The Crossing: Volume Two: The Border Trilogy

by Cormac McCarthy
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814

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.

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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 will become his own. When he returns home, however, he finds himself an orphan. His home is empty, his parents massacred and his brother Boyd living with neighbors. (Others along the way seem almost mystically to have received the news earlier, addressing Billy as “orphan.”)

The two brothers set off on another trip to Mexico, this time to retrieve horses stolen from their family at the time of their parents’ massacre. The two travel a good deal in silence, their grief and guilt unspoken. Along the way, Boyd develops affection for a young Mexican woman whom they rescue from men apparently intent on raping her. They locate the horses but have trouble keeping them in their possession. Boyd is wounded while protecting the retrieved horses. Without saying anything to his brother, Boyd leaves with the Mexican girl.

Billy returns from this second trip to Mexico without his brother to find the country at war. He tries to enlist several times in several places and is rejected each time because of a heart murmur. After several years, he sets out on his third trip south of the border, this time to find his brother and bring him home. Boyd is dead, and legends of his valor seem to have worked their way into popular songs, indistinguishable from other popular heroes. Billy locates his brother’s grave, digs him up, and loads up his remains to take back home. A group of robbers set upon him, rip apart the coverings of the corpse, and stab his horse Niño. Billy wraps the corpse back up, continues on his journey, and buries his brother upon arriving home.

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