Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Hit and Myth

By Tim McGivern

JUNE 29, 1998: 

Cormac McCarthy's Cities of the Plain

Folks finally caught on to El Paso writer Cormac McCarthy in 1992, with the best-selling success of his sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses, making McCarthy no longer the greatest living American writer that nobody ever heard of. Columbia Pictures has even marked $100 million for filming Horses this year and reportedly had the highest bid out on the final installment to the author's "Border Trilogy," Cities of the Plain, before it was even published.

Cities of the Plain should be a best-selling sendoff, since it seems the author heeded the critical reviews of its predecessors that generally agreed the old-fashioned narrative of All the Pretty Horses endeared and captivated, but character Billy Parham's adventures in The Crossing, the following installment, were a bit overwrought with long-winded characters who mused on McCarthy's favorite themes of loss, exile and nature's indifference to humankind.

The design of Cities of the Plain can still easily be seen as a hybrid of the first two. The primary storyline follows John Grady's love for a 16-year-old epileptic prostitute that Fate insists he pursue at any cost. However, talk of the aging cowboy livelihood, vignettes about horse traders, a dog hunt, a shoeshine boy and the ramblings of a hobo living under an overpass on an Arizona highway still comprise a good part of the book. Billy Parham fits the role as John Grady's loyal sidekick. Likewise, Billy, at 27, sees Grady as a replacement for his lost little brother. Together, they roam the terrain between Mac McGovern's ranch in Orogrande, N.M., and the streets and brothels of Juarez.

Perhaps too much time is spent listening to ranch hands who fear progress will someday devour their simplified existence. Unfortunately, countless other works in print and film (remember Butch Cassidy and his bicycle) have pretty much said all there is to say on the theme. At times it reads more like some commendation to Louis L'Amour, Larry McMurtry and especially Max Evans than original storytelling. We learn that Mac and one other ranch hand share the same memories of a violent past, dead relative, lost love and general loneliness as John Grady and Billy have experienced. The cowboy mythology understandably has a place in the story, but often it just sounds cliché--which is a bit puzzling, since the uncompromised language and unsentimental tales of life in Tennessee in McCarthy's first four novels are what earned him a small, devout following in the first place.

More interesting in Cities of the Plain are the machinations of John Grady. It's only been two years since he rode into the sunset at the end of Horses, and at 19, he hasn't changed a bit. He finds himself in very similar straits actually, when his love for a Mexican girl is thwarted by a controlling father figure, which leads roundabout to his implication in a murder. There is also the same reverence for his supreme horsemanship (he identifies a mare's bruised hoof just by looking at her ear) and relentless honesty. Still, those virtues match equally against that mule-headed determination to challenge obstacles beyond his control.

John Grady's idealism is what makes his character mythical, what instills McCarthy's belief that a man's stubbornness cannot suppress the laws of pre-determination. It's a formula seen from Hamlet to Huckleberry Finn, and it still works. Since McCarthy remains true to form, Cities of the Plain offers the same imaginative pleasures as All the Pretty Horses, even though the tear-jerking hokum does at times seem overdone. Besides, McCarthy deserves the attention of being one of America's finest writers based on the magnitude of his work, even if it is 30 years overdue. ?

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