CITIES OF THE PLAIN by Cormac McCarthy


Vol. III of The Border Trilogy
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The concluding volume of McCarthy’s hitherto lavishly praised Border Trilogy is a long dying fall that brings together the two surviving protagonists of the previous novels, John Cole Grady of All the Pretty Horses (1992) and Billy Pawson of The Crossing (1994). Once again, McCarthy offers an unflinching depiction of the hard lives and complex fates of men ripped loose from the moorings of home and family, pursuing destinies that seem imposed upon them by indifferent external forces. As it begins (in 1952), Billy is still a cowboy with an “outlaw” heart, and John Grady (with whom he works as a ranch hand in southwestern New Mexico), who’s nine years his senior, dreams of finally settling down. The object of the latter’s desires, a teenaged Mexican prostitute (and “epileptica”) named Magdalena, is the “property” of a malevolent pimp whose possessiveness will precipitate this increasingly somber story’s inevitably violent climax--a one-on-one GîtterdÑmmerung that McCarthy unaccountably follows with a mystical Epilogue that feels like something lifted from an Ingmar Bergman film. This is the least impressive book of the Trilogy, but it’s still a sizable cut above most contemporary novels. McCarthy’s magnificent descriptions of landscape, weather, and animals in their relationship to men, and the stripped-down dialogue that perfectly captures his characters’ laconic fatalism are as impressive--and unusual--as ever. If his perverse habit of presenting numbingly prolonged conversations between his principal characters and their several reality instructors unfortunately persists, so do his mastery of action sequences (a description of the ranch hands hunting down a pack of cattle-killing dogs very nearly equals The Crossing’s sublime opening sequence) and precise thematic statements. Judged, as it must be, in the context of its brother novels, Cities of the Plain is nonetheless, flaws and all, an essential component of a contemporary masterpiece.

Pub Date: May 31st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-42390-7
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998


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