Ron Christiansen's Reviews > Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
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's review
Dec 14, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: western
Read in December, 2011

I found myself at home again in the life of a young romantic cowboy (John Grady Cole) after having read both "All the pretty horses" and "The Crossing" some years ago. While I do not think this ending-trilogy-novel is as good as the first two, it still did not disappoint...well, until the last 20 pages. Three key scenes will stick with me: John insisting on stopping to help a truckload of Mexicans with their blown out tire; a vicious tracking and roping (yes, roping, where one dog is split in half) of wild dogs that are killing the cattle, ultimately leading to John returning to the scene to recover the puppies left without a mother; John's stylized and ritualized (think Tarantino) knife fight with the pimp (though I won't want to remember this last one).

But I also, surely to the chagrin of many high-brow reviewers, fell for John and his young epileptic Mexican whore (a word I do not use lightly, but is necessary), Magdalena. That's right I did; I read for plot, wanting badly for John to be able to bring her back to the cabin he had fixed up all the while knowing that there was no way in hell that either character, in the hands of McCarthy, were going to make it through alive.

I think the novel unravels at the end because it's supposed to be, ultimately, about Billy Parham, the young boy of "The Crossing" who beautifully and paradoxically harnesses a she-wolf (one of the only dynamic female characters in the trilogy according to one critic) in order to take her back across the border to the mountains of Mexico. Billy's life, who is now older in "Cities...", is supposed to make us to reflect over the entire trilogy and this novel ends with a homeless Billy and 20 pages of ontological philosophy spewed by a fellow homeless Mexican. But McCarthy let's this larger trilogy-ending-move escape him as the reader cares much more about John and his romantic refusal to let the violence (also witnessed in "All the Pretty horses") the old world Mexico derail his pursuit of what *should* be. Because of this I tend to agree with Ruth Gray in her Yale Review of books:

"Other than an esoteric recounting of a dream-within-a-dream at the end of the novel, McCarthy seems to have abandoned the story-telling project altogether...But after providing so much for us to ponder on our previous journeys through his literary world, McCarthy leaves us with little more than an entertaining story."

I might not take it quite this far, it's still more than a merely entertaining story; yet somewhere the wheels come off near the end. It is a shame that the book and the trilogy do not end with John dying in Billy's arms; instead McCarthy preserves the relic of the cowboy seeing Billy to old life and hitting us upside the head with a philosophical treatise.
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