Cowboys, Cannibals and Poetry

Concerning Cormac McCarthy and his book, The Crossing


Well I've just read a great book, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, and I got off lightly this time.

Anyone dealing with McCarthy has to deal with the violence of his books. I am not proud of the fact that I managed to finish my first McCarthy book, Blood Meridian. It is an endless stream of violence and atrocity. Of course I understand that it is based on an actual band of degenerates, but historical reality does not justify a book. The current tagline for the upcoming film is "Every man has a scalp" and I will not be watching this movie. Three of his books have made it to the screen before, All the Pretty Horses, the Road and the Academy Award winning No Country for Old Men. The last two rated R for violence and included cannibals and a "you die if you call the toss wrong" killer. All the Pretty Horses, an earlier movie, is not without a moment of horror.

I was thus strongly conditioned on starting The Crossing and was ill at ease through all of the book, because I felt for young Billy, and feared the worst. But McCarthy shows us some mercy this time. Should it be a spoiler to know that the protagonist is still above ground at the end of a book? I'm sure I will relax more into the next reading, perhaps to the detriment of the experience.

Two American teenage brothers wander into northern Mexico on horseback. Nineteenth century America, as I first imagined? No, 1938, but that wasn't a modern date in the West. And to cross into Mexico then was truly to cross into a former century.

The story starts with a strong plot line which ends abruptly and completely on page 127. But there are still 298 pages left! The rest of the book never achieves quite the focused drama of the beginning, but I guess someone's mostly aimless wandering doesn't support plot. Never mind, its the crossing that matters not the destination.

McCarthy uses words in variant forms I've never heard of. Odd turns of phrase. "The night sky lies so sprint (sic) with stars that there is scarcely space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs and it is so that their numbers are not less." His language seems to be awkward and lyrical at the same time, with a starkness and immediacy, a primitive poetry that perfectly suits the places and characters he writes about.

McCarthy's storytelling is curious also for what he does and doesn't include. A doctor deals with a gunshot wound, the procedure is described with all the detail and attention of a zen tea ceremony. Reading up on saddlery and tacking a horse would be useful in following McCarthy's constant technical references regarding the chief means of transportation. A knowledge of Spanish, or at least a Spanish to English dictionary, would be helpful in understanding most of the direct dialogue. Far be it for him, in the midst of endless descriptions of the fauna and topography of the state of Chihuahua, the weather, the flight of birds and the movement of the trees, to give us any clues as to what the main character, Billy Parham, or any other human for that matter, is feeling. I mean most of the conversations are in a foreign language! All characters seem wrapped in a stoicism complete, although any person encountered is game to launch into a long and unlikely and inconclusive monologue (seemingly important as its in English) about God's nature, predestination, freewill, sin, how we come to know the world, and other such philosophical topics, while eating their last rancid tortilla. The one time McCarthy finally drops his guard and someone actually bursts into tears comes as an explosion, and almost serves as the climax to the book.

In the midst are the poor of Mexico in their rags. The endless acts of kindness as those who have almost nothing share with those who have nothing. But then that's my conclusion, McCarthy seems to have no opinions to clutter up his creation, the reader is not lacking of space to fill in.

So why is it a great book? McCarthy is a great writer. Read the first chapter following, courtesy of Amazon, and see if you agree.

I'd like to read Moby Dick now, as it seems McCarthy is often compared to Melville.

But dare I read more McCarthy?


Chapter One: The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they'd named Hildalgo was itself little older than the child. In the county they'd quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a crossfence.  He carried Boyd before him in the bow of the saddle and named to him features of the landscape and birds and animals in both spanish and english. In the new house they slept in the room off the kitchen and he would lie awake at night and listen to his brother's breathing in the dark and he would whisper half aloud to him as he slept his plans for them and the life they would have.

On a winter's night in that first year he woke to hear wolves in the low hills to the west of the house and he knew that they would be coming out on to the plain in the new snow to run the antelope in the moonlight. He pulled his breeches off the foot board of the bed and got his shirt and his blanketlined duckingcoat  and got his boots from under the bed and went out to the kitchen and dressed in the dark by the faint warmth of the stove and held his boots to the window light to pair them left and right and pulled them on and rose and went to the kitchen door and stepped out and closed the door behind him.

When he passed the barn the horses whimpered softly to him in the cold. The snow creaked under his boots and his breath smoked in the bluish light. An hour later he was crouched in the snow in the dry creekbed where he knew the wolves had been using by their tracks in the sand of the washes, by their tracks in the snow.

They were already out on the plain and when he crossed the gravel fan where the creek ran south into the valley he could see where they'd crossed before him. He went forward on knees and elbows with his hands pulled back into his sleeves to keep them out of the snow and when he reached the last of the small dark juniper trees where the broad valley ran under the Animas Peaks he crouched quietly to steady his breath and then raised himself slowly and looked out.

They were running on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world entire. They moved down the valley and turned and moved far out on the plain until they were the smallest of figures in that dim whiteness and then they disappeared.

He was very cold. He waited. It was very still. He could see by his breath how the wind lay and he watched his breath appear and vanish and appear and vanish constantly before him in the cold and he waited a long time. Then he saw them coming. Loping and twisting. Dancing. Tunnneling their noses in the snow. Loping and running and rising by twos in a standing dance and running on again.

There were seven of them and they passed within 20 feet of where he lay.  He could see their almond eyes in the moonlight. He could hear their breath. He could feel the presence of their knowing that was electric in the air. They bunched and nuzzled and licked one another. Then they stopped. They stood with their ears cocked. Some with one forefoot raised to their chest.  They were looking at him. He did not breathe. They did not breathe. They turned and quietly trotted on. When he got back to the house Boyd was awake but he didn't tell him where he'd been nor what he'd seen. He never told anybody.