Cities of the Plain

Cormac McCarthy, 1998

As soon as I had completed The Crossing I took a five minute breather to process the heavy and sorrowful end to that poetic work. Once the exhalations of my breather were fully processed I immediately picked up Cities of the Plain to tackle the third work in McCarthy’s trilogy because The Crossing was a fantastic work and I wanted more.

Notably, I made this quick transition because I was stuck on an airplane traveling from New Mexico to my home in San Francisco. Looking out the plane window, the clear blue sky of the day below me revealed the expansive emptiness of the dusty New Mexico highland desert that framed the setting of these novels. I had purposefully chosen to read these two books during my visit to my mother’s new home in Belen, New Mexico in order to get a taste for the setting of McCarthy’s works. Although my mom’s suburban style track-home is nothing reminiscent of McCarthy’s parched western world of the 1940’s, the surrounding landscape we visited was exactly as I had pictured it. New Mexico is a unique land, open, dry, and poor in resources. During the visit we drove for miles and miles to view ruins and one-road-towns. It is a solitary land filled with honest and friendly folk. There is something special in that land that has gifted McCarthy with heavenly inspiration.

With that said, after having finished Cities of the Plain my first impression was that it wasn’t as compelling as The Crossing. Taken on its own it is not a spectacular book. Cities of the Plain has some great moments depicting the cowboy friendship of John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, and McCarthy is a master at making mundane chores seemingly ethereal and hypnotic, but the plot is scripted with a predictable ending that was foreseeable from the moment John Grady Cole laid eyes on the second love of his life, a young Mexican prostitute. However, taken with consideration of the events detailed in All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, Cities of the Plain is succinct and perfect end note to the romantic and poetically solemn Borders Trilogy. Both John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham from The Crossing are several years older and in this third novel it is apparent how their personal experiences in the prior novels has shaped them to the men they become.

The novel is notably distinct in that the action is primarily dialogue, a departure from the beautifully descriptive narrative of both All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. I believe that this stylistic departure was intentional to represent the changes in the men. In both All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing John Grady and Billy are teenagers exploring the wilderness of the borders between two lands as well as the borders of their relationship to themselves and humanity. These experiences warrant McCarthy’s poetic narrative to depict the internal conflict of discovering beauty in a cruel and impartial world. In The Cities of the Plain both Billy and John Grady have settled in a working man’s life, albeit a cowboy’s life, but one that is less solitary or wandersome as was their youth, and more dependent upon the relationships of their fellow cowhands. It is because of this change in character that McCarthy changes the narrative style for this third book.

Only towards the end of the book after the enjoyably descriptive and talkative knife fight between John Grady and the pimp Eduardo does Cities of the Plain begin to resemble the narrative and philosophical descriptiveness of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. The climatic action mirrors the experiences of those prior books with John Grady sacrificing his talent and promise for an unattainable love and Billy attempting to right the wrong only to lose what he holds dear to himself in the effort. It seems that the theme of the Borders Trilogy is that life’s paths are curtailed by destiny and the following passage best describes McCarthy’s intentions in placing these characters in the circumstances that mirror the tribulations of their youth:

“Men speak of blind destiny, a thing without scheme or purpose. But what sort of destiny is that? Each act in the world from which there can be no turning back has before it another, and it another yet. In a vast and endless net. Men imagine that the choices before them are theirs to make. But we are free to act only upon what is given. Choice is lost in the maze of generations and each act in that maze is itself enslavement for it voids every alternative and bids one ever more tightly into the constraints that make life.” (195)

The entire Borders Trilogy is a masterful work, one that I know I’ll turn to some time again, for in its pages there are many mysteries and beauties to be reexamined.

On a lighter note, this guy Jason over at goodreads wrote a fantastic farcical review of this book that I recommend you read for the pure enjoyment of it.


About hardlyregistered

The meandering observations of a 30 something guy.
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One Response to Cities of the Plain

  1. Pingback: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh | HardlyWritten

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