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Tucson Weekly Plain Speaking

The Long-Awaited Finale To Cormac McCarthy's 'Border Trilogy' Is Another Tribute To The Impossibly Beautiful.

By Jim Carvalho

JULY 20, 1998: 

Cities of the Plain, by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf). Cloth, $24.

By now of course longing has clouded their minds...The simplest truths are obscured. They cannot seem to see that the most elementary fact concerning whores--is that they are whores.

--from Cities of the Plain

IN THE LONG-awaited final installment of his lauded Border Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy unites John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, the heroes of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. The year is 1952. Cole and Parham work for the Cross Fours ranch near Orogrande, New Mexico. The ranch, 50 miles north of El Paso, is soon to be confiscated by the U.S. government for military use.

Cole is the "all-American cowboy," the master horseman. On a visit to La Venada, a Juárez whorehouse, Cole spies a young prostitute and falls in love. Unbeknownst to Cole (and us) she also catches the eye of Eduardo, the alcahuete of the White Lake, a high-priced brothel outside the city. Thus is born this allegorical tale of horses and whores, conflict and tragedy.

McCarthy's always been more wordsmith than storyteller. His language has always been the most important part of his stories, and Cities of the Plain is no exception. The characters and situations he introduces here--a blind maestro, a one-eyed criada, an oily pimp, a pack of feral, calf-killing dogs, a Mexican transient who uses words like "chimera"--invite us to to ponder a full catalog of conflicts including young vs. old, East vs. West, old vs. new, rural vs. urban, superstition vs. reason, dreams vs. reality....

And on everything, in everything, over and under everything, looms Mexico. In the earlier Border books, that's where John Grady lost a lover and where Billy lost a brother, and in Cities of the Plain, it still looms large.

And it's still a mystery. As Billy puts it: I damn sure dont know what Mexico is. I think it's in your head....The first ranchera you hear sung you understand the whole country. By the time you've heard a hundred you dont know nothin. You never will.

Later, Eduardo explains the mystery, and the attraction: Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary. That it contain nothing save what stands before one. But the Mexican world is a world of adornment only and underneath it is very plain indeed. While your world...totters upon an unspoken labyrinth of questions. And we will devour you, my friend. You and all your pale empire.

But in the end, when an American hunting knife is used to forcibly fasten a Mexican's lower jaw to his skull, the imagery concerning U.S.-Mexico relations is as subtle as, well, a hunting knife through the jaw. The U.S. and Mexico are bonded, forever, and even with all the chewing and gnawing, no one's devouring anyone, thank you.

To say McCarthy's writing isn't light is a gross understatement. Some readers--and I place myself in this category--find his writing impossibly beautiful. Others just find it impossible. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, McCarthy's got his own way of doing things. He rarely uses apostrophes in conjunctions, drops the period in most abbreviations, and does away with quotation marks altogether. This last can be troubling in long sections of dialog where who's saying what might not always be apparent. Depending on your mood and personality, McCarthy's two-dictionary vocabulary--he uses procuress, ruff, debauchees, spitalhouse, fard, replevined, rondel, bakelite, and misset in a single paragraph--stands either to fascinate or infuriate.

He uses plenty of Spanish, often in ways that don't lend themselves to translation-by-context, and some of his Spanish vocabulary--filero and quinquagesima, for example--won't be found in staid Castilian dictionaries. He uses run-on sentences when describing the most common of activities, making the mundane truly boring, and critical readers may even catch him using a cliché or two (I suspect these were intentional; McCarthy's too good a writer). But these minor irritations are crushed under the overall impact of his masterful allegory.

In the epilogue to Cities of the Plain, it's the new millennium and Billy Parham is 78 years old. Broke and homeless, he meets another bum, a Mexican. Sitting under a highway overpass in central Arizona, Billy listens to the Mexican's fanciful, long-winded tale of loneliness, human sacrifice, and dreams within dreams. At one point, Billy interrupts his companion's rambling story and utters words that could very well have been directed at McCarthy himself: I think you got a habit of makin things a bit more complicated than what they need to be. Why not just tell the story?

Later, the Mexican explains why: ...in dreams it is often the case that the greatest extravagances seem bereft of their power to astonish and the most improbable chimeras appear commonplace. The Mexican could just as easily have been talking about McCarthy's writing. Like a marathon or a marriage, reading McCarthy is hard work well worth the effort.

Jim Carvalho is the editor and publisher of Border Beat: The Border Arts Journal. Issue 9, "Love and Language," will be available in bookstores, galleries and other select sites in late July.

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