All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities Of The Plain (The Border Trilogy) Cormac McCarthy

ImageA cowboy’s life is simple. He doesn’t philosophise much, not out loud anyway.  He shows very little emotion. A cowboy’s life is much like Cormac McCarthy’s prose style. Sentences without verbs. No colons and no semi colons.  Very few commas. So lists use ‘and’ a lot as in ‘red and blue and black and…’ Poets use this trick to make a list iambic but McCarthy just wants to eliminate punctuation clutter. There are no speech marks but the reader can tell the difference between dialogue and narrative. One is grammatically correct the other not. I’m not a regular reader of modern american fiction so I found the style drew a little too much attention to itself. It took me a while to get used to it. After a while I got to kind of like it. I’m even thinking of adopting some of its aspects in my own writing.

Cormac McCarthy is one of the big literary names of the day and these books are reputed to be among his best. I bought it as a compendium. This saves money but the book wouldn’t fit in my pocket so I had to carry it around in a man bag which just didn’t seem the kind of thing a cowboy would do.

The tales take place in the borderlands between New Mexico and Mexico. A lot of the dialogue is in spanish. The cowboys speak spanish but the vaqueros never speak english. This is annoying because there’s no translation. But McCarthy hints at the meaning through the context. He did this often but but by no means always, so I still had to look up a lot of the words and let others remain a mystery. Since many of Chico Chica’s songs are in spanish it’s about time I learnt the language. Reading these books is a good way of for a near beginner to improve it.

In these three books, I never got a real sense of character. McCarthy doesn’t bother with descriptions so I had no idea what the cowboys looked like. Most importantly McCarthy never describes emotion,  after all, cowboys don’t discuss emotion. After one character discovers his younger brother had been killed the narrator describes a cowboy riding a horse. In the distance, a happy cowboy looks much the same as a sad one.

I was expecting the cowboys to be hot. Truman Capote would have made this landscape sizzle. But here the cowboys didn’t sweat or yearn for shade or have a raging thirst. The only vegetation he mentions is the juniper tree.

But the narrative was full of meticulously recorded actions such as making coffee, taking off a hat, mending a puncture or removing a bullet from a body. McCarthy draws the reader into the cowboy psyche. The narrator may not sound like a cowboy but he certainly thinks like one. Cowboys are simple and practical folk.

But cowboys have a spirit of adventure. In Mexico the wages are much lower, the cowboys have no friends or family and there is no rule of law. Yet, driven by a creeping modernity which threatens the old way and attracted by the simple welcome of the peasants, these cowboys feel compelled to make the crossing.  Everywhere they go they are be greeted with tortillas and beans but these people are scarred by memories of unimaginable poverty and brutality of Mexico’s civil wars.

In these three novels I often found myself disengaged by the overly-detached style. I was pulled along by the momentum of a lifelong reading habit sometimes having to keep my interest by playing spot-the-comma.

Out of the three I found The Crossing was the most powerful story. Teenage cowboy Billy Parham traps a wolf that had been marauding the family farm but rather than killing it, he takes it back to its native Mexico. I’m not sure if this was out of a sentimental attachment to the wolf or he was looking for any excuse to cross the border. The wolf eventually dies on him before he was able to release it to the wild. So he returns and from then on life is a series of heart-wrenching misfortunes, first his parents are murdered, then his brother and then his beloved horse.  At the very end a stray dogs tries to befriend him. He shoos it away. And then, no doubt thinking of the wolf, he tries to find it again but can’t. The book finishes with Billy breaking down and weeping. It is the only time anyone cries in the whole Border Trilogy.