The end. at long last, with Cities of the Plain, the final installment in Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy,” it’s suddenly become possible to discern what the series that began with All the Pretty Horses, a lean adventure story, and continued with The Crossing, a murky, shamanistic ritual, was actually supposed to be about. This hasn’t been an easy job so far. A lumpy literary mix of campfire tale, lyrical outburst, and mystic rumination, the trilogy at two thirds showed little promise of ever shaping up into a whole. Instead, what we had were two quite different books whose clearest link, besides their desert settings and separate yet sound-alike adolescent heroes, Billy Parham and John Grady Cole, was the author’s obsession with cowboys and ideas – an obsession as likely to yield a hundred books, all gunsmoke, dust, and fatalism, as three.
But McCarthy has tied the thing off, he’s lassoed it, and with the sturdiest sort of cultural rope: vintage American Calvinism. It’sa lariat that careful readers might have known he was carrying all along, stashed ina saddlebag but coiled and ready. McCarthy’s cowboys were always so true-hearted, their enemies so dark-minded, the land on which they battled so pure and suffering, that anything less than a John Wayne Christian finale in which the good guys fly back up to Heaven and the bad guys topple back into hell would have come as a sorry disappointment and, at least in retrospect, a shock. Shane would be proud of what McCarthy has wrought, but the final wonder is that he’s pulled it off – this rigorously sentimental Western, conventional from its hat down to its spurs despite its sometimes highfalutin’ prose – to the applause of the intellectuals too.
Cities of the Plain begins its work by plunking down Grady and Parham on the same ranch: a dusty, overgrazed New Mexico spread on the edge of a postwar military proving grounds. The atomic fallout is still falling, a silent, ominous dust that isn’t remarked upon, only suggested. Nonetheless, it’s everywhere. Old Mac, the ranch owner, a brokenhearted stoic, feels the future coming. It makes him shiver. Like the familiar dimestore illustration of the mounted cowpoke gazing skyward at the silver airplane that spells his doom, the ranch hands feel obsolescence in their bones. “What would you do if you couldn’t be a cowboy?” “I dont know. I reckon I’d think of somethin. You?” “I dont know what it would be I’d think of.” “Well, we all may have to think of somethin.”
McCarthy’s dialogue, for which he’s justly famed, isn’t normally so pat and cute, but lifted out of context it sure can seem that way – like cowboy blackface, sagebrush minstrelsy. His situations, too, get awfully fat at times. When Grady, taking some R and R in Mexico, falls in love with a childlike prostitute, Zane Grey himself may as well be dealing the cards – the deck is that stacked, the hands that predictable. There will be secret trysts. A solemn pact. A sadistic, possessive pimp. A rescue attempt. This isn’t treading the cliff edge of cliché but a Geronimo! swan dive over the precipice. The intention isn’t to make the old seem new again but to make it seem older than it ever was. That’s the McCarthy project in a nutshell: to transfigure melodrama into archetype, to alchemize stock footage into ancient scripture. The storyline here is pulp, pure pulp, but instead of tweaking it Tarantino-style into some kind of playful pop homage, McCarthy takes it twice as seriously as its hack inventors did. He pumps it up larger, pushes it further, and works it harder, pressing for a breakthrough. By force of sheer will, raw talent, and deep faith, he’s trying to make a Bible out of comic books.
It’s called classicism, no “neo” about it, and it’s very rare in the age of irony, which may be what makes McCarthy so seductive to escapists and intellectuals alike. He understands the shock of the familiar, though sometimes he pushes far too hard trying to build cathedrals out of cardboard, as in this description of a Mexican brothel: “The house was called La Esperanza del Mundo. Where a painted child in a stained kimono with her arm in a sling wept in silence or went wordlessly with men to a room at the rear for a price of less than two dollars.” This is empty eloquence defined: lush leaves of language on a dry brown stalk. Unfortunately, McCarthy is one of those who likes his poetry poetic, and there are moments in Cities of the Plain when Longfellow meets Peckinpah. “Along the sandy unpaved streets nightvendors trundled their carts or drove their small burros before them… . Plying the darkened streets and calling out like old suitors in search themselves of maids long lost to them.”
Sometimes, though, McCarthy hits his mark, doing perfectly the thousandth time what’s merely been done adequately all the times before. Here’s an old madame dressing a young working girl: “One by one the hooks and stays, passing her hands across the lilac velvet, cupping her breasts each in turn and adjusting the border of the decolletage, pinning gown to undergarment… . She held the girl by the waist and turned her like a toy and she knelt at her feet and fastened the straps of her shoes.”
That’s the reason to read Cormac McCarthy: to see a picture that always hung slightly off-center finally put straight. Like a ranch foreman abruptly stepping forward to readjust and reseat a greenhorn’s saddle, McCarthy can’t leave the simplest job alone until it’s been done so it won’t need doing again. Not ever.
Artistic inertia being what it is, the rescue of a brutalized young maiden from her Snidely Whiplash captors by an idealistic country boy will probably be tried again, but after Cities of the Plain, there won’t be much point. McCarthy’s King James version of the yarn, the center of the novel, should prove definitive. A hundred other classic Western moments – the competitive bidding for a horse in which the rustics outsmart the city slickers; the mounted pursuit of a calf-killing predator; the sorrowing speech of the rancher who knows he’s through – will also prove hard to beat. As for the big sunset and moment of truth when the black hats get theirs and the white hats either die heroes or codger on until that last great roundup, everyone returning to the corral where he was first branded good or evil, it’s not a thing even McCarthy can improve upon. It was already perfect, already decided. It’s just how these American stories end.