My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Crossing (1994) is the follow-up to All the Pretty Horses (1992) and the second part of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, three novels focused on young American men coming of age in the early-to-mid-20th century on the border with Mexico.
Unlike its popular precursor, The Crossing is a long, dour, and largely plotless novel. Despite the singular title, it tells the story of young Billy Parham’s three crossings into Mexico from New Mexico.
The first crossing comes when he is a teenager: he captures a she-wolf that has itself come up from Mexico and that has been marauding near his family’s property. Instead of killing the wolf, though, he captures it and tries to return it to its ancestral Mexican mountains. While Billy does form a tense communion with the pregnant wolf, she is eventually made the object of commerce and then of bloodsport when they reach Mexico.
In the course of this first adventure, which forms the novel’s first quarter and works as a standalone novella, Billy is disabused of his apparently romantic notions; he sacrifices his innocence as he is forced to sacrifice the wolf lest both continue to be degraded and abused by what the novel, in what we might by application call an Orientalist idiom, implies are the endemic corruptions of Mexican society, here explained in essentialist rather than political terms, though the latter predominated in the more realistic All the Pretty Horses.
In the novel’s second part, Billy wanders north and encounters the first of several of the odd tutors he meets on his journey. In perhaps The Crossing‘s most impressive passage, Billy hears out a hermit, a nihilist who was once a Mormon convert to Catholicism. This hermit has in fact, it is implied, taken the place (in a ruined church) of a prior nihilist hermit who lost most of his family to political and natural violence. The hermit’s lengthy sermon in the theology of meaninglessness is magnificent, obviously meant to serve as this novel’s “Grand Inquisitor” or “Whiteness of the Whale”:
What was here to be found was not a thing. Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to us they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place. And that is what was to be found here. The corrido. The tale. And like all corridos it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell.
Yet The Crossing lacks Dostoevsky’s or Melville’s ideological architecture. Billy is not articulate enough, like Ishmael, to quarrel with any of his tutors, and all the articulate characters speak the same McCarthyite language of grand spiritual exhaustion, languid Ahabs without whales to hunt, or Ivans without even the passionate residue of faith that leads them to hand back their tickets.
What little plot there is comes in nearly a third of the way through the novel when Billy returns to his family farm and discovers his mother and father have been murdered by horse thieves. He rescues his younger brother, Boyd, from his foster family, and they cross to Mexico again to recover the horses.
This quest makes up the especially aimless middle of the novel; the taciturn brothers’ dialogue is a pale shadow of John Grady Cole’s with Lacey Rawlins in the prior book, and the trauma of their loss is evoked as little as was Billy’s motivation in going to Mexico with the wolf in the first place. Wolves, by the way, drop entirely out of the narrative after the first quarter, just as the parents’ murder, despite its melodrama, is little more than a McGuffin. So too is Boyd’s falling in love with a young Mexican girl, another inadequate echo of the much stronger plot of All the Pretty Horses.
The Crossing gains more interest after Boyd is wounded in a skirmish with authorities that causes him to become a kind of folk hero. In the meantime, Billy encounters another grand speechifier: a blind man whose eyes were literally sucked out of his head by a sadist during the Mexican Revolution and who delivers sermons on the truth of blindness:
He said that the light of the world was in men’s eyes only for the world itself moved in eternal darkness and darkness was its true nature and true condition and that in this darkness it turned with perfect cohesion in all its parts but that there was naught there to see. He said that the world was sentient to its core and secret and black beyond men’s imagining and that its nature did not reside in what could be seen or not seen. He said that he could stare down the sun and what use was that?
The scenes where the workers on a cooperative farm care for Boyd, and especially when he is attended by a kind and expert physician, are the novel’s most affirmative moments. Throughout The Crossing, McCarthy supplements his high Faulknerian lyricism with precise and even jargon-heavy descriptions of labor; this is most noticeable in the early passages on wolf-hunting, but in the later scene of the gentle physician’s care for the wounded boy, McCarthy comes near to pronouncing a humanistic credo that honors honest labor in a fallen world:
He took up the bulb and gently washed the wound and swabbed it and took up the silver nitrate stick and gently touched it in the wound. He worked from the top of the wound downward. When he had removed the last hemostat and dropped it into the pan he sat for a moment with both hands over Boyd’s back as if exhorting him to heal.
Eventually, Boyd absconds with his lover and Billy returns to the U.S., where he is refused enlistment in the army during World War II due to a heart murmur. After working for a while in America, he returns to Mexico to find Boyd, which journey quickly turns into a quest for the boy’s remains as he was cut down in battle. In a mordant development, Boyd is remembered by ordinary Mexicans, somewhat erroneously, as a champion of the people.
Based on his public utterances, McCarthy is, politically, some kind of Burkean conservative, but he is plainly fascinated by Mexico as a country where revolutionary and populist hopes remained alive well into the 20th century; that he shows radical memory to be a faulty one, creating heroic episodes from chapters of accident, reads to me less as a bitter satire on the radical imagination than as the wistful lament of a disappointed idealist.
On the note of memories and stories, in the novel’s final quarter, Billy meets a party of gitanos carting a plane out of the mountains. While they pause to help him heal his father’s horse, wounded in yet another skirmish, their leader, like the hermit and the blind man before him, instructs Billy that efforts to impose meaning on the world are futile, that the world is its own meaning, that our stories are not an ideal pattern we impose on them but are simply the movements of our wandering over the face of the earth:
From a certain perspective one might even hazard to say that the great trouble with the world was that that which survived was held in hard evidence as to past events. A false authority clung to what persisted, as if those artifacts of the past which had endured had done so by some act of their own will. Yet the witness could not survive the witnessing. In the world that came to be that which prevailed could never speak for that which perished but could only parade its own arrogance. It pretended symbol and summation of the vanished world but was neither. He said that in any case the past was little more than a dream and its force in the world greatly exaggerated. For the world was made new each day and it was only men’s clinging to its vanished husks that could make of that world one husk more.
The novel stops more than ends, back in America. It ends, after a vision of a misshapen dog that at long last reprises, most bitterly, the wolf theme, when Billy finally, after hundreds of pages of suffering, weeps.
All the Pretty Horses is a perfect novel of its kind, structurally anyway, so it is perhaps unfair to compare The Crossing to it. Yet so much that is there in the first novel of the trilogy is missing from the second, including character motivation, thematic coherence, and historical grounding.
Despite the mentions of the Mexican Revolution and of World War II, The Crossing is a kind of neo-medieval romance set in a dream landscape. Such an aesthetic gesture can work, but cannot, to my mind, be effectively stretched over 426 pages. Why does Billy leave his family anyway? John Grady Cole set forth because his was no country for young men, because his grandfather was dead, his father was dying, his mother was about to sell the ranch, and the age of the cowboy had ended. But Billy has no such historical significance; he has only a family who loves him. His obscure romance with the wolf is never really motivated, and the fact that wolves as materia and as theme disappear from the novel early on only makes his initial motivation all the more inexplicable.
Billy is himself of partial Mexican descent on his mother’s side, so the novel is perhaps implying, with a somewhat conservative emphasis on what runs in the blood, that the intenser landscape of Mexico is where our hot-blooded hero really belongs, the landscape to which he is native, but, again, this is not developed (and is perhaps better not developed). The Parham family murder is a plot contrivance and an over-emphatic thesis statement on the cruel unknowability of the world.
McCarthy’s insistence in this book on the inadequacy of imposed meanings, of stories that are abstractions of events rather than events themselves, is obviously an anticipatory criticism of my own critique. In fact, McCarthy almost seems to be recoiling in disgust at having written such a well-made crowd-pleaser in All the Pretty Horses, as if he wants to rub in his new and enlarged readership’s face the truth that life is not a well-made novel. “Every representation was an idol. Every likeness a heresy,” the gitano, sounding like an avant-garde painter, tells Billy. All the Pretty Horses, though, from its first sentence forward, warns us not to confuse a thing and its image; it is possible to do this, to tell a great story and comment on its terrible limitations. You don’t have to punish readers by taking them on a half-random and half-illogical sojourn whose only resting places harbor garrulous preachers of oblivion.