I actually read McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” over the course of three years, and I wrote short commentaries and observations after I finished each of them. Here, I’ve collected the mostly unedited Shelfari postings I wrote, which show my up-and-down, fascinated-then-bored, happy-then-depressed, rewarded-then-aggravated journey through the 1,000-plus pages of prose that compose Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.
All the Pretty Horses
McCarthy is truly an American master, and his prose–particularly the prose dealing with everything non-human, from landscape to animals–is magnificent in “All the Pretty Horses.” But, while this book appears to be the novel for which McCarthy was recognized with awards and showered with early mainstream attention, it pales in comparison to early works like “Child of God” and later works like “No Country For Old Men.” Though beautiful and interesting, it is missing the haunting quality of his other novels (perhaps because this book is much less dark than other works…which might be the primary reason for its acceptance into the mainstream).
McCarthy’s “The Crossing” is epic and poignant in a way that (I think) “All the Pretty Horses” was not. It spans such a long time period, covers so much of Billy Parham’s life, and ties everything together through three crossings over Mexico’s border. Only the final crossing achieves anything, and–as Parham says–it turned out not to be what he wanted anyway.
Ultimately, this is a haunting and sad novel, one that I was not enthusiastic to read (given my take on “Horses,” which I felt to be mediocre in the McCarthy canon), well worth the read. Sometimes it is slow and trudging, as when it focuses upon the country men and women that Parham meets, each who has a different tale. There is a strong fascination with folklore in this book, how tales can twist and turn from our imagination and gain a life of their own…how once-real events can become legends…how innocent listeners can be so quickly and easily duped by an oral story. But some of these stories last so long, and the reading feels laborious.
Each McCarthy book I read, though, offers me something new as a writer myself. In this case, I marveled at the quickness of the violence and tried to understand how McCarthy could make something happen so quickly, and without any obviousness. A horse stabbed, a man shot, etc. He’ll tuck the violent act into the middle of a sentence, sometimes including two or three other actions in the exact same sentence so that the reader is picturing something else entirely, unaware of what we’ll read in just moments…Brilliant.
This book is long and sometimes very difficult, especially with all the Spanish, but it is remarkable. Definitely one that you’ll spend time with. Definitely one with the power to depress. Rewarding, though.
Cities of the Plain, and Final Thoughts on the Trilogy
Strangely, while I love Cormac McCarthy’s later work (“No Country For Old Men,” “The Road”) and his early work (“Child of God” is a classic), I found The Border Trilogy to be tedious, boring, and even a bit forced. There are moments in each of these books–“All the Pretty Horses,” “The Crossing,” and “Cities of the Plain”–that stand out in the lyricism of the prose, the depth of the characterization, and even the height of their drama and conflict. The dog-hunting scene, for instance, is incredible and excruciating, all at once.
But too often in this trilogy, McCarthy drifts into extended stories within stories, and the themes just feel too blatant, too (as I said above) forced. We’ll veer off course from the narrative to listen to some old man in Mexico talk about the spiritual nature of this or that, and ten pages later, we’ll wonder why we’re still reading about it. It’s almost like the U.S.S. Indianapolis story from “Jaws,” but replayed every fifteen pages or so.
“Cities of the Plain,” I thought, was the best work in the trilogy, if only because it took two unconnected narratives (Billy Parham and John Grady Cole, from the first two books) and found a way to weave them together, ultimately showing the heartbreaking end for both characters, and for the way of life that they had always wanted to pursue (but never really could). When it’s moving, really rolling, we start to make the sort of grandiose statements that you see on book jackets (“McCarthy is a genius!”), but when it’s stalled, we wonder why we would ever proclaim the man a genius.
He’s a great writer, and “Cities of the Plain” is worth reading, but I still get the impression that he could have made them a lot more streamlined, a lot more coherent, and the awards McCarthy reaped from the Border Trilogy are less a reflection of these particular works, and more a sort of lifetime achievement award, a “Sorry we didn’t appreciate your earlier stuff!” consolation prize.