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Cities of the Plain

Volume III of the Mexico Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewed by Allan Cogan

What a disappointment! I really enjoyed the first two books of this trilogy: All The Pretty Horses and The Crossing. But this final volume is something of a letdown. McCarthy still has that great prose gift going for him, but, in this case, it's in the service of a rather tawdry narrative. The two heroes of the first volumes come together here. To refresh your memory, they're Billy Parham and John Grady Cole. The time: 1952. The place: New Mexico and various border cities of Mexico. Our lads are a couple of ranch hands in an area that is soon to be taken over by the government for nuclear testing. The times are a-changing and a way of life is disappearing.

The narrative is always interesting when it describes this way of life. Cole is particularly talented with horses and the descriptions and dialog on the subject of horses never fail to please. McCarthy is excellent at describing this life and the world of lonely men. There are some great set pieces, the best of which is a wild dog hunt and, later on in the story, a thrilling knife fight. However, it's when the plot takes over that things begin to falter. That, by the way, happens around page 118. McCarthy always seems to me as though he would have been happier writing The Bible. He has that heavy, ponderous prose style that seems most at home describing eternal weighty matters and events - or making fairly simple matters sound weighty and eternal. It's a style that's far too grand for this story. In any event, Cole goes to Mexico and visits a brothel and falls in love with a Mexican whore and the rest of the action is taken up with "rescuing" her and bringing her back to marriage in the United States.

We never really get to know the lady in question. As a matter of fact, I can't even remember her name. That's how much impact she has. Nor do we really feel or understand Cole's infatuation with her. It's just something we seem to have to accept to drive the narrative along. Meanwhile, because of McCarthy's prose style, we get ludicrous items like this conversational exchange between Billy Parham, who has gone to Mexico to "rescue" the hooker, and the hooker's pimp. The pimp speaks first.

"Your friend is in the grip of an irrational passion. Nothing you say to him will matter. He has in his head a certain story. Of how things will be. In this story he will be happy. What is wrong with this story?"
"You tell me."
"What is wrong with this story is that it is not a true story. Men have in their minds a picture of how the world will be. How they will be in that world. The world may be many different ways for them but there is one world that will never be and that is the world they dream of."
"Do you believe that?"

I could be wrong, but I have immense difficulty imagining a Mexican pimp talking that way to someone who has come to take his "property" from him.

I have several quibbles with McCarthy's prose style. The first is his copious use of Spanish dialog. Here, when anyone speaks Spanish, the dialog is in Spanish with absolutely no attempt to translate or explain. I can read Spanish without too much difficulty but for someone who doesn't, there are numerous pages, and even a chapter or two, in which the dialog, much of it essential to the forward movement of the novel, is completely, totally, one hundred per cent not in English. And even with my knowledge of the language I was sent to the dictionary on at least four occasions for word definitions. (I still haven't found out what alcahuete means, although I suspect it has something to do with pimps.) But, frankly, I don't know how McCarthy's publisher could let him get away with such copious use of a language most of the readers just won't understand.

For that matter, there's an odd section on page 104 where I ran into four English words that were all completely new to me - like replevined, rondel, misset and waddy. (My spell check just underlined all four of them!) There are moments in this novel when you wonder if the author really wants to communicate with us.

McCarthy also seems to want to do away with certain punctuation - mainly quotation marks for dialog. So we get hundreds of passages like the following:

He poured coffee from a thermos into their cups.
The turkey sandwiches they ate were wrapped in cloth.
What's in the other thermos?
They ate. How long has he been manager down here?

There are countless pages of that sort of narrative where the reader is constantly checking to determine which is the dialog and which is the exposition and, for that matter, who is speaking.

Also, the author seems to have an aversion to identifying the characters he's writing about in any given chapter or sub-section. Every piece of narrative starts out with "He…" and quite often we have to read a page or two to find out who the "he" is that McCarthy is talking about. There are even a couple of sections where you never find out.

So, as you can see, I'm not blown away with this book. It has an "arty" feel that isn't sustained by the subject matter. However, I should say that if you consult you'll find about fifty mainly enthusiastic reader reviews - although I'm not completely alone with my negative view. And there is general agreement that this is definitely the lesser of the three books in the trilogy. My own feeling about the trilogy is that if it wasn't advertised as such, the vast majority of readers would simply think these were three separate novels.

I should also mention in passing that I gave all the above opinions to a friend here in Ajijic one day and she responded with an enthusiastic: "Gee, I'd love to read that. Can I borrow it?" And she hasn't even read the first two books! So, you see… there's no accounting for what readers are looking for.

Verdict: Not worth the wait.


Cover - Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain
Volume three of The Border Trilogy
By Cormac McCarthy

Knopf, 1998

Available from Amazon Books: Paperback

Published or Updated on: May 1, 1999 by Allan Cogan © 1999
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