The Short Version: John Grady Cole, a young Texas cowboy, suddenly finds himself disinherited and so he sets off with his best friend for Mexico. Along the way, they meet another young man and a beautiful girl and John Grady starts to slowly see the world moving on, away from what he thought he understood.
The Review: That’s a pretty vague synopsis, I know… I guess I just didn’t want to call it a bildungsroman. Even though that’s what it is, really. The book, at its heart, is the story of a young man finding his way in the world. But because it’s a McCarthy novel, it’s about so much more than that as well. It’s about, as Stephen King’s gunslinger would put it, the world moving on. Set in the 40s down in Texas and Mexico, it’s about the last days of a way of life. John Grady Cole is an anomaly – a man out of time, watching as the world he thought he understood and the only way of life he ever wanted to be a part of fades away in a haze of technology and forward progress.
It’s no coincidence that the final trek of the novel, when John Grady is returning to the States, is marked by so much technology. The image of the boy on horseback, leading two/three other horses, and running up against buses or navigating a road with cars while trying to keep the horses calm… it’s such a sad image, that idea of the last cowboy – and John Grady fits the image perfectly.
It’s hard not to read this book and think of No Country for Old Men – the book and the film. Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin just have voices that fit McCarthy’s dry Western philosophizing and I couldn’t help but twist most of the voices from this book into some variation on the theme of their voices. But there’s something more about having that movie in your mind while reading this book. It’s rare that a film adaptation is so well done, obviously – but it’s arguably unique to see a film so accurately capture the spirit of nearly ALL of an author’s work. (The Sunset Limited & The Road are the anomalies in this canon, I suppose.) That feeling of dryness. Hopelessness. If there’s anybody who truly embodies existentialism in the modern age, it’s McCarthy. He gets despair. But also never addresses the Camusian question of suicide, except in that his heroes often do something incredibly stupid because it is the right thing to do. Look at Llewelyn in No Country, returning with the water for the dying man. Look at John Grady, going back after the horses in this book. It’s that simplicity of thought that makes McCarthy so unforgettable as a writer: this is a world in which right and wrong may have many shadings but in which they both certainly exist and all too clearly at that.
The other thing that will forever clearly denote to you that you’re in a McCarthy novel is his lack of most punctuation. That’s exaggerating – but he doesn’t use quotation marks and rarely uses apostrophes. This always, always takes me some getting used to. Much like seeing Shakespeare: you have to settle into the rhythm. No matter how quickly you slip into it, you’re still moving out of your own regular comfort zone. I was also struck, if not surprised, by the amount of Spanish in the book. It wasn’t like Oscar Wao where you could sort of pick up on the slang terms and by the end of it you had a working translation happening in your head. This was hardcore straight-up espagnol, no translation provided. Sure, you could decipher the context within a page or so… but there were conversations that occurred in this book that I did not comprehend. I feel like this, too, says something about the unique and philosophical experience of reading McCarthy.
I suppose I should speak to the plot itself again, having diverted from that discussion so quickly. It’s quite simple, really: John Grady, seeking a new life, leaves home and heads for Mexico, fixing to find some work there. Not surprisingly, he ends up in a bit of trouble – in more ways than one. His relationship with the girl is not surprising, of course. I’ve never seen the film but I assume that’s what the film focuses on and that’s a shame. We know, from moment one, that it’s a bad idea and that it will not end well. Rawlins, John Grady’s friend, says this quite a number of times. In that naively simple McCarthyian hero way, however, John Grady nods his head and continues on, course set straight for hell. But then, we’ve all been there. The girl we can’t have – the one who then we get… and who we can’t keep. The ghost in you, she don’t fade.
I’ve been wrestling quite a bit recently with what, for me, is the big theme of this book (and which I’ve been rambling at for some time now): the end of the frontier. The TEAM, a theater company in New York, did a show called Mission Drift that tackled this theme (in a sprawling, messy-as-hell way) and McCarthy’s writing about that too. We reached the west coast, we subdued the plains… The wilderness is not so wild anymore, even for a city boy. Perhaps its my blood, I don’t know – I’ve never been entirely comfortable in a city. Perhaps its just that I grew up camping and only now can I appreciate it. But what does it mean that there are, for all intents and purposes, no frontiers left for Americans? Sure, we can map the oceans – but we can’t go there. We can trek into the jungles – but there are few places left and why would we want to subject them to the same tragedies we inflicted on the rest of our natural resources? And we’ve clearly given up on space, even as telescopes are starting to prove that the Star Trek-ian “frontier” is all too real. John Grady Cole rides off into the sunset at the end of the book without a plan, unsure of where he’s heading or what he’ll do when he gets there – and it’s because he’s a man adrift in a world that has developed beyond him. Things were changing so fast then that, when his future was taken out from under him, it was nearly impossible to find a new one. It’s not a hopeful ending (although it is also not a sad one, let me be clear).
Rating: 4 out of 5. There is something so uniquely American about Cormac McCarthy that reading one of his books is akin to waking up in a tent out West, clear skies above you and fresh air around you. But, increasingly, that America is disappearing. In one way or another. And that’s what McCarthy is eulogizing: the end of the frontier. His prose is clean and beautiful, like Hemingway’s, and if it rambles on and gets a little boring at times…. well, that’s just like life, isn’t it? ‘One always finds one’s burden again.’