Tuesday, December 18, 2007

book review - Cities of the Plain

This is the final part of the Border trilogy by Cormac McCarthy and it reunites the main characters from the first two books All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing.

Like those two books this is about mortality. Not just about the passing and the death of individuals but the passing of an age.

Billy and John both work on a ranch that is being runned in the old fashioned way with men on horses training them, riding them and using them to keep watch over land and cattle. The collection of men that are working the ranch stretch from the late teenagers Billy and John up to old men who look like spending their last days on the ranch near the Mexican border. All of them have in common a sense of being lost in time and as a result out of kilter with the modern world. The ranch is going to be sold to the US army that are looking for places to get ready for the Cold War – there might even be a suggestion there of nuclear testing. That would really blast away any sense of the past.

There are numerous passages where Billy and John along with the others moan about not knowing what they really want as they stumble through the daily grind of being a ranch hand. But then things change for John Grady and it becomes quite clear what he wants and his object not only of affection but obsession falls on a 16-year-old prostitute. The relationship makes no sense on many levels. She is Mexican, unable to speak English and seems to be suffering from some condition that might ultimately be fatal. There is also the small problem of her pimp who has fallen in love with her.

But John Grady puts his mind to it and prepares a home on the ranch to bring her back to. But it never happens as she is killed by the brothel runners and ends up being identified by Grady in a morgue. That death sparks a couple more with Grady getting revenge before himself being a victim of the knife cuts of the pimp he kills.

His death leaves Billy bereft and no longer comfortable on the ranch. There is then an epilogue that to be honest is not required but shows that Billy spend most of his remaining years wandering before settling down to become some sort of living museum.

The past is all around McCarthy’s books and having got through the trilogy it seems to have set things up perfectly for his most recent work expanding on themes of mortality – The Road. These are books that could only be written by an American that not only has a sense of the relationship between the US and Mexico but also of the past and the present. The cowboy is such a strong image of everything that America represents – the hard working, land taking exponents of the American dream. That is why it is such a powerful twist to discover that the very cowboys that you would expect to be self assured and robust are lost in a world that no longer thinks it needs them or recognises whet they stand for.

A trilogy that has plays out some big themes but ends up underlining them in the friendship of two men who were stuck in the past.

Version read – Picador paperback

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