Cities of the Plain, set in the early 1950’s around El Paso, Texas, and across the border in Juarez, Mexico, brings together the protagonists of the first two novels of The Border Trilogy. Billy Parham, now in his thirties, and John Grady Cole, now nineteen, both find themselves working on a ranch in the Tularosa Basin, an area threatened by U.S. government appropriation for military purposes. “Anyway this country aint the same,” Billy tells John Grady. “The war changed everthing. I don’t think people even know it yet.”
The central action revolves around John Grady’s single-minded obsession with a young Mexican epileptic prostitute, Magdalena, an obsession that readers understand better in the light of his experiences in All the Pretty Horses. The extent to which John Grady is devoted to this woman and willing to sacrifice for her shows how difficult it can be to distinguish between foolishness and heroism. Grady’s powerful emotions propel him along the path of romance, despite cautions and counsel offered by older men such as Billy, Mac the ranch owner, and the maestro, a blind Mexican musician who subscribes to a kind of fatalist philosophy: “Men imagine that the choices before them are theirs to make. But we are free to act only upon what is given. Choice is lost in the maze of generations and each act in that maze is itself an enslavement for it voids every alternative and binds one ever more tightly into the constraints that make a life.”
There are plenty of signs that the relationship will not work; the narrative bears the usual markings of tragedy. The most stubborn, insurmountable obstacle turns out to be Eduardo, the girl’s pimp who is also in love with her. Despite her mortal fear of Eduardo, Magdalena finally arranges to escape with John Grady. The price of her defiance is death: She is caught and killed in her attempt to flee. When John Grady finds out what happened, he seeks revenge, going after Eduardo. An extremely graphic knife fight between the two men ends with a critically wounded Grady killing his rival. Despite Billy’s attempt to save him, Grady dies from his wounds. Neither energies nor the beings housing them stay within prescribed boundaries. Grady’s obsession, the woman’s epilepsy, Eduardo’s capacity for jealousy and desire for triumph over his rival—all are displays of excess, and, while this excess leads to tragedy, it at least is vivid proof of life’s intensity, perhaps preferable to a...
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