The Short Version: Billy Parham, with his father and younger brother, sets out to trap a wolf in New Mexico. After capturing the wolf, he strikes south and brings it back to Mexico, where it came from – but while he’s there, he’s faced with a serious reckoning that sets his life spinning off in a strange direction. Eventually, he finds his way back to the States only to find his parents dead and so he and his brother set off to find the killers. By the time their journey is done, both Billy and Boyd will never be the same – cowboys in a world that has moved on.
The Review: It’s almost counterproductive to summarize these Cormac McCarthy novels. I struggled over that summary for quite some time, trying to do the novel justice but also to make it seem… well, interesting. For this is, by any stretch, a rather dull book. But that also doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad one. Not necessarily, anyway.
The thing about a McCarthy novel – and this applies to the three I’ve read before this, without exception – is that they’re quite often about the feeling of the novel as opposed to what’s actually on the page. I’d say The Road is the only one that potentially excepts that rule. The other novels, which are all set on the border of the US and Mexico, contain scenes of sheer beauty and of gripping violence but mostly there’s a feeling you have by the end that doesn’t seem to’ve come from any specific moment within. It’s as though McCarthy was doing something else, between the lines or between the pages, that cast a sort of spell over your heart.
SPOILERS A-COMING. The plot of the novel is relatively straightforward: three crossings South, all of them with tragic consequences. Billy heads South with the wolf and, in perhaps the most affecting scene of the entire novel, is forced to put it down after it was captured and put to sport by some truly nasty Mexican ranchers. Then, Billy heads down again with his brother, after his parents are (seemingly randomly) murdered in cold blood. They ostensibly are seeking the horses that were stolen – presumably to find the murderers – but really it just seems like they didn’t have any other option. It ends with Boyd shot and disappearing off with a young girl – and Billy is alone again. Finally, he crosses back again to find his brother – and finds him dead, the girl gone, and all hope just about extinguished.
Much like with All the Pretty Horses, the final feeling of the novel is a sort of numb sadness. Melancholy, I think you could call it. Watching Billy listlessly wander around the Southern U.S. for a few years, while the war rages in Europe and Asia, is so numbly sad that it makes you want to cry but you can’t because it’s just so numbing. Same with the end: Billy, headed back North, runs off a mangy dog and then regrets his decision because, I think, he realizes he’s alone. And then the sun rises, as it does, no matter what. That last line is just a knife into your already saddened gut: it is hopelessness. Despair. True existential crisis shit.
The thing about this novel, though, is that it goes on too damn long. The emotions in the novel – and those provoked by it – are far more flattened than its predecessor and while I found several moments laugh-out-loud entertaining (usually dialogue between the two brothers, captured as only a sibling can understand), I mostly found that there were few peaks or valleys here. There was quite a bit more Spanish and a significant amount of mini-stories, told by various cameo characters, that seemed to preach some sort of moral lesson but were for the most part just rather boring. It was all, in this sense, very life-like.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I don’t really know what else to say. It was a bit of a slog to get through this book and there were times I considered putting it down. I’m not even all that ashamed to say that I found myself skimming the parables and the Spanish sections and not really missing much. I will, undoubtedly, pick up Cities of the Plain because a) I already bought it and b) it’s shorter and c) I’d like to see what happens when John Grady and Billy meet up… but it feels almost masochistic. I feel so cold and sad inside at the end of a McCarthy novel, as though the candle of hope was snuffed out, that I want to balance it out with something happy and popcorn-y. Of course, that’s what makes the man’s writing so damn effective, I suppose.