Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain

by Jess

Warning: Plot Spoiler

This is the final volume of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which begins with All The Pretty Horses and The Crossing.  I was mildly disappointed with Cities of the Plain.  Perhaps some of the novelty of his singular style of writing has begun to wear thin.  McCarthy’s laconic prose certainly makes for easy reading, but he loves to slow us down at the oddest moment and show every tiny motion involved in, say, making a cup of coffee (and cowboys, in case you didn’t know, drink coffee all the time).  In fiction, there must be a reason to slow down the reader, there must be heightened significance to the moment, or the narrative needs to take a breath.  That doesn’t seem to be the case in McCarthy’s writing.  Exempli gratia:

“She watched him ride to the gate and lean and undo the latch and push the gate open horseback and ride through and turn the horse and close the gate horseback and then set off down the road at a jog with the morning sun on his shoulders, his hat pushed back.”

Okay, maybe I’m just not enough of a cowboy to understand.  Maybe it’s really difficult to open and close a gate horseback, and it was demonstrating his prowess as a rider.  The thing is, by book three, we already know John Grady is an excellent horseman.  He’s got almost a sixth sense when it comes to horses, proved many times over in the previous books and earlier in Cities.  So unless there’s something else going on here (and there almost always is), I don’t know why McCarthy brings us to this point in this particular way.

I’ve also considered the fact that I’m secretly in love with John Grady, and I just don’t like to see him disgraced.  We never really discover what he sees in Magdalena, which for me was a weak point in the story.  I kind of liked the fact that she died for her love, very Romeo and Juliet, but John Grady’s death was so drawn out and, because of Eduardo’s commentary, really rather ridiculous.  John Grady is the type of character who really can’t fade away into the sunset, triumphant (and McCarthy isn’t the type of guy who would end a story that way), so I suppose there was really nothing else that could have been done with him.  He had to perish for his ideals and for beauty.  Anyway, I think Billy is more my type.  Not so brooding and angsty.

Overall, though, I dig what McCarthy is doing.  It’s different, and I’m always excited to see writers trying new things and exploring fresh ground.  Moody and romantic, his tales of the dying old west and the last chivalrous cowboys are fun to read.  The University Press of Mississippi has released a companion reader to the trilogy, “the first book to examine McCarthy’s three masterpiece novels as a cohesive whole.”  An essay in Pop Matters about the companion reader describes McCarthy thusly: “McCarthy writes in a predominantly popular tradition, that of the Western, injected with polluted blood from the corpus of the Southern Gothic of William Faulkner (McCarthy’s major precursor in style and grandiosity of theme) but also from the more European Gothic horror traditions.” I wouldn’t have picked up on the horror traditions (and, though I’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I can’t give you a single adjective describing “European Gothic horror traditions”), but I suppose I see where they’re coming from, with all the darkness and the blood and the underlying themes of mortality and humanity.  I’ve certainly heard him described as the new Faulker, which strikes me as an apt description, though McCarthy may be just a touch less difficult to read and comprehend.

I’d recommend All The Pretty Horses, and then, if you aren’t sick of McCarthy’s penchant for quote-less dialog and apostrophe-less contractions, continue on down that dusty road.  See ya next time, cowboy.