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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Outlaw Heart Cormac McCarthy:s Border Trilogy BY DON GRAHAM CITIES OF THE PLAIN. By Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf. 291 pages $24.00 Cormac McCarthy has lived in Texas since 1976, and in that time has published, along with Suttree, his goodbye-to-Knoxville-andall-that novel of 1979, four novels set in the old and modern West: Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and, this year, Cities of the Plain . The last three comprise the “Border Trilogy,” all published in the nineties, and by any estimation based on literary merit, the most considerable accomplishment by a Texas writer or any writer who has even flown over Texas in these latter years of the Millennium. McCarthy’s West is parts of Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico, yet I know plenty of Texas writers who whisper to me, slantwise out of the corner of their mouths, he won’t last, he doesn’t really live in Texas, he’s not a Texas writer, and so on. A. C. Greene won’t even admit him to his puny pantheon, The 50+ Best Books on Texas, a new, weird update of Greene’s original Fifty Best Books on Texas, which was published back in the early 1980s and provoked Larry McMurtry to a famous riposte in the pages of this journal, the muchcited “Ever a Bridegroom.” In the new version Green denies All the Pretty Horses admittance into his select company, proclaiming it primarily a “novel of Mexico.” Greene also boots out Katherine Anne Porter, declaring that Pale Horse, Pale Rider is not a Texas work because the title story takes place in Denver \(and ignoring the fact that “Noon Wine” is set near Buda, just down the road from Green’s home in Personal Country remains in. Inexplicably, Greene adds Stanley Marcus’s Minding the Store and something called Johnny Texas. It may be time to announce a long moratorium on the subject of Texas writing. McCarthy, however, is the only writer in all of Texas today whose prose is worth rereading. One page of McCarthy is worth the whole shelf of Western titles at WalMart, some of which are produced by admired and celebrated Texas literary “giants.” But then McCarthy is an intensely literary writer. He is the heir of Modernist prose, and if you take the view that Modernism Joyce, say, and in America, McCARTHY’S STATUS AS A SOUTHERN WRITER IS CERTIFIED BY THE FACT THAT IN MUCH OF. HIS EARLY FICTION THERE IS A PLETHORA OF DEAD MULES, DEAD MULES BEING…THE PRINCIPAL GENRE-SIGNIFIER OF SOUTHERN LITERATURE. Faulkner, to cite two of McCarthy’s obvious precursors is an outmoded form of literary production, elitist texts for rarefied special audiences, and on top of that male and Eurocentric as hell, then McCarthy is the last practitioner in America of an ossified high art form. He is certainly one of the few to treat Western materials with the highest intensity of prose of which he is capable, and he is very capable indeed. With very few exceptions, Western fiction is mostly a hail of gunfire and lonely men riding through Marlboro country. There is an entire professional organization, the Western American Literature Association, dedicated to the proposition that what I have just said is not true, but Western writers in America have rarely broken through to national audiences. McCarthy has. What makes McCarthy’ s career so remarkable is that it has encompassed two of the great sites of national myth-making: the South and the West. His first four novels all grew out of the Southern literary tradition, which means Faulkner for the long, sinuous sentences and O’Connor for the maxed-out Gothic effects, though Faulkner was no slouch in that regard himself, and he of course was Flannery O’Connor’ s own precursor, the “Dixie Limited” she called him, roaring down the track. In Suttree, a Joycean recreation of Knoxville, McCarthy contributes one of the finest moments in Southern Gothic when he tells the tale of a country youth, Gene Harrogate, who has sex with watermelons. The story of the “melonmounter” who serves prison time ,on a lesser charge than bestiality because he had a smart lawyer who pointed out that plant amour wasn’t the same as animal love, is right up there with Faulkner, O’Connor, and Erskine Caldwell. McCarthy’s status as a Southern writer is certified by the fact that in much of his early fiction there is a plethora of dead mules, dead mules being, as one wag has recently half-seriously opined, the principal genre-signifier of Southern literature. Following this line of thinking, Jerry Leath Mills in an article in The Southern Literary Journal last year crowned McCarthy the king of Southern writing, noting fifty-nine dead mules in Blood Meridian, a number I’m accepting on faith. Ah, but that novel is set along the border of Texas and Mexico, and it should therefore be seen as the end of the Southern tradition in McCarthy because in the Border Trilogy there are no dead mules at all. In the new novel, Cities of the Plain, there is in fact a pointed reference to the signifier’s absence, as Billy Parham, looking at an abandoned adobe shack that John Grady Cole is refurbishing for his beloved, says, “The only thing you ain’t got here is a dead mule in the floor.” In the trilogy there are, however, dead critters of every other stripe and dead Americans and dead Mexicans and a great deal of dead road kill, including a macabre massacre of rabbits by a car speeding through the night in Cities of the Plain: “The Oldsmobile had this big ovalshaped grille in the front of it was like a JULY 31, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5