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.”

Waltzing (and Futzing) Across Texas: A review of Texas Blood

IMG_6669If you pick up this book you won’t know where you’re headed.  Texas, sure.  After all the title of Roger D. Hodge’s book is Texas Blood: Seven Generations Among the Outlaws, Ranchers, Indians, Missionaries, Soldiers, and Smugglers of the Borderlands.  And there are maps in the first chapter that will whet your appetite for West Texas adventures.  But this meandering book only occasionally stops long enough to soak in Texas.  You’re as likely to send time in Missouri or Arizona along the way.

41xqNH42f3L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Roger Hodge has his literary bona fides as an editor of Oxford American and Harper’s and he certainly can tell a tale.  But he’s not a crowd-pleaser.  He starts out this book sharing his dissatisfaction with the typical Texas history with its “generalizations and hoary meditations on Texas ‘character.’” Such grandiose pretensions are “self-congratulatory nationalistic rubbish” in Hodge’s view and need a perspective that is more diverse and tragic, recognizing the many crossing trails of Europeans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Anglos who met each other here.  And he promises a personal story based on his own multi-generational family history in the state.

He finds some interesting stories, landscapes, and peoples.  What he never finds is a through line that can pull it all together.

Much of this is forgivable because the terrain is under-appreciated and richer in history than is usually acknowledged.  Out there in the canyons and deserts there are pictographs of the ancient Trans-Pecos peoples, abandoned cinnabar mines in the Big Bend, and artist colonies like the ones I discovered in Marfa and Terlingua last summer.  Hodge recreates western migrations along the southern route from San Antonio to San Diego complete with thousands of thirsty cattle, Apache raids, and roadside graves of those who didn’t make it.

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Roger D. Hodge

His own family appears frequently to remind us of Hodge’s connections to the state, as does Hodge himself who uses the narrative form to explore border issues like drugs, immigration, and walls.  You can’t help but feel that, as the line on the map hardens into actual structures that something precious is being lost.  Hodge’s memories of casual crossings from his home town of Del Rio into Acuña, Mexico highlight what used to be and is no more.

There’s an unhurried air to life in the borderlands.  People move slowly and always keep an eye on the horizon.  Hodge does the same as he wanders around this book.  He’s a fan of Cormac McCarthy and he has imbibed McCarthy’s sense of the mythical journeys you can take on the border.  Unlike, McCarthy, however, Hodge is cool and bloodless.  You get the sense he’s more interested than committed to the subject of his book.  Given the outsized role of Texas in our national story and politics these days, it seems more should be at stake here.

Crossing into Mythical Mexico with Cormac McCarthy: A Review of The Crossing

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Cormac McCarthy doesn’t need any more accolades from the likes of me.  His reputation as a great American writer seems pretty secure.  But as a recent convert to the ranks of his fans, I have to say of The Crossing – wow.

That’s probably sufficient.  I’m not going to be an equal to his prose and the writer in me just wants to lay down the pen and acknowledge the master.  But perhaps just a few more words.

The Crossing is the middle volume in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.  Throughout I was wondering what direct connection there was between this book and its predecessor, All the Pretty Horses.  The indirect connections are certainly there.  ATPH has a pair of teenaged protagonists in mid-20th century America discovering the world and themselves in cross-border expeditions with horses into northern Mexico.  The Crossing has the same, and you might be tempted to think that McCarthy is just writing the same book twice.

But the storylines don’t intersect, (though I understand that Billy Parham, the main protagonist in The Crossing, will meet up with John Grady Cole from the first book in Cities of the Plain).  And if there was high-spirited adventure and romance in ATPH, there is much more bleakness and scattered pieces of a narrative in The Crossing.

51UeFuwmXaL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_You can see some old ancestors in The Crossing—Don Quixote, The Odyssey, Flannery O’Conner, Faulkner—but what McCarthy does with them is absolutely unique to him.  There is a pregnant wolf who makes the first crossing from Mexico into New Mexico and becomes the focus of Billy Parham’s unexplained quest to return her to the mountains from which she has come.  There is Billy’s long sojourn in those mountains following the violent end of that quest in which he is immersed into a Mexico still scarred by the terrors of the Revolution, now some two decades in the past.

There is Billy’s return to New Mexico to discover his parents slaughtered and the family horses stolen.  Billy’s reunion with his brother Boyd and their journey back to Mexico to try and retrieve what has been lost.  A 14-year-old girl who becomes an unlikely companion.  Adventures with ruthless horse thieves.  A grievous injury.  Encounters with a blind veteran and a circus diva.  And in the end Billy is left on his own to return back home.

After failed attempts to enlist as World War II is beginning, Billy knocks around ranches picking up jobs before making one last crossing.  This time, his brother and the girl have entered the realm of legend.  Billy digs up Boyd from a desolate grave and carries his bones back to the States, but not without one more encounter with deadly thieves and one more metaphysical conversation with gypsies carting around an airplane fuselage.

What this summary doesn’t capture is the beauty of McCarthy’s writing and his supernatural gift with description.  You will get lost in the particulars, but you will know the terrain with intimacy.  And it is that deeper knowing that this trilogy keeps pointing to.  To know in a place the story of earth, heaven, and humanity itself.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#1 Lincoln in the Bardo (& a recap)

LincolnintheBardoThere are certain things you know you’re going to find when you sit down to read a George Saunders story.  It will be weird, funny, engaging, and surprisingly deep.  I expected no less from Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel and I was not disappointed.

The book, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, uses a little-known but poignant episode from Abraham Lincoln’s life as a center around which to turn: Lincoln’s late night visit to a DC cemetery in the early part of the Civil War to visit the mausoleum where his young son, Willie, lies dead.  From that point of connection with history, Saunders creates a universe of characters – ghosts who are watching and lamenting their own unresolved lives.

Lincoln is interesting, but it’s the ghosts who take center stage.  They are the ones who, like the dead in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, carry, in exaggerated form, the distortions of their lives, waiting until they can accept the peace that awaits them.  They cling to their past–not wanting to acknowledge their deaths, not wanting to let go of the ones they love, and not believing that the angels who visit can mean them anything but harm.

It’s haunting and beautiful and it’s my best read of 2017.  Click the link on the title above for my full review.

lysander-yuen-288916And now, to recap the Best Reads of 2017:

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBIby David Grann

4. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

5. The Crucifixion:Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

7. All the Pretty Horsesby Cormac McCarthy

8. American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

9. Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James

10. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Other great reads:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps you’ll see in this Top Ten list the preoccupations of my reading life–what it means to inhabit a place, how it is that we live together and grow apart, and how a richer world inhabits this one.  Here’s to your good reading in 2018!

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #7 All the Pretty Horses

51+nxfaxmXL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I’m sure Cormac McCarthy has been dying to see if this accolade would come his way.  His 1992 novel, All the Pretty Horses, is now 25 years old, but I just got around to it this year.  Something about spending a month in West Texas made it seem like an appropriate companion.

And it was.  McCarthy captures the harsh beauty of the terrain and peoples it with characters that are hard-bitten, philosophical, and even funny.  I never expected to laugh so much as I did reading the dialogue of Jimmy Blevins, one of the three teenagers at the center of the story.  What you wind up with at the end of this reading experience is a fine meditation on home – the place Americans have always had a hard time locating.

As for Billy Bob Thornton’s 2002 movie of the novel–well, I’d give that a miss.

So congrats to Cormac on making #7 on the 2017 Best Reads countdown.  I hear Dostoyevsky is looking to make the 2018 Heartlands’ list.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

A Border with No Country: A Review of All the Pretty Horses

 

IMG_6614“This is still good country.

Yeah.  I know it is.  But it aint my country.…

Where is your country? he said.

I don’t know, said John Grady.  I don’t know where it is.  I don’t know what happens to country.” (299)

Not counting the movies of Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, it has taken me all my adult life to get to Cormac McCarthy.  Now that I’m out in West Texas for a spell, it seemed like a good time to see what all the fuss has been about.  Like John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, I’m saddling up today to head towards the border.  They make good companions.

51+nxfaxmXL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_All the Pretty Horses is the first of three McCarthy books that are known as The Border Trilogy.  It won the National Book Award in 1992.  It’s cinematic front story is about Cole and Rawlins, two San Angelo teenagers in 1949 Texas who set out on horseback to look for ranching work in northern Mexico.  They are joined early on by a younger boy who calls himself Jimmy Blevins and who rides a really fine horse.

Through a series of adventures and misadventures they lose Blevins, find work, and are establishing themselves as valuable members of a massive ranch.  Cole and Rawlins have an innate sense for working with horses and they have particular success with a group of wild horses brought down from the mesa to be broken.  In the meantime, Cole begins a forbidden romance with the patrón’s daughter, Alejandra – an act that eventually leads to the two being dragged off to prison, where they are brutalized and eventually freed.

I’ll save the spoilers for the last act of this drama, but suffice it to say that McCarthy presents all this with spot-on dialogue that crackles with life and even humor.  (I did not expect to come to this book for the laughs, but they are definitely there.)  You also got the blood.  That was as advertised.

Behind the action is a more brooding, philosophical work that comes through most prominently in Cole’s interactions with the Dueña Alfonsa, the cultured grandaunt of the hacienda who guards the virtue of her goddaughter, Alejandra.  Alfonsa and Cole muse on choice and fate, society versus the individual, and the nature of home.  Alfonsa discerns in the Spanish (and Mexican) soul “a deep conviction that nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed.  Virgins, bulls, men.  Ultimately God himself.” (230)

No one lives this out more than Cole himself.  If this is the standard, he becomes a true Mexican.  But this is also a meditation about home and Cole doesn’t find that.  The book begins with him losing his family ranch on the death of his grandfather.  It ends with the exchange that leads this review.  Nobody knows where their true country is.

On this journey I’m on, I stopped in Columbus, Georgia to talk with Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center and a Texas poet himself (interview coming soon).  We talked about McCullers who often talked about the homesickness of American artists.  Norwood said:

“[McCullers] says…what happens in America is that writers and artists branch out by themselves.  They launch themselves out into outer space alone. Maybe it’s that pioneering spirit in them.  Those are her arguments for why Americans maybe experience spiritual isolation, if not in fact, in a more intense way, at least in a unique way.”

McCarthy is another poet of that spiritual isolation deep in the American soul.  But he embeds it in a rich constellation of relationships and within a creation of creatures.  If you can’t find the country in the land, perhaps you will see it in the eyes of all the pretty horses.

The Relentless Storytelling of Philipp Meyer: A Review of American Rust

 

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Photo by Jan Senderek via Unsplash

Philipp Meyer is a relentless storyteller.  By the time he gets through with you, you will have a deep immersion in the place where the story happens and will have met characters who are anything but passive.  They are doers who fight and scrape against an unjust world.  They make many mistakes, some dreadful, but they are always in motion, like the country itself.

I first discovered Meyer through his second novel, The Son, which is an epic multi-generational tale of Texas.  It was all the things I like in a book – strong storyline, unexpected turns, complex characters, evocative descriptions of the landscape that help you feel like you are there, and…naturally…about Texas.  I fell for Pauline Jiles’ News of the World for the same reason.  Actually, what I’m saying is – you write a book about Texas and I’m gonna read it.

511is2qnAKLAmerican Rust is Meyer’s earlier work and it is set in western Pennsylvania where the late-twentieth century has turned the steel industry into a shadow of its former self.  The characters are all dealing with confusion and grief that they can’t quite name, but which has a lot to do with the decline they see all around them.

The story centers on two unlikely friends, Isaac and Poe, who set off to leave town and end up enmeshed in an act of violence that haunts the rest of the book.  Isaac is a brilliant, socially-awkward young man who has watched his sister go off to Yale, his mother commit suicide, and his handicapped father slip into resignation.  His answer to the stagnation he feels is to steal $4000 from the old man and try to run off to California.

Poe is a former high school football star who can’t find a living doing anything more than building landfills.   People see good in him, but he undercuts himself with a ferocious temper and impulsive behavior.

Meyer’s great gift as a writer is to bring a place and its people to life.  In this book he goes a little bit overboard with the details of the steel industry decline, giving the story a didactic feel.  He shows more than tells in The Son and that makes it a better book.  (Plus, did I mention that that book is about Texas?)  But he is a visceral writer with a strong sense of pacing.

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Philip Meyer

In addition, here he uses multiple points of view effectively, putting us into the heads of the six main characters, increasing the empathy and tragedy.  His stream-of-consciouness sections are among his best, bringing honesty and even humor to his characters.

Meyer has been compared to Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.  That’s good company.  As Mark Athitakis noted in our discussion of Midwestern literature earlier this year, Meyer is doing what a good contemporary novelist should do – he’s complicating the landscape, honoring its natural and human beauty, and allowing human frailty its place.