Set in the years leading up to World War II, the second novel in The Border Trilogy focuses on the lives of two brothers, Billy and Boyd Parham, who are, respectively, sixteen and fourteen at the beginning of the novel and living with their parents in Hidalgo Country, on the border between New Mexico and Mexico. Billy initiates three distinct expeditions across the border, each with its own mission, and each mission is executed, though not in intended ways. As in the other two volumes of the trilogy, the dialogue (portions of which are in Spanish, untranslated) is crisp and lean; descriptions are precise and finely chiseled.
Billy makes the first trip alone, to return a pregnant she-wolf that he has trapped around his family’s home. Crossing into Sonora, Mexico, he finds the place “undifferentiated in its terrain from the country they quit and yet wholly alien and wholly strange.” Though his motivations for making the trip are not made explicit, Billy seems to feel a sense of kinship with the wolf because of its wild, untamed spirit. The wolf, readers are told, “knew nothing of boundaries.” He engineers elaborate devices for subduing and feeding the animal and does his best to defend it from those who would do the animal harm or exploit it for their own selfish purposes. The wolf is finally taken from him by Mexican authorities and subsequently handed over to display in a fair, then to use as sport. Billy, fearful of what would happen, tracks the wolf down and follows it. Seeing the wolf forced to fight one dog after another in a cruel and futile battle, Billy ends the wolf’s suffering, shooting the animal he loves and swapping his rifle for the creature’s carcass, which he takes off to bury.
On the way home, Billy comes upon a Mormon in an abandoned church, one of those spectral figures haunting McCarthy’s fiction, who feeds him and provides hospitality. The Mormon’s stories have a metafictional, allegorical, even prophetic quality to them, offering something like a theory of narrative. “Things separate from their stories have no meaning,” he tells Billy. “The story . . . can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place” and “Acts have their being in the witness.”The task of the narrator is not an easy one, he said. He appears to be required to choose his tale from among the many that are possible. But of course that is not the case. The case is rather to make many of the one. Always the teller must be at pains to devise against his listener’s claim—perhaps spoken, perhaps not—that he has heard the tale before. He sets forth the categories into which the listener will wish to fit the narrative as he hears it. But he understands that the narrative is itself in fact no category but is rather the category of all categories for there is nothing which falls outside its purview. All is telling. Do not doubt it.
One of the stories that the Mormon tells is of a boy who loses his parents. At the time he hears the story, Billy does not realize that the story...
(The entire section is 814 words.)