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Cormac McCarthy’s existential Westerns

Cormac McCarthy is considered by many to be the greatest living American writer. His novels, set in the Mexican borderlands, are steeped in a violent history that still resonates today.

Howdy, partner. I promise you no one says that in the 1,056 pages of The Border Trilogy, which feature the tribulations of some rather existential cowboys. All in all, Cormac McCarthy’s vaqueros don’t say much, but they especially don’t talk in horsey clichés. Neither do they talk like people usually do in novels, by which I mean the type of novels popularised in the 19th century and still, for some mysterious reason, going strong today. But while other people in other books psychologise and speak, these people, in these semi-linked books, are mostly busy resisting rudimentary and wholly external forces: terrain and weather and enemies. Their needs are for clothing and food and water and shelter, and for safety from both malevolence and from natural and impersonal forms of danger. They need boots. They need rifles, saddle blankets, and canteens.

For a long time I didn’t like Western films as a genre, because they were boring to me without any women. With Sam Peckinpah, I yawned and waited to glimpse the ladies in the saloon or on the train platform. They appear only rarely. Nicholas Ray was an exception. Johnny Guitar was an exception. But the icy virago in that film, played by Joan Crawford, was also the exception, so it all kind of cancels itself out. Strangely, I didn’t take much issue with the relative lack of women in The Border Trilogy, having read the books eagerly, one by one, as they emerged over the course of the 1990s: All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998). And, in fact, various women do appear, such as Dueña Alfonsa, who offers to John Grady a pessimistic world-view that is the strongest statement in All the Pretty Horses. But generally speaking the women say even less than the cowboys and we never enter their thoughts. What I realised, in rereading these books, is that I had adopted, naturally, the points of view of the male characters, because that is where, in the books, subjectivity lies. Even if the men don’t reveal much interiority, we occupy their points of view as they struggle, and struggle in these books is the essential condition of life.

John Grady wants to locate a world he can recognise as historically continuous. In The Crossing, Billy Parham wants to return a wolf that he has captured and muzzled to the mountains of Mexico. And perhaps Billy Parham also wants to enter into mythological time, approach something like a set of eternal laws. That these desires are not justified in conventional passages of interiority is part of the unique artistic vision of Cormac McCarthy. No purpose is stated.

We know only predicament, but the predicament is loaded. John Grady’s, and Billy’s, too, is something like that of the mercenaries in Xenophon’s Anabasis, who lose their leader and in a sense their war, and find themselves wandering in an alien land. But even when lost, McCarthy’s cowboys don’t doubt, or hope, or suspect, or wonder. Instead they are defined by know-how, as Heidegger might put it. They roll their own and strike anywhere, but mostly off a thumbnail. They rope and break wild horses. And the reader too acquires skills, such as reading beautifully worked prose that has no commas. They go without beds. We go without commas, and feel liberated.

More importantly, the reader, like these cowboys, will eventually acclimate to the landscape as a totalising reality, where meditation and resistance are two components of one reality, a destiny of wandering the borderlands of the US and Mexico in the postwar 20th century.

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At the beginning of All the Pretty Horses, John Grady’s family are about to sell their ranch and end a multi-generations-long tradition. He’s 16 when he and his friend Lacey Rawlins set out for Mexico, in search of something like authenticity, or in any case, adventure. Prairie women don’t provide home-cooked vittles for their big send-off. They stop and buy supplies that are packed into a number four grocery bag. But the ironies McCarthy layers in don’t rely on crude dichotomies, in regard to historical transformation. The postwar 20th-century frontier, where cowboys purchase groceries, is not the corruption of some pure origin. The origin is understood to be itself a corruption. An oil painting in the dining room of the family ranch features horses breaking through a pole corral. When John Grady asks his grandfather what breed they are, the old man says “those are picture-book horses” and goes on eating.

Picture-book horses in a picture-book West are part of the historical record, a history that “seethes on… well into the third millennium”, as Harold Bloom wrote, referring to the events depicted in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). If that novel precedes The Border Trilogy both chronologically and by its historical content, the same stretch and reach of colonial conquest and war inform all four novels, with Blood Meridian as the primal scene of extreme violence in the borderlands of Texas and Mexico in 1849. The facts of history, that paramilitary forces were sent to murder as many Indians as possible, and the mystification of history – with its picture-book horses and its John Waynes – are profoundly woven into the trilogy that came next. Nominally Westerns, these books are too entropic and philosophical to fit within the limits of the genre. They summon the ghosts of history, and haunt the gaps between justice and reality.

As I revisited the trilogy recently, I was in a home office that is walking distance from the largest bas-relief military monument in the United States, celebrating the 1847 victory of Los Angeles in the Mexican-American War. This enormous stone depiction of men, one on horseback, and the rippling American flag they raise, just happens to be diagonally opposite from the huge criminal court building in downtown Los Angeles. Mexican-Americans stream past it, dwarfed by the 50-foot-tall monument, as they make their dreary way to court, where disproportionate numbers of Latinos are arraigned, tried, convicted, and remanded to state prisons.

Which is to say that history seethes onwards indeed. John Grady’s attempt to find the authentic way to live his destiny, be a man in the West – by going to Mexico – is itself tinged with ironies. Until he and Lacey Rawlins reach the border, they are travelling from fence to fence, in a land bounded and defined by private property. On the rare occasion they need and use money, their commerce seems primitive, reluctant, although they do occasionally enjoy a heavy ceramic plate of diner food, in scenes that could almost be cut from the cinematic cloth of Hud or The Last Picture Show – both of which, like The Border Trilogy, take place in the twilight of Western ranching.

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When John Grady reaches the Rio Grande, he crosses naked (to keep his clothes dry), and the symbolism of his Adamic rebirth into Mexico is obvious. McCarthy understands the myth of the American Adam and the American Eden. Adam does not spring from nowhere. In this case he comes from Texas. And he will return north, and reappear in Book Three to witness the transformation of the West into a staging ground for nuclear annihilation. He and Billy Parham both travel back and forth, variously, over the panoramic stretch of three books. They are homesteaders of the body, not the land. But even the American myth of self-reliance, and further, of selfhood, is pulverised artfully by their creator. This pulverisation is not only an attack on the myths of the new world and its new man, but on the myths of novelistic truth.

If both the ideological plague and central mission of the novel, as an art form, have been to uncover the interior truths of individual lives, McCarthy has among other things loosed his characters of that formal bind, and conceit. For when John Grady, at the end of All the Pretty Horses, “passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come”, he joins with both the living world and the engulfing landscape. He pales. He fades away. And even if he does eventually return in Book Three, we are left at the end of the first book with a majestic idea of the absolution of self: John Grady goes to Mexico a teenage boy and returns north a figure literally merging with the void.

It is one of my favourite moments in literature. If the choice of “pale” by a writer with great range and control is not accidental, then we must take the rider in the scene to be the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, who rides the pale horse and is known by the name Death. Like a slow-acting hallucinogen, the book has managed to transform a Texas boy of 16 looking for adventure into a mysterious figure that augurs the
destruction of the world. He is no longer John Grady. He is Death, and yet the concluding note is not quite ominous. Rather, it’s an ingenious sleight of hand, one that readies us for the long, meandering journey into the future, the vivid and intricate worlds and underworlds to come – in Book Two, and Book Three. 

“The Border Trilogy” by Cormac McCarthy is published by Picador in a new edition, with an introduction by Rachel Kushner

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special