Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Cities of the Plain began life as a screenplay, and it shows. For most of its length, it is bare description and dialogue. While its scene-setting is often concisely vivid and its cowboy conversations laconically witty, it lacks either the lived-in quality of a successful realistic novel or sufficient stylization to justify such mimesis’s absence.
This third volume of the Border Trilogy is the opposite in every way (except for its epilogue) of the second volume. We could even understand them as McCarthy’s divergent responses to having had such a popular and critical success with the Border Trilogy’s first volume, All the Pretty Horses—a masterful novel that, unlike McCarthy’s more difficult prior books, persuasively combines mass appeal with literary seriousness. The 1992 Western gives us a hero’s journey and a tragic romance, complete with passionate love scenes and brutal combat sequences, while also probing the boundary between nature and culture and the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
If All the Pretty Horses is less despairing than its 1985 predecessor, the notoriously ultraviolent Blood Meridian, it nevertheless earns its sincere praise of heroism by confronting its hero with truly hopeless odds in an indifferent universe. (I read Blood Meridian itself as a humanist and perhaps even Christian novel, dissenting from those critics who see its gnostic, war-worshipping villain, Judge Holden, as the author’s mouthpiece. Even if the world as McCarthy portrays it is evil, his novels still suggest that humans have a capacity, neglected as it is, to be good.)
But The Crossing, the 1994 sequel to All the Pretty Horses, reads almost like McCarthy’s apology for having written a popular novel. It is long, plotless, dense, and full of visionary if nihilistic disquisitions, a Western hallucination equal parts Beckett and Dostoevsky. It returns to the mode of Blood Meridian, but lacks even that novel’s liveliness of nihilation. The cinematic Cities of the Plain, on the other hand, is an apology for the apology: a briskly-written pop Western that rewrites All the Pretty Horses‘s tragic love story and gruesome knife fight sans any complicating thematic and ideological gestures.
The plot is as simple as it gets. It is 1952, and John Grady Cole (from All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (from The Crossing) are working together on a ranch near the border run by a kindly man named Mac whose beloved wife has just died. The young John Grady’s preternatural horsemanship continues to marvel all who know him (he tells a colleague, “A good horse has justice in his heart”), and, despite Mac’s grief, the lives of these vaqueros seem idyllic, all the more because of their bittersweet awareness that their territory will soon be requisitioned by the state and that the cowboy way will soon vanish forever.
The novel’s own particular catastrophe, standing in for the closure of the West at large, comes when John Grady Cole falls in love with a teenaged prostitute (or, really, captive) in a Juarez brothel over the border. Her name is Magdalena (get it?), and she has epilepsy, which makes her even more vulnerable to the attentions of the pimp Eduardo. We are briefly told of her horrifying background, which begins when she “had been sold at the age of thirteen to settle a gambling debt.” A blind pianist informs Cole that Magdalena is too good for this world—
My belief is that she is at best a visitor. At best. She does not belong here. Among us.
Yessir. I know she dont belong here.
No, said the blind man. I do not mean in this house. I mean here. Among us.
—but the boy hero, ever Quixotic, is undeterred and sets out to rescue her from the cruel Eduardo. It is possible to be too cynical about the adolescent male rescue fantasy at work here, especially when combined with the title’s Biblical judgment against corrupt carnality; but McCarthy’s critique of sex trafficking and his commendation of attentive love over transactional lust seem like worthy enough moral priorities for a novel, if not totally uncontestable. And the naïveté of John Grady’s plan is defeated most brutally by McCarthy’s tragic narrative design.
The problem, however, is that the characters are almost completely emblematic, to the point of stereotype. They might as well have labels as names—Kindly Old Rancher, Cruel Mexican Pimp—and Magdalena’s name is a label. I am not even sure this is good screenwriting, let alone good fiction writing, though perhaps actors would flesh out the thin characterization in performance.
This actor-enhancement happens in McCarthy’s 2013 film with director Ridley Scott, The Counselor, which I find a more satisfying narrative than Cities of the Plain. Penélope Cruz adds to a Magdalena-type abused innocent a winning charm, and Cameron Diaz’s blonde beast of a villain is far more interesting than the campy, oleaginous Eduardo—not least because McCarthy is, in The Counsellor, at least reversing a stereotype rather than upholding one when he shows the white norteamericana to be the predator battening on a good Latina. McCarthy here flips the old tradition in the Anglo-American novel of contrasting a good woman who is fair and blonde with a bad woman who has dark hair, eyes, and even skin.
In my review of All the Pretty Horses, I criticized the critics who found its depiction of Mexico simplistic and dualistic, but Mexico really does appear in Cities of the Plain as a hell-heaven of endemic violence coupled with inexplicable goodness. Billy Parham recalls the hospitality he’d found in the country on his titular crossing:
You could see that the revolution hadnt done them no good. […] They didnt have no reason to be hospitable to anybody. Least of all a gringo kid. That plateful of beans they set in front of you was hard come by. But I was never turned away. Not a time.
But it is not only the brothel where Magdalena is imprisoned but also the Revolution itself that testifies to the land’s senseless brutality, as Mr. Johnson, Mac’s father-in-law, recalls:
There were thousands who went to war in the only suits they owned. Suits in which they’d been married and in which they would be buried. Standing on the streets in their coats and ties and hats behind the upturned carts and bales and firing their rifles like irate accountants. And the small artillery pieces on wheels that scooted backwards in the street at every round and had to be retrieved and the endless riding of horses to their deaths bearing flags or banners or the tentlike tapestries painted with portraits of the Virgin carried on poles into battle as if the mother of God herself were authoress of all that calamity and mayhem and madness.
McCarthy, a believer in incorrigible nature and individual (not collective) goodness, can be expected to distrust revolution on classically conservative Burkean grounds, but All the Pretty Horses showed a greater political acuity than the above. As for Eduardo, who claims to speak for Mexico as against the overweening north, the less said about his sleek and oily head and his silk shirt, the better. On the other hand, it is undeniably fascinating to read a trio of U.S. novels that represents the Mexican Revolution—a blank for most Americans—as the germinal event of the 20th century.
There are moments throughout Cities of the Plain that recall its predecessors’ glories, especially when it comes to McCarthy’s reverence for the dramatic landscape with its
pictographs upon the rimland boulders that bore images of hunter and shaman and meetingfires and desert sheep all picked into the rock a thousand years and more.
And there are affecting grace notes throughout, especially at the novel’s tragic conclusion. When Billy finds John Grady dead, we read a plangent, simple line worthy of Tolstoy:
The boy lay with his face turned away from the light. His eyes were open. Billy called to him. As if he could not have gone far.
I mentioned that Cities of the Plain does not resemble The Crossing until its epilogue. There, McCarthy recapitulates the narrative mode of the earlier novel. The novel jumps into the future: it is 2002 and Billy Parham, now 78, is drifting in and out of homelessness, when he meets another drifter who tells him an obscure story about a dream he had about a traveler’s dream. The drifter’s complex narration inspires Billy to protest, in a line that reflects the screenplay-mode of the rest of the book:
I think you got a habit of makin things a bit more complicated than what they need to be. Why not just tell the story?
But this narrator has philosophical ambitions. The point of his recursive tale seems to be twofold. First, the world is a fated and fatalistic place, and we cannot escape our destiny (the implication is that John Grady was always already fated to die for his idealism):
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.
Second, the stories we tell about the world are also part of the world and help to weave the fabric of its fate. We are punished for our idealism, but it is also our strength, our glory, our justification:
These dreams reveal the world also, he said. We wake remembering the events of which they are composed while often the narrative is fugitive and difficult to recall. Yet it is the narrative that is the life of the dream while the events themselves are often interchangeable. The events of the waking world on the other hand are forced upon us and the narrative is the unguessed axis along which they must be strung. It falls to us to weigh and sort and order these events. It is we who assemble them into the story which is us. Each man is the bard of his own existence. This is how he is joined to the world. For escaping from the world’s dream of him this is at once his penalty and his reward.
This fatal metaphysic of narrative, which explains McCarthy’s suspicion of such modern writers as James and Proust, takes us back before the novel to the aesthetics of Greek tragedy. Yet there is a danger in treating the complexities of modern fiction as merely disposable in a climate where oversimplification is the hallmark of stultifying popular entertainment: you may strip away Jamesian or Proustian obliquity and find that you have created not a Sophoclean tragedy but a schlocky B-movie. For this dubious achievement, success is at once McCarthy’s penalty and his reward.