McCarthy Continues to Dazzle Without Delivering a Big Yarn

Cities of the Plain , by Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 292 pages, $24.

When Cormac McCarthy’s fifth novel, Blood Meridian , was first published in Britain in 1989, a fellow novelist as distinguished as Ireland’s John Banville had never heard of the author, as he admitted in a rave Irish Times review (“unlike anything I have read in recent years … an extraordinary, breathtaking achievement”). When I was handed the galley of All the Pretty Horses in 1992 and read the first page and quickly the next hundred, calls to several literary friends turned up but one-the novelist-editor Bradford Morrow-who knew of Mr. McCarthy.

Nearly a decade later, it seems everyone knows of Cormac McCarthy, a writer with eight novels to his credit, the latest of which, Cities of the Plain , concludes his Border Trilogy, and rolls out with a first printing approaching 200,000 copies.

Cities of the Plain caps the trilogy not in a customary fashion; grand themes are not resolved, intricacies of plot do not get their denouement. Like All the Pretty Horses and the second volume, 1994′s The Crossing , this third installment simply carries on in the mood of loss and lostness, with teenage boys bracing themselves as best they can against a vanishing America in late 40′s West Texas. In Cities of the Plain , though, Mr. McCarthy does bring together John Grady Cole, now 19, who was abandoned by his parents in All the Pretty Horses and left to roam across a dangerous northern Mexico, and Billy Parham, nine years older, who spent most of The Crossing riding with his younger brother in pursuit of a wolf. Now they are ranch hands just outside of El Paso, Tex., breaking horses, keeping an eye on herds, cracking wise and dark beyond their years, like existential savants. What plot there is in Cities -and throughout the trilogy, plot is thin, intentions vague, with people moving along mysterious gradients-is John Grady’s ill-advised quest to rescue and marry a prostitute he has met in Ciudad Juárez, south of the border. There’s a lot of riding into the sunset; long, ruminative canters at dawn; a good bit of spitting and chewing and rawhide philosophizing. By now, those who have read the first two volumes aren’t looking for a big windup from Mr. McCarthy. Things come to no good end, no matter how honorable the pursuit, the pursuer or the pursued; in life, it seems, you don’t get what you want; there is no justice, just a kind of random avenging.

This is pretty much the theme of Mr. McCarthy’s earlier works, too, and one has to wonder what it is that has salvaged the novelist from obscurity and delivered him the royal treatment at Alfred A. Knopf, not to mention the award-taking and the Pynchonian luxury to eschew publicity.

It’s not that Mr. McCarthy’s style has changed that much; almost any paragraph from any of the books bears his distinctive brand, mixtures of biblical grandeur, laconic terseness and an unfussy syntax unafraid to propel a premise with conjunction after conjunction. What has changed, though, and this is evident through the Border Trilogy, is that the novelist is no longer writing novels in the customary sense. One can’t help but feel that what so heavily freighted the earlier books, and perhaps consigned them to a small readership (no matter how fervent), was the almost transcendent nature of the violent clashes that took place in those novels, all in the name of story, the godawful nature of their characters’ relations (incestual, deviant, genocidal) moving things along.

Publishing is a fickle business, all right, and so is the building of literary reputations. Commercial success and connections, cult status and official canonization all work in haphazard fashion to make a writer’s career something more than a thankless vocation. How to explain such prominence now for an author who has continually ducked the writer’s workshop circuit; who never writes reviews, doesn’t lecture or read in public, and who only once or twice has consented to an interview; a man who lives in El Paso doing whatever people do in El Paso-by all accounts, just one of the locals, shooting a little pool now and then and riding around in his pickup.

One thing that hasn’t hurt is that Mr. McCarthy has always had very good editors. The late Albert Erskine, William Faulkner’s editor, is credited with discovering him; Erskine published The Orchard Keeper , Outer Dark , Child of God , Blood Meridian and Suttree . Much of this work fell out of print, despite some awestruck reviews; Dan Halpern stepped in and brought the books back into print at the Ecco Press. Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta, then in England at Picador, reissued the novels there (occasioning Mr. Banville’s review). Knopf vice president and editor-at-large Gary Fisketjon took over for a retiring Erskine on All the Pretty Horses , and with Mr. Mehta ensconced as his boss at Knopf, the two editors assigned the then little-known cover artist Chip Kidd, who came up with a simple black-and-white view of the world from a horse’s mane. They made up boxed reader’s copies for booksellers, and All the Pretty Horses galloped off, selling more than 150,000 in hardcover, a million more in paperback, and winning the 1992 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Still, it is not just publishing acumen that has vaulted Mr. McCarthy to the top of the heap; it is unlikely that Sonny and Gary and Chip could have (or would have) shoved the boat out so effectively for The Orchard Keeper , a tale of backwoods bootlegging, or for Outer Dark , a novel about incest and infanticide. And the necrophilia at the center of Child of God is unlikely to have made Mr. McCarthy famous for not being known. Blood Meridian is full of enough slow-motion scalping and flaying as to make Sam Peckinpah gag. As for Suttree , well, a lot of strange guys you don’t want to know live along the riverbanks in Knoxville, Tenn. Those books, perhaps, strained too hard for the shock of scripted incident that their author could deliver less horrifically in a simple sentence. For all the wild horses that move across Cities of the Plain , there is something tamer at work; without giving it up entirely, Mr. McCarthy less histrionically pursues his notion that revenge and redemption are unfathomable phenomena that must nonetheless be perfectly perceived and rendered. And the prose he employs comes into the light, where it can be seen and appreciated, with a lot less blood on it.

The crowning achievement of the Border Trilogy, perhaps its saving grace, is that there is no story. And as a result, what comes to the fore is the spectacular writing of a stylist whose gifts have as competition in American literature perhaps only Henry James, Herman Melville and Faulkner.

Of course, Mr. McCarthy runs the risk of overstaying his welcome (assuming he cares) at the small table where America’s literary-commercial novelists sit by continuing to dazzle us with his virtuosity without delivering the Big Yarn. One reviewer has already called him on an “overwrought” depiction of the guys vomiting on mescal. To which I can only say, there is throwing up and there is throwing up. And it is easy to take potshots at the sparse dialogue that has characterized the three Border Trilogy books as outtakes from a Marlboro commercial.

But Mr. McCarthy, as always, is working with supreme confidence, as if he is aware of the enduring nature of what he creates, no matter the vagaries of reputations and publishing. Just as Billy Parham, mourning the deaths of his younger brother and of John Grady Cole at the end of Cities of the Plain , takes some comfort in the words of an old woman who promises him there is an eternal return; we can be assured that even if Mr. McCarthy falls out of fashion, out of print, there will be the thrill of some reader discovering these inimitable prose constructions as if for the very first time.