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Cities of the Plain: Border Trilogy (3) Paperback – May 25, 1999
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In this magnificent new novel, the National Book Award-winning author of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing fashions a darkly beautiful elegy for the American frontier.
The setting is New Mexico in 1952, where John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are working as ranch hands. To the North lie the proving grounds of Alamogordo; to the South, the twin cities of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. Their life is made up of trail drives and horse auctions and stories told by campfire light. It is a life that is about to change forever, and John Grady and Billy both know it.
The catalyst for that change appears in the form of a beautiful, ill-starred Mexican prostitute. When John Grady falls in love, Billy agrees--against his better judgment--to help him rescue the girl from her suavely brutal pimp. The ensuing events resonate with the violence and inevitability of classic tragedy. Hauntingly beautiful, filled with sorrow, humor and awe, Cities of the Plain is a genuine American epic.
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In the historic calendar of western Christianity, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday - the beginning of Lent - is known as Quinquagesima (50 days). From antiquity the church has assigned an episode from the life of Christ as recorded in Luke chapter 18 to be read on that day. Here, in so many words, Jesus tells his disciples that it's time for his work to end; he will go to Jerusalem, confront evil and be killed. For their part, the disciples fail to grasp his meaning, though the fault it would seem is not entirely their own. Luke writes, "This saying was hidden from them."
Throughout his Border Trilogy, McCarthy has been examining the nature of things which are unable to ever be fully known, things hidden from view. Those things which, despite our inability to put a name to them or our best failed attempts to measure them, possess an ancient power. "Immanence" is what the ancients came to call it: the thought that a thing can somehow be real in the world and yet transcend that world. The idea has been troubling the minds of mystics of every progressive culture for at least five millennia, if the record is to be believed. From Abraham through Hesiod and Homer, first-century Buddhist holy men, through the ante-Nicene Fathers up through Spinoza and finding its way into the lyrics of Tom Waits. Things which are even if you can't quite put a finger on them. Cormac McCarthy captures this spirit with an eloquence rarely witnessed in American letters.
"A man was coming down the road driving a donkey piled high with firewood. In the distance the churchbells had begun. The man smiled at him a sly smile. As if they knew a secret between them, these two. Something of age and youth and their claims and the justice of those claims. And of the claims upon them. The world past, the world to come. Their common transiencies. Above all a knowing deep in the bone that beauty and loss are one."
Just prior to that incident in Cities of the Plain, John Grady has left a Mexican bordello where he has - he is convinced - found love. It is characteristic of the Border Trilogy that characters cross boundaries both geographic and mythic, leading to encounters both real and transcendent of reality. Transgression, by definition, is the result: borders crossed that must otherwise remain inviolate.
And one begins to question whether this miracle of a writer is going soft; McCarthy's view in Cities of the Plain is an unapologetic and steadily backward gaze at a world that once was, though perhaps, in reality, a world that never was and could never be. The novel is surely his most romantic work, inhabited by a protagonist resolved to fulfill a calling, quixotic as it may be. What calling? Beauty and its redemption from that which would corrupt it into something unrecognizable. In other hands this would turn into unbearable melodrama. McCarthy lets it be what it is, and lets the wheels of his characteristically dark-hearted mill grind out its result with the material it's fed.
And so John Grady sets out, determined to free a Mexican prostitute - Magdalena, by name - take her to wife, and set up home in the Jarilla hills of west Texas. His heroism, in a decidedly Greek cast, is marked by the sense that perishing in battle for a noble cause is a fate preferable than that of having one's convictions called into question after death.
Hamlet's admonition to Horatio - "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy" - echoes here, as McCarthy balances masterfully the slow burn of a Texas ranch hand attending to the mundane, yet all the while permeating this with the understanding that more vital matters await. Indeed, once John Grady's rescue plan has been hatched the intervening episodes transition into that inevitable ticking clock of subject-verb-object prose. Sentence after sentence the likes of "he swipes the plate with the last of the tortilla and eats it and takes his breakfast dishes to the sink". Time passes audibly. The cowboy's "almost blunted purpose" is palpable. McCarthy stokes the urge to jump up from one's chair in frustration and shout at the book "go get the girl already", though the suspicion - if not the knowledge - is strong of where that will lead.
And so we are left with the quite intentional imagery of Quinquagesima Sunday, the final preparation of the devout for the hell about to be unleashed upon both the evil and the just, of lambs led to slaughter.
The urge to ask why the world is this way is nearly as old as the world itself. McCarthy's encouragement here comes with the act of dogged perseverance that marks those who inhabit his worlds. In Cities of the Plain it is clear through their actions that the desire is strong in these characters for those things which might represent order , yet the writing is never sentimental. The naturalism of McCarthy's prose provides us with characters of a hard reality, men familiar with suffering, women acquainted with grief. Characters caught in the insularity of an impersonal universe, a persistent, dark night of the soul, but one marked by fleeting sparks of light of an ineluctable beauty.
There is so much in this universe, which despite our righteous desire to uncover its meaning, can only be known when it is set to be known, set to be revealed. Only a fool would set himself to believe otherwise. Highly recommended.
Cormac could write a book about ice melting and it would be fabulous. He is truly a master of written word and I wish he could write l faster. "Cities of the Plain" is the last in the Border Trilogy and it, like the first two, is mesmerizing. It follows the experiences of the same characters introduced in the first two book until the end of their era of ranching and wide open spaces. The youngest of the group finds love in a prostitute and attempts to make his dream of a life with her a reality in spite of the warnings he receives from his adopted family of fellow cowboys. He puts everything on the line to build a future for them and stays true to his character up until the end.
The writing is so good you don't realize you are reading a book.McCarthy takes you into a place in your mind where you can sit back and watch the action taking place with characters you have come to know and identify with. He is truly a master of his craft and this trilogy is just one example of this fact. A must read.