Book Review: The Border Trilogy

Over the last month or so I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s so-called “Border Trilogy,” which consists of All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). I highly recommend all three, though the second is the best of the three and the third not as good as the other two. McCarthy really is the Melville and Faulkner of the American Southwest, and these three books are among his best.

Now, the three books form a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word; they’re self-contained novels, the first and second having nothing to do with each other and the third taking the two main characters from the first two and having them both play a central role in it. I would like to be able to make something of the structure of the trilogy as a whole — the John Grady->Billy Parham->both order for the books I find suggestive — but I can’t make much of it, so I won’t try. There are, however, themes which run throughout all three, including the loss of innocence and passing away of the romantic worldview; the impossibility of free will and its phenomenological necessity; and the revelatory nature of violence, a McCarthy favorite.

An interesting aspect of all three books is their division into four sections, rather than three or five. I’ve been finding four a more and more interesting number lately; three suggests beginning, middle, end, and five suggests an act structure like a Shakespearean tragedy, but four, I think, suggests a presentation of the world, a meditation, rather than a dramatic narrative arc. There is no rising action, climax, falling action, but rather a gradual transformation of worldview. And indeed, all three of the books are quite episodic in nature (though Cities of the Plain less so than the other two). All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing both consist of the main characters wandering somewhat aimlessly (though always with a proximate goal in mind) around Mexico and the borderlands of the United States, finding themselves at the end in a similar state as when they began, but with a transformed understanding of it.

A fascinating example of this can be seen in The Crossing, where in each section can be found a long narrative told to the main character by outcast figures. In the first, the crazed old hunter whose family is all dead; in the second, the priest living alone in a deserted village; in the third, the blind man whose eyes were plucked out during the Revolution (another theme running throughout the trilogy is the Mexican Revolution, which I unfortunately know too little about to comment); and in the fourth, the gypsy transporting the crashed plane. Each of these touches upon existential themes and presents a slightly different understanding of the existential quandary man finds himself in, and there is clearly some sort of progression between them (though I have not fully formulated what it is). All four are fascinating reading; they resemble the “Grand Inquisitor” short story in The Brothers Karamazov in a lot of ways. What’s interesting is that there is no obvious movement between them; the focus is on the four different states of mind, not on how one changes into the other. The same applies to the novels as a whole; the focus is on the journey, not the turning points.

Nevertheless, there is change over the course of each book, as the main characters discover their true nature and the true nature of the world. They begin idealistically, wanting to go be cowboys because they think cowboy life to be the perfect life, the best life imaginable; they discover that cowboy life, like all life, is primarily a prelude to death. That leads to another interesting question – is Cormac McCarthy a nihilist? I think the answer is no. Certainly not in The Road; probably not in No Country for Old Men; and, I think, not in the Border Trilogy either. But it’s a hard argument to make, and in the end I’d say that, though he’s not a nihilist, he comes close. Certainly he leans existentialist. I’m currently reading Blood Meridian, the book that preceded All the Pretty Horses and which Harold Bloom calls the best novel by a living author; we’ll see whether I think McCarthy’s a nihilist after I read that.

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