BOOKS & THE CULTURE Literary McCarthyism BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN THE CROSSING. By Cormac McCarthy. 426 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $23.00. IN HIS EARLIEST hours of incarceration on charges of double homicide, 0. J. Simpson is reported to have petitioned the turnkey for a single amenity: something to read. The only titles he specified were the two newest books by Cormac McCarthy All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. The world’s most famous defendant has no need to read courtroom thrillers by John Grisham. William Bennett’ s Book of Virtues would be too perverse for a murderer, too painful for a prisoner falsely accused. Requests for Scott Turow’s Pleading Guilty or Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse would not restore the Juice’s tarnished image. But McCarthy’s arduous, evocative prose is tonic for thosestUdents, prisoners and otherswith the time and will to brood. Yet All the Pretty Horses near the top of paperback best-sellers, while The Crossing identical position on the hardcover list. An improbable darling of the marketplace, McCarthy,’ who is as gregarious as J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, imposes sentences that mere skimmers might find penitentiary. For sinners who delight in the power of words, what he offers is parole. The Crossing is the story of what happens to 16-year-old Billy Parham when he rides out of Cloverdale, New Mexico, into Sonora and Chihuahua just before World War II. It is not exactly a sequel to All the Pretty Horses, which is the story of what happens to 16-year-old John Grady Cole when he rides out of San Angelo, Texas, into Coahuila in 1949. However, McCarthy identifies each recent volume as a component of The Border Trilogy. But, unlike William Faulkner’ s literary threesome of The’ Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion, which trace how the Snopes clan conquered Yoknapatawpha County, the two installments of The Border Trilogy that have been published so far share neither characters nor events. Steven Kellman teaches comparative litera ture at the University of Texas at San Antonio. What they do have in common is a landscape, the untamed territory of the Southwest, and the theme of straddling boundariesbetween the ‘United States and Mexico, English and Spanish, youth and maturity, past and present, life and death, human and equine \(and lupine, canine and in The Border Trilogy may very well offer yet another 16-year-old rider who ventures into Mexico, but will he set out from Brawley and cross into Baja California? McCarthy centers his 1985 Blood Meridian, which is not part of the trilogy, on a 16year-old known only as the Kid who rides out of Texas into Mexico, recruited by a band of cutthroat mercenaries. “Of the telling there is no end,” an old loner tells Billy Parham. “And whether in Caborca or in Huisiaschepic or in whatever other place by whatever other name or by no name at all I say again all tales are one. Rightly heard all tales are one.” Jungian orthodoxy has it that if you step far enough away from the text all narratives are essentially identical. But if you step far enough away, it becomes impossible to read. No one who reads McCarthy can mistake his work for that of anyone else. Though a front-page encomium in the New York Times Book Review likened him to Faulkner, Twain, Melville, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Cervantes, Beckett, Conrad, Homer; Virgil, Rulfo, Fuentes and a few others, McCarthy leaves his distinctive signature on every page he publishes. There are few other contemporary authors about whom the same can be said, few with the same emphatic claiin to genuine literary authority. And, though it might seem to recycle All the Pretty Horses and even Blood Meridian, The Crossing is equipped to ride alone. In this self-sustained novel, Billy Parham crosses into Mexico three timesthe first, on a gallant, lunatic mission to deliver a wounded, pregnant wolf to freedom; the second, accompanied by younger brother Boyd, to recover the horses stolen from their murdered parents; and the third, as a desperate drifter, in search of Boyd’s corpse if not peace. Early in the first excursion, Billy is warned by yet another vatic elder to “cease his wanderings and make for himself some place in the world because to wander in this way would become for him a passion and by this passion he would become estranged from men and so ultimately from himself.” Like many of the other pronouncements Billy hears along the way, this one proves an accurate prophecy. His forays begin as chivalry and end as vagrancy. He meets vaqueros, mineros, brujos, gitanos, banditos, soldiers, carnies and other assorted specimens of humanity, and he encounters generosity, indifference and cruelty. But the youthful pilgrim makes no progress except in acquiring harsh instruction in the vanity of human wishes. The late Boyd Parham ends up purged of human failings in a heroic corrido, but we last glimpse brother Billy, a connoisseur of “doomed enterprises,” sitting in the road, weeping. In The Crossing, where World War II is barely a rumor and fences are as rare as tarmac, borders are utterly permeable. Passage from the United States into Mexico, across unvarying expanses, often goes unnoticed. Nothing marks Sonora for Billy and the wolf except’ a concrete obelisk at the edge of a land “undifferentiated in its terrain from the country they quit and yet wholly alien and wholly strange.” When Billy returns to norteamericano jurisdiction via Douglas, Arizona, he is stopped briefly by a friendly, languid border guard who even lends him half a dollar. Billy, whose grandmother was Mexican, switches casually and appropriately between Spanish and English; the reader who stays along for the ride can decipher most of what is said from context. The Crossing offers an experience in bicultural dislocation and immersion, and further evidence that McCarthy is the finest Mexican author currently writing in English. Some of Billy’s most intimate conversations are with other species. Like John Grady Cole, he prefers the company of quadrupedsnot only the pretty horses that both boys, master equestrians, risk their lives to retrieve from bandits but also the predatory she-wolf he at first attempts to trap and then restore to liberty. For all the savagery of McCarthy’s men toward other men, the two most stunning moments in his new novel are the shooting of a wolf and the knifing of a horse. Without sentimentalizing animals, Billy talks to the critters, suffers with them and grieves over them, as though 18 AUGUST 5, 1994
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