Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing

Cormac McCarthy (1933-)
What is the nature of man and the universe? Cormac McCarthy asks this fundamental metaphysical question in all of his novels, at least the five I have read: Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), No Country for Old Men (2005), and The Road (2006). The broad question can easily be broken into five more specific questions: Does God exist? Does man have free will? How much control does man have over his life? Is the universe a place of order or chaos? Does Justice exist? These questions are the main reason I continue to turn to McCarthy.
In The Crossing, the second of McCarthy’s critically acclaimed Border Trilogy, the author presents a stand-alone work that tells a very different story and with different characters than the first, All the Pretty Horses.  The first two in the trilogy do have some clear thematic connections and they both tell stories about young American men who travel, or descend, into Mexico and return to the American side of the border. In the last novel of the trilogy, Cities of the Plain (1998), the two main characters from each of the first two novels become friends and work together on a cattle ranch in New Mexico.
Written in McCarthy’s ever poetic and spare voice, The Crossing tells the story of sixteen-year-old Billy Parham, who in the late 1930s captures a wolf that has been threatening the family ranch. Instead of killing it, and without notice to his parents, Billy decides to take the wolf back to its home in Mexico. With this crossing, he begins a long and mythic journey into a kind of netherworld where thugs, federales, horse thieves, powerful landowners, and a few kind and giving peasants share the land.  If God exists here, He is a distant god far removed from the affairs of men. McCarthy’s Mexico is a world almost totally lacking in order. And justice is not to be found here either. In fact, a couple of characters Billy runs into—including an eye-less former revolutionary—speak at length to the boy about the world’s lack of justice and order. While their fascinating stories differ, most of them share the same basic message. They spend much of their lives searching for order and justice and God but found none of the above, so, they imply, it’s best to live with and appreciate what you have. Concerning the question of whether man has free will, the answer is perhaps a bit more nuanced. From my point of view, Billy clearly makes choices. He decides—perhaps ignorantly and hubristically—to take the wolf to Mexico. He decides to return home. He decides to leave his brother at one point. But Billy ultimately has little control over his life and very little control over what happens to him or others in Mexico. So, McCarthy may be saying that our will may be free but our outcomes or the outcomes of others are out of our hands.

I really enjoyed The Crossing. For me, it was that rare novel that is both literary (by which I mean poetic and philosophical) and entertaining. I was constantly experiencing bursts of euphoric pleasure simply reading some of McCarthy’s beautiful sentences.  Like his other novels—and some probably find this frustrating—he entirely does away with quotation marks and most apostrophes. And he often fails to indicate who is speaking. Here is a brief sample:
You mind tellin me what the hell you’re doing? he said.
Trying to keep these damn dogs off of my wolf.
Don’t give me no smart answer.
I aint. I come up on your fence and went to hunting a gate is all.
What the hell did you expect was goin to happen?
I didn’t know there was dogs here.
Well hell, you seen the house didn’t you?
The man squinted at him. You’re Will Parham’s boy. Aint you?
What’s your name?
Billy Parham. (65-66)

Another trait I noticed right away is that McCarthy almost entirely does without commas, replacing them with ‘and.’ I recall this trait in All the Pretty Horses and The Road, but McCarthy uses ‘and’s much more exhaustively in The Crossing. Here’s a sample:

He got the fire going and lifted the wolf from the sheet and took the sheet to the creek and crouched in the dark and washed the blood out of it and brought it back and he cut forked sticks from a mountain hackberry and drove them into the ground in the firelight like a burning scrim standing in a wilderness where celebrants of some sacred passion had been carried off by rival sects or perhaps had simply fled in the night at the fear of their own doing. (126)
The effect of a sentence like this, I think, is to stretch time, to emphasize a particular act or sometimes to highlight the monotony or tediousness of our daily lives and the relatively small impact we have on our surroundings. Nonetheless, no matter how you interpret it, it is unique, poetic, and powerful. Though less overtly literary than, say, Blood Meridian (which has a kind of profoundly Biblical high style), The Crossing remains a powerful example of one of our most gifted American stylists.  Even though I enjoyed Blood Meridian, The Crossing is certainly a more enjoyable read. I didn’t feel like I was working at it as I did with the denser and more challenging Blood Meridian. I even found it quite funny sometimes, especially some of the conversations.
My one small quibble is that the novel introduces too many characters. As Billy rides to and through Mexico, he probably meets somewhere between fifty and a hundred people. With some he converses, with others he doesn’t. There are some pages where McCarthy describes meeting several different characters over several hours in the course of a day. So sometimes a character is described in one or two sentences and that character is never seen again. I’m sure that the plethora of characters has a thematic purpose. It’s probably some statement about the evanescence of life or McCarthy’s attempt to show us that there are many different stories and Billy’s is just one of them. I guess what I most found frustrating was that several of the characters were really interesting (like the ex-Mormon who converts to Catholicism), and I didn’t want to see them go.  


  1. I wonder what McCarthy would say about the comma thing? It is a really interesting style and makes the prose sound very original, almost simple. I like your interpretation that it is to stretch time and show the tediouscy of life.
    I remember liking the no quotation mark thing in The Road. Sometimes you have to read a few times, but I think it makes it more gritty somehow. Why do you think he does that?

  2. Part of it is simply his unique style. There are others who do the no-quotation-mark thing and he may not even be the first, but it is something he is known for. It's his trademark. Maybe the absence of quotation marks is McCarthy's way of adding weight to what the characters say, putting them on par with the narrator. In this way the narrator is less authoritative and the characters are less subordinate to the narrator. Or maybe not?