Fame arrived late for the brilliant novelist Cormac McCarthy. His fiction had been in print for twenty-five years (The Orchard Keeper, 1965, was his first novel), but only his work published in the 1990’s, All the Pretty Horses (1992) and The Crossing, has reached a wide audience. The tiny herd of readers devoted to his pre-1990’s writing are divided over this ex post facto popularity. Some sense that McCarthy took the coldheartedness too much out of his work and became a Western-romance writer, while others are happy that their appraisal of McCarthy is now generally acknowledged. Suffice it to say, there is enough stern and genuine McCarthy genius in the later books to make it likely that the teenage cowboys he sets adrift on their pages will be engaging readers well into the twenty-first century.
When sixteen-year-old Billy Parham, the main character in The Crossing, feeds dry breakfast cereal to his horse, readers will recognize a detail (the cereal, not the horse) from their own lives. It will be one of few. The novel tells the story of Billy, a real cowboy and son of a real cowboy in southern New Mexico during the early 1940’s, who travels horseback in Mexico for three years, long enough to become a twenty-year-old man. Like the hero of the first book in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses, Billy faces the archaic world—no McDonald’s, few cars, no washing machines—but this time he has a sidekick, younger brother Boyd. Initiation is a theme, but adventurous escape seems even more the issue for McCarthy, his boy-men, and the reader. Billy and Boyd’s presence in these wild, preconsumerist lands is the story, as much as what they do or whom they meet or how they develop as characters. Billy survives. That is sufficient.
Billy Parham’s voyage into Mexico is the book version of a virtual-reality video game called Primal Contact. Here is a teenager who gets it into his head to return a wolf he has trapped to its Mexican mountains. The word “school” does not appear in the story, and Billy will learn real things, McCarthy implies, without books, pencils, or institutional organization of any kind. He faces the basic inhospitality of the world, not as an idea but as a fact. Primal contact means shooting a homemade arrow not for fun but out of desperate need of something to eat. It means living without consolation. Still, there is sweetness, tenderness, and longing in Billy’s story, much as there is in All the Pretty Horses. This sweetness contrasts with the meaner tone of the earlier McCarthy novels, particularly Blood Meridian (1985), which features a minimally dimensioned teenage cowboy who learns how to scalp Apaches for bounty in the Mexican and Indian lands. McCarthy implies that Billy’s life, harsh as it is, is enviable. Near the end of the book Billy says, “I been more fortunate than most. There aint but one life worth livin and I was born to it. That’s worth all the rest.”
In McCarthy novels, characters typically rove and forage in precarious surroundings. This is a condition of that good but dangerous life Billy must live. No telling when a tire iron will hit someone or a whiskey bottle gouge out an eye. Men are dangerous, the books say, some outright evil-from-Hell. Billy’s sense of connection to the wolf detailed in the first hundred pages proclaims that men are loyal to the wild, the untamed. Men, like wolves, are also distinctive in their speech, sociable in tightly patterned ways, and competent at doing certain things well, When McCarthy shows competence in men it is archaic competence—working with horses, telling stories by a fire, dressing a bad wound. Men are good at the old things, readers are to understand, and McCarthy himself knows a hawk from a handsaw.
No generic descriptions exist in McCarthy fiction. He is as tangibly aware as his competent cowboys, and his remarkable knowledge of the Mexico they wander—its food, clothing, and speech—gives The Crossing and his other books powerful authenticity. McCarthy readers know to pack a good dictionary when reading his novels. The depth of immediate experience is forever being offered the reader in McCarthy’s language, brought crafted to the feast with communal intention.
They sat at a pine table painted green and the woman brought him milk in a cup. He’d about forgotten that people even drank milk. She struck a match to the circular wick of the burner in the kerosene stove and adjusted the flame and put on a kettle and when it had boiled she spooned eggs one by one down into the kettle and put the lid back again. The blind man sat stiff and erect. As if he himself were the guest in his own house. When the eggs had boiled the woman brought them steaming in a bowl and sat down to watch the boy eat.
The institutional will not protect Billy Parham. He will, from the first page of the novel to the end, be crossing most willingly again and again from the tame to the wild, from dependence to self-reliance. McCarthy says that it is in his blood, his innate manliness, to do so. Billy watches wolves in the middle...