy. As the narrator says of John Grady in All the Pretty Horses, “All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardent hearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.

McCarthy adheres to the current formula according to which “Billy said” or “John Grady said” is thought to be superfluous —a technique that, given the amount of dialogue in the book, puts the reader quite frequently to the trouble of having to puzzle out who is speaking, without serving any visible artistic purpose. As for the ubiquitous Spanish in the text, though I can read it (most of it) McCarthy’s heavy use of a foreign language reminds me of the Russian joke: “Have you read War and Peace?” “No, I don’t read French.” Same problem. One can argue hard for the artistic necessity of the Spanish; somehow, for instance, John Grady or the Mexican whore walking down “Calle de Noche Triste,” or having her work in a whorehouse called “La Esperanza del Mundo” makes for a stronger ironic impact. For the average reader, however, the Spanish may present a problem. But then this is no average novel. When a novelist writes like an angel, as this one does, you find you can forgive him many things.

The trilogy as a whole is a story of passage, of initiation. Billy Parham, 28 years old at the beginning of Cities of the Plain, is 78 in the epilogue (a real tour de force) and still crossing into new worlds, propelled by his “ardent heart.” The trilogy is also a theodicy, God being very much on the minds of most of the characters. As is appropriate to a novel of passage, this one contains sages, teachers, and shamans—often in the form of the most unlikely people—who help the initiate to interpret his experience if he is ready to understand it, or help him to frame his questions concerning the nature of reality. A little shoeshine boy in Juarez tells John Grady that “If there’s something I want to be a different way from what it is then that’s how I say it is. What’s wrong with that?”—a question worthy of our latter-day hermenauts and deconstructionists.

In bargaining with Eduardo, Billy Parham is offered another perspective on reality. “Men have in their minds a picture of how the world will be,” Eduardo tells him. “How they will be in that world. The world may be many different ways for them but there is one world that will never be and that is the world they dream of. Do you believe that?” Old man Johnson, when asked by John Grady for advice, replies, “I think you ought to follow your heart. That’s all I ever thought about anything.” And the blind musician, speaking also to John Grady on the subject of destiny, tells him,

Each act in this world from which there can be no turning back has before it another, and it another yet. In a vast and endless net. Men imagine that the choices before them are theirs to make. But we are free to act only upon what is given. Choice is lost in the maze of generations and each act in that maze is itself an enslavement for it voids every alternative and binds one ever more tightly into the constraints that make a life.

The epilogue finds Billy Parham, 78 years old and down on his luck, sleeping on the ground under a concrete overpass. The year is either 2001 or 2002, depending on whether one counts 2000 as the first year of the new millennium. If the former, the scene resonates with 2001: A Space Odyssey, McCarthy’s trilogy being surely an odyssey in its own right. In the epilogue we find the most sustained ruminations on dream and reality, on destiny and history. The seer-shaman tells Billy about a dream he has had, which in turn is filled with a shaman, magic rituals, masks, and a place of ritual sacrifice. There are resonances with many ancient stories here, including the Arthurian legends, the Grail and Gawain. As with many of the old stories, there is an overpowering sense of fatedness, and of impotence. I leave to the reader the pleasure of meditating on the epilogue, as well as the novel that goes before.

Buy the book and enjoy it now as a virgin experience before Disney makes a movie of it, or the literary theorists tell you what they think it means.


[Cities of the Plain, by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Knopf) 293 pp., $25.00]