Today I finished the third volume in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain. This book brings together John Grady Cole, the central character of All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham, the central character of The Crossing. Cities is set roughly three years after the events of All the Pretty Horses, and almost a decade after The Crossing. Billy and John Grady both work on a ranch in southern New Mexico, not far from Juarez and El Paso. The two men have formed a strong friendship, and the reader sees echoes of Billy’s relationship with his brother Boyd (who died in The Crossing). They both seem at home in their cowboy lifestyle, despite the looming shadow of a government takeover of the ranch for use in military testing. This threat is largely ignored by John Grady and Billy, as well as their fellow ranch workers. They all have the same response: if it happens, we will find something else to do.
The threat to the ranch is a footnote to the main plot. John Grady falls in love with a young Mexican prostitute, and the two agree to be married. Unfortunately for John Grady, the manager of the brothel in which the girl is forced to work is also in love with her. His name is Eduardo, and Billy attempts to negotiate for the girl’s release on John Grady’s behalf. Eduardo refuses and makes it clear that he will not allow her to leave him without a fight. Despite the threats from Eduardo, Jon Grady and his love continue with their plans. Eduardo eventually murders the girl rather than lose her. Heartbroken and enraged, John Grady confronts the pimp and the two engage in a back-alley knife fight. John Grady is severely wounded but manages to kill Eduardo. John Grady tries to flee but is too seriously injured to survive. He is able to contact Billy, who sits with him until he dies. Billy leaves the ranch for good a few days later. The book has a lengthy epilogue in which we see Billy as an old man. After bouncing from town to town and job to job, he eventually winds up as a homeless man. As he nears death he is taken in by a kind family who provide comfort and seem to genuinely appreciate him.
Cities of the Plainis an excellent book, although I enjoyed the other two volumes in the Border Trilogy more. I loved the interplay between John Grady and Billy and the poignant image of a dying way of life. All the Pretty Horsesleft off with John Grady uncertain of where to call home, with the strong sense that he left his heart in Mexico. Citiesbrings that notion to culmination, with John Grady ultimately losing his life in Mexico over an affair of the heart. Billy is again a tragic figure, losing everything he loves to the violent and headstrong country south of the border. The entire trilogy is as much a story of individual heartache as it is the story of the disappearance of the last vestiges of wild and free America. Despite his incredible resourcefulness and strong will, Billy ultimately becomes a hobo, unable to integrate into modern America. He is a relic of a dead way of life, suggesting that a part of him passed away in these books as well– his utility. McCarthy has reminded us all that the world we know is as fleeting as our own individual happiness.
The Current Count
16 Read, 84 To Go