The Society for the Appreciation of the Post-Dialogic Novel


Cities of the Plain. Cormac McCarthy.

Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary. That it contain nothing save what stands before one. But the Mexican world is a place of adornment only and underneath it is very plain indeed. While your world--he passed the blade back and forth like a shuttle through a loom--your world totters upon an unspoken labyrinth of questions. And we will devour you, my friend. You and all your pale empire.

This gaunt division between the Anglo and Mexican worlds is a fitting summation to the polarities explored in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, beginning with the (surprisingly) popular All the Pretty Horses, continuing with The Crossing and concluding now with Cities of the Plain. Maybe it explains something of what drew McCarthy to this border region of Texas and New and old Mexico after his first four novels (haunting excursions into the dregs of Southern Gothicism), resulting in the breath-taking Blood Meridian(1985). The pleaure of reading any of his work is surpassing; his attempt (like Faulkner and Melville) is always to accurately name the darkest horrors of human existence as a means to transcendence--the only means available, in his universe. The prose is always luminous, exact, charged, and fraught with rare and archaic terminology (again like Faulkner) to beautiful effect, but even in the pared down Hemingway mode it is moving:

The old man was still sitting at the table in his hat. He'd been born in east Texas in 1867 and come out to this country as a young man. In his time the country had gone from the oil lamp and the horse and buggy to jet planes and the atomic bomb but thar wasnt what confused him. It was the fact that his daughter was dead that he couldn't get the hang of.

Yet, the third time in a row for admirers of Blood Meridian, Outer Dark and Suttree, the work seems less dense, less urgent--hailing from a paler empire. Perhaps it's only that the space between the simpler narration and the highly charged poetic passages seems more jarring now--however much it has paid off in a larger readership.

One of the problems is the older McCarthy's seeming willingness to answer to criticism that his earlier work slighted women and relatonships. Still, John Grady's obsession over a teenage Mexican prostitute carries no real conviction. Hard to say why--it seems as though much of the passion that drives the narrative is assumed to be a given. And, the convergence of the first two installments of the trilogy within the third has the feeling of an afterthought. The lead character in The Crossing does cross paths with the hero of Pretty Horses, but Billy Parham seems more of a walk-on here. Given the substantial similarities between him and John Grady (at first glance one might think McCarthy simply changed names in mid-stream) some play with a doppleganger theme is to be suspected; if so, at this late stage it's going to have to be teased out by critics with powerful toolboxes.

To be fair, the ending phases of the novel are intensely exhilarating to read--Billy Parham as an aging driftter caught between cliffside petroglyphs and interstate-underpass graffiti--reminiscent of nothing so much as the truly brilliant rendering of Cornelius Suttree's last days. Here, the change in locale from the earlier phase of his novels pays off; McCarthy's description of the southwest carries mythic dimension, but with the sordid human element inseparable from the monolith landscape--think of Edward Weston crossed with Walker Evans (in brilliant desert colors.)

At any rate, it is the fate of highly gifted novelists to be compared not to the lesser novelists around them, but to their own earlier achievements. A dream inside a dream might not be a dream. True believers look toward what is yet to come.