Cities of the Plain (The Border Trilogy, Book Three)

cities of the plainThe Short Version: Some ten years after The Crossing, Billy Parham has met up with John Grady Cole working on a ranch in southern New Mexico.  The world is inexorably moving on from the cowboy way of life but they, along with a handful of others, make do.  But when John Grady falls in love with a Mexican prostitute, both men must cross back into the wild country that they roamed as younger men.

The Review: Now here it is.  The sometimes slow and even dare-I-say boring moments in the first two novels were all worth it, just to get to know Billy and John Grady – because those entry novels allow you to enter into this novel smoothly, without any need for background.  You could read this novel without having read the first two novels of the trilogy… but you’d be missing something.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON…

You wouldn’t know that John Grady had already been in a knife fight, in prison in Mexico.  You wouldn’t know that Billy Parham had already lost a younger brother to that wild country south of the border.  You wouldn’t know that John Grady Cole is the sort of stupid romantic who’d already fallen dangerously for a girl in Mexico and nearly lost his damn life over it.

And you wouldn’t feel that strange and unique sense of joy that comes from seeing two characters from separate novels come together in a third, continuing their stories together.  It’s rare, in non-serialized fiction, for that sort of crossover to happen at all, let alone work well.  But it’s almost as though McCarthy, having dispensed with the preliminaries and the backstories, was now ready to let the story tell itself – cleanly, leanly, and gorgeously.

The book has almost no fat on it, at all.  I’d argue that the extended sequence of the cowboys heading out to run down a pack of wild dogs is perhaps unnecessarily or it could’ve at least been trimmed – but that also may be because violence towards dogs is something I have a very difficult time with.  Even wild, undomesticated animals who were praying on livestock.  I won’t deny that the sequence was deftly written, in that spare violent minimalism that McCarthy so excels in… but it felt like an interlude where most of the rest of the novel is plot.

Well, I say plot.  It’s all rather simple, really.  There’s the predictable scenes of cowboy life, facing off against the encroaching military base and the encroaching technological boom – and then, in not terribly surprising fashion, we see John Grady fall in love.  Of course, where Alejandra was high-class and upper-crust, Magdelena is a whore.  She’s sweet and young – and epileptic – but she’s a prostitute.  It’s “Roxanne” syndrome and you know, from the moment the plot is introduced, that it cannot end well.

And so the trials and tribulations of John Grady attempting to woo and then buy away this girl go on.  He fixes up a little cottage, plays chess, ignores good advice, but mostly life just proceeds apace and before you know it something’s happened.  And that’s where the true beauty of McCarthy’s novel arrives.  And my god, it is as beautiful as watching a storm move across an open plain at night – the poetic violence of the lightning strike, the soft whisper of the rain, the simple serenity of things greater than ourselves.

When John Grady sets out on his wedding day and things go wrong – Magdelena doesn’t show up – the reader knows, instinctively, that the darkness that has been hovering on the edge (it is McCarthy, after all) moves in fast.  When she turns up dead, he goes after Eduardo, her pimp – and their confrontation is breath-taking.  I missed my stop on the train last night because I was so rapturously caught up in the poetry of violence that was about to unfold.  I saw a younger Javier Bardem step out of the shadows and reveal his knife, facing off against some still-soft-faced young heartthrob of an actor… and I heard that silky, sonorous, menacing voice lilt out these threats.  The flash of the knife, like lightning strikes in the dark.  The pain.  The sickening beauty of it all.  And the last scene between John Grady and Billy is, right now, nearly twelve hours later, making me choke up.  The image of Billy walking through town carrying the body of his surrogate younger brother – another, taken by that land – will stay with me for a long, long time.

And then McCarthy takes an odd turn.  He’s always been an existentialist, a philosopher in cowboy boots… but I wasn’t expecting it so blatantly here.  I was already quite sad and then the epilogue, with a 78-year-old Billy Parham homeless at the turn of the millenium… I lost it.  I just felt so incredibly overwhelmingly sad at the thought of this honorable, heroic man – the last vanguard of an age long passed out of this world – eating diner crackers under a blanket under an overpass in Texas on a cold winter’s night.  It is heart-rending.  And then a strange figure appears, like something out of a Bergman film.  Billy believes he’s Death, although it’s obviously left up in the air, and they talk for a long time, telling stories and philosophy… and then Billy ends up taken in by a nice family and the mother, comforting him after a nightmare, is like a match lit down a tunnel.  A flare of hope, that not all is lost in this world.

Rating: 5+ out of 5.  This book has all of McCarthy’s positive points and few of the negative.  It is so sad and so melacholic – but with a spark, just a spark of hope.  Perhaps more than a spark, actually.  While John Grady’s quest for love does not end particularly well, his burning ardent passionate romanticism shows that, well, people do dumb things for love and it might be a fairy tale to imagine someone dying for love… but it’s also, well, damn romantic in a way.  And the older Billy, having been taken in, leaves us a note – just a single note – of hope on the way out.  But don’t worry about the sorrow of the novel – come for the beauty that suffuses it, even in its saddest moments.  It is a terrific achievement.

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