One Last Crossing with Cormac McCarthy: A Review of Cities of the Plain

We got John Grady and Billy Parham back for the last crossing. John Grady was the romantically-inclined teenaged horse whisperer from All the Pretty Horses. Billy Parham was the beleaguered teenaged ranch hand who seems always to be helping people get home—a wolf and his dead brother, Boyd, in The Crossing. Cormac McCarthy brings the two characters together for the final act in his epic Border Trilogy—Cities of the Plain.

The elements that made the first two novels so rich are here. There are the thick descriptions of terrain and those who work within it. There is the romance and deep wisdom of Old Mexico. And there are signs that America is changing in ways that are sapping its soul. One of the final encounters takes place on a concrete batterwall beneath a highway overpass in an Arizona landscape that is all inhuman geometry.

But the trilogy seems to be losing a little steam, too. It comes alive in set pieces as when the cowboys track down a pack of wild dogs in the desert. The epilogue recalls the mythical philosophy of The Crossing. John Grady’s infatuation with a Mexican prostitute and knife fight in the service of that love hints back at the grand romance of All the Pretty Horses. But things are worn and cracking now. Even McCarthy’s Spanish sections are less vibrant and rely on a kind of Anglicized Spanish that rings hollow, especially when it’s being exchanged between Mexican characters.

Maybe it’s just because its 1952 now and America is becoming disenchanted. Mexico, too, for that matter. There are cars on the landscape now and lights in the cities on the plain. You’re grateful to take one more ride with these characters but you miss the days when the journeys went deeper into the land and the people they met had more complexity.

It’s been a great journey. These books are a treasure. You hold this last one like Billy clings to a tin cup on a stob that he finds by a spring beneath a cottonwood tree. “He’d not seen a cup at a spring in years and he held it in both hands as had thousands before him unknown to him yet joined in sacrament.” 

There is life-giving water here. There is a connection with something deep in the land and the peoples who cross it. It’s lament and thirst all at the same time. But as the dedication says, “The story’s told/Turn the page.”

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