Cities of the Plain is the third novel in Cormac McCarthy’s western “Border Trilogy.” The first book, All the Pretty Horses, featured John Grady Cole, and the second, The Crossing, featured Billy Parham, two teenage boys involved in similar adventures. Both leave the American Southwest on horseback in the mid-twentieth century and ride deep into Mexico. They experience magnificent and terrible initiations into manhood. John Grady Cole, in All the Pretty Horses, falls in love with the daughter of a high-class hacienda owner, is banished to prison for this presumption, then wins a knife fight in prison by bleeding only slightly less than his attacker, who dies. Billy Parham, in The Crossing, returns a wolf to Mexico after trapping it live in America, only to see it tortured and killed by Mexican ranch hands. He and his brother wander in Mexico on horseback until the brother is killed. Like John Grady Cole at the end ofAll the Pretty Horses, Billy returns to America scarred but still very much the archetypal cowboy. Both are skilled in the outdoor masculine routines of training horses and roping cattle, and thanks to their Mexican sojourns both are essentially independent of modern America and the mass leveling of its institutions.
In Cities of the Plain Cormac McCarthy places these young men on ranches working at their cowboy trade. It is the mid- 1950’s, a few years after their spontaneous tours of Mexico. A looming purchase of ranchland by the U.S. Military threatens to end the cowboy way of life. Tragedy looms. John Grady Cole insists on marrying a teenage Mexican prostitute who also happens to be an epileptic. The ranch they live on—where the brotherhood of cowboys thrives partly because contact with women is minimal—is near the titular cities of the plain, the twin border towns of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. In Juarez the need for women is satisfied by houses of prostitution. John Grady Cole’s companions treat the prostitutes as a slightly higher form of cattle, preferring heft to beauty: “I’m goin to tell you right now cousin, when the mood comes on you for a fat woman they just wont nothin else satisfy.”
Cole, unlike the others, surrenders his heart to a young woman working at The White Lake, a higher-class brothel. Billy Parham, nearing thirty years old and nine years older than Cole, dispenses wisdom to Cole on the latter’s love life. Cole ignores it, which leads to the novel’s tragic and bloody conclusion—a knife fight with Eduardo, manager of The White Lake. Parham is a form of El Paso—rugged, realistic and rational—and the younger Cole, blindly in love, is influenced psychically by Juarez. He is recognized by other cowboys as the most skilled, the most graceful horseman, the best that a cowboy can be—a natural. Yet his Juarez psyche weakens him. He is the id to his close friend Billy’s commonsensical American ego.
Cole’s inability to be sensible in love, to see where he is going, is the most dominant example of human passivity before fate exemplified by other characters and events in the novel. The grass no longer grows as it once did in Texas, and the country dries up. All large-scale intentions, such as a revolution fought in the streets by men wearing the very suits for battle they wore to their weddings, are imbued with directionless futility: “The executions against the mud walls sprayed with new blood over the dried black of the old and the fine powdered clay sifting down from the bullet holes in the wall after the men had fallen and the slow drift of riflesmoke and the corpses stacked in the streets or piled into the woodenwheeled carretas trundling over the cobbles or over the dirt roads to the nameless graves.” This sentence embodies in its grammatical structure, beginning as an intentional statement with subject and verb, then lapsing into predicateless phrases, McCarthy’s central irony: individual human desire swamped by history. “Fine powdered clay” sifts from bullet holes. History overwhelms and renders human passion pointless.
McCarthy’s vision is double. First there is the light that shines from pastoral cowboys. When they speak to one another their conversation is regional and folksy. They make an interesting and attractive pattern. Their simplicity and freedom as cowboys in the outdoors is enviable. They are good at what they do. They care for each other and for their animals. This mythical American open spaces reality is shaky, however. Living, even for cowboys, is a half-paralyzed squirming in the omnipresence of history. This is the other, darker half of McCarthy’s vision. The characters are engulfed in a...
(The entire section is 1909 words.)