Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
Cities of the Plain is a raw, emotional haunting tale…. and not exactly what I expected for the final book of The Border Trilogy. But I should have known better since McCarthy’s style is bleak realism. And while there are some humorous moments throughout the series, the plot underscores the random unpredictability of life, the harsh reality of human behavior, and the insignificance of one human being in the big picture of the universe.
Cities of the Plain is the 3rd book of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. Book 1 – All The Pretty Horses is the story of John Grady Cole, a modern-day cowboy. In 1949 his parents split up, his grandfather dies, and the family ranch is sold. John Grady is left to fend for himself at age 17, and grows up particularly fast when he travels to Mexico where he gets into trouble with Mexican bandits and corrupt law enforcement.
Book 2, The Crossing drops back to 1940 and is the story of Billy Parham. He’s also a modern-day cowboy, and Billy is 16 when he leaves home and crosses the border into Mexico. And like John Grady, he is also in for a rude awakening to discover it’s a harsh cruel world out there in the Mexican wilderness.
Both boys are strong, disciplined, and independent – loners, traveling around Texas doing odd jobs at western ranches when they meet up in Cities of the Plain. It’s 1952 and Billy is 28 now years old and has been drifting for 12 years. His parents, sister, and only brother are all dead, and Billy hasn’t a friend on the world. Billy immediately finds a kindred spirit in John Grady. They both appear to be out-laws but that is mostly because they fear no man and live by their own rules. Perhaps they were destined to meet. But for what purpose? It certainly didn’t benefit either one of them in the long run except for one brief moment in time when they could feel they were not totally alone in the world. The darkness, cruelty, and sadness of this tragic tale was far more than I had bargained.
I was contemplating rating Cities of the Plain 3 or 3.5 Stars because the excessively primitive writing style was rather annoying, I sometimes had to read whole pages several times to figure out who was talking and the lack of punctuation is often distracting and confusing. All three books of the trilogy are in the same unconventional writing style, but the dialogue gets even more ambiguous and confusing in Cities of the Plain.
And then I got to the Epilogue. The Epilogue is a short story told 50 years later when Billy is 78 years old. My highest rating – 5 Stars – is not enough to express the powerful message McCarthy conveys to the reader. It is a philosophical message about the passing of time, the inevitability of death, and the meaning of life….. beautifully written and captivating. All the cautionary advice given to Billy by the old sages in The Crossing has come true. Having read the Epilogue 3 times, I find myself still thinking about this unforgettable tale.
Cities of the Plain is rated 4.5 Stars.
For the complete Border Trilogy my rating is 5 Stars. March 1, 2016
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