Where the hell?

Michael Wood

  • The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
    Picador, 426 pp, £14.99, August 1994, ISBN 0 330 33462 X

Cormac McCarthy comes to us with a tremendous reputation: not only the National Book Award but a critical chorus comparing him to Melville, Shakespeare, Conrad, Faulkner, Dostoevsky. There have also been voices crying hokum, but not many. The Crossing is McCarthy’s seventh novel, and you have only to open one of them to see what has set everyone reeling. Obsessions and hallucinations litter the pages, strange, silent shapes fall off mountains or patrol plains, everyone who speaks at all speaks like an oracle. There is blood everywhere. It’s eerie to hear a 19th-century cowboy paraphrasing Swift (‘They’d been skinned and I can tell ye it does very little for a man’s appearance’); eerier still to see a distorted after-image of King Lear set loose in a Western desert, ‘like some scurrilous king stripped of his vesture and driven together with his fool into the wilderness to die’. In another cultural register, Western fans will recognise a scene or two borrowed from The Outlaw Josey Wales, and people spit in these novels as if they were Eastwood dolls who didn’t know how to stop the machinery. ‘He leaned and spat.’ McCarthy never tires or writing this sentence, the prelude to every raw and cryptic cowboy comment. It signals the westernness of the West, the way the fringes in Mankiewicz’s film Julius Caesar, according to Roland Barthes, were the quick and surefire sign of Romanness. Everything is mythic in McCarthy, and at times he seems to smile at this himself. Not often.

   What if they’re laid up somewhere fixin to drygulch us?

   Drygulch us?

   Yeah.

   Where’d you hear that at?

   I dont know ...

   You never know when you’ll be in need of them you’ve despised, said Blevins.

   Where the hell’d you hear that at?

   I dont know. I just decided to say it.

The Crossing is the second book in a trilogy which began with All the Pretty Horses, but it is not a sequel to the first. More like a parallel, a retake, a return to old landscapes and preoccupations. Both books are about boys and horses; boys who travel south for experiences which age them beyond anyone’s years; horses stolen and recovered and lost again. Both are about nameless forces in the world, and about the folly of trying to name them. Both books start in an old North America, the Texas and New Mexico of the Forties, places where men who live on horseback meet men in rickety trucks on new blacktop roads; and both books take their heroes to a Mexico which is even older, a land of memory and phantoms, of revolutionary ballads and continuing violence, where people speak of the assassination of Francisco Madero in 1913 as if it happened yesterday, or indeed as if it were happening now. Some of these Mexicans are very grand, and are sensitively evoked, like Don Hector and Doña Alfonsa in All the Pretty Horses, aristocrats with a fine line in anecdote and epigram: ‘Francisco was the most deluded of all. He was never suited to be president of Mexico. He was hardly even suited to be Mexican.’ ‘I’ve no sympathy with people to whom things happen. It may be that their luck is bad, but is that to count in their favour?’ But an alarming number of others seem to have stepped straight out of the condescending dreams of D.H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry, all immemorial wisdom and ethnic patience. They say things like ‘The soul of Mexico is very old,’ or ‘The road has its own reasons and no two travellers will have the same understanding of those reasons,’ or (in Anglo-Spanish) that the evidence of God’s justice and mercy is found in the fact that everything is dust, todo es polvo. At times McCarthy does this sort of number in indirect speech: ‘She said that the rain which befriends can also betray one. She said also that while the rain fell by the will of God evil chose its own hour and that those whom it sought out were perhaps not entirely lacking of some certain darkness in themselves.’ This avoids one kind of phoniness but only to find another, and one of the chief problems in the world of The Crossing, especially, is that you can’t go anywhere without stumbling into some sage or other out to tell you a story: an ex-priest in a ruined church, a man blinded in the revolution, a sorrowful Yaqui Indian, various vatic women. Not everything these people say is negligible or bogus, but they certainly eat into the idea of silence and solitude. McCarthy’s heroes are taciturn, scarcely talk at all, but the landscape is full of chatterboxes.

The prose chatters too, and there is a problem here that we must look at. Denis Donoghue, in a fine essay in the New York Review of Books, defends what he calls McCarthy’s high style on the grounds that it rightly and sensitively uses rare words, and that the style has work to do. It has to ‘speak up for values the character could not express; for regions, places, landscapes, vistas, movements of the seasons, trees, rain, snow, dawn, sunset, outer and inner weather; and for times not our time.’ I think this argument works, more or less, for Blood Meridian, the novel McCarthy published before he started on his trilogy. This novel is set in Mexico and the South-West of the US in the mid-19th century. It concerns mercenary scalp-hunters and their travels and blood-lettings and deaths, and at its centre is the King Lear figure I have already mentioned, a proto-Nietzschean character known as Judge Holden, who weighs 450 pounds and has no hair, and smilingly proclaims that war is god. He seems capable of taking the whole world into his repellent embrace, and the novel ends with him obscenely dancing in a Western bar, and with the last half-decent cowboy dead in a jakes, murdered by the judge in his own good time. The writing is recklessly, relentlessly over the top, but you can bring yourself to believe it has to be – particularly since you may no longer know where the top is.

Even so, there is an anxiety in McCarthy which recalls Conrad’s uncertainty about whether he has got the effect he was after. If you’ve just produced, with considerable power, a lurid scene in the flickering light, you don’t need to say it was ‘a lurid scene in the flickering light’. ‘A howl of such outrage as to stitch a caesura in the pulsebeat of the world’: this is waving not writing – it just says outrage, without bringing us any closer to it. And all too often the style, even in Blood Meridian, suggests Late Victorian romance rather than American or Russian extremism, King Arthur rather than Captain Ahab or Prince Mishkin. ‘His origins are become remote as his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay’; ‘He looked like some loutish knight beriddled by a troll’; ‘He passed and so passed all into the problematical destruction of darkness’; ‘and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun’; ‘The party approaching were clad in such fool’s regalia and withal bore themselves with such aplomb that the paler riders were hard put to keep their composure.’

McCarthy has a rhetorical tic too, already evident in the examples of the scurrilous king and the loutish knight: ‘like some’, or ‘like ... some’. ‘Like fugitives from some great fire at the earth’s end’; ‘like some wholly wretched baptismal candidate’; ‘like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself’; ‘like some heliotropic plague’; ‘like some fabled equine ideation out of an Attic tragedy’; ‘like some crazed defector in a gesture of defiant camaraderie’; ‘like wardens of some dim sect sent forth to proselytise among the very beasts of the land’; ‘like hot scurf blown from some unreckonable forge howling in the waste’; ‘like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them’; ‘like some queer unruly god abducted from a race of degenerates’; ‘like the back of some pale seabeast surfaced among the dark archipelagos’; ‘like some wild thaumaturge out of an atavistic drama’; ‘like old ivory bows heaped in the aftermath of some legendary battle’; ‘like some monster slain in the commission of unnatural acts’; ‘like refugees from some sordid disaster’. All of these instances come from Blood Meridian, although the tic continues into the later books. Such hazy analogies don’t do nearly as much damage as you’d think they would, and some of them have a genuine, eccentric authority. But most are merely vague, loose gesticulations towards large (and often quite conventional) meanings. The spitting is more eloquent.

All the Pretty Horses is the worst offender in all stylistic respects: what was experimental in Blood Meridian becomes a bad habit here, and in The Crossing the habit already seems to be fading. If only McCarthy could shed a few sages. Unfortunately I read All the Pretty Horses first, and I didn’t think I was going to make it to the end. There is a girl whose eyes ‘altered the world for ever in the space of a heartbeat’, who is completely real ‘and yet a dream withal’; and there are more gesticulations: ‘like some ribald satellite of the coming sun’; ‘like some desiccated effigy from a tomb’; ‘like some phantom migration’; ‘like some sad and ill used serf’; ‘like a man seeking some vision of the increate future of the universe’. But I did make it to the end, and I read the book again, and I’m done complaining. The idea that these are great novels strikes me as ridiculous, but greatness is an overrated critical concept, and the novels have wonderful moments in spite of their flaws; they are literally haunting, since you can’t stop thinking about them; and they have interesting things to say about the silences which lurk beneath all speech, the terse and the florid. This is much harder to talk about, or illustrate.

In All the Pretty Horses, the year is 1949. John Grady Cole is 16, his grandfather has just died, his parents are separated, his girlfriend has found someone else. He leaves his home in San Angelo, Texas and takes off with a friend for Mexico. They meet up with another, even younger boy riding a fine horse he has perhaps stolen; the horse is taken from him by Mexicans; he gets it back and loses it again, killing one of the rurales in the process. There is no capital punishment in Mexico, but this boy is taken out and shot. The others end up in a hideous jail in Saltillo, but not before John Grady has put in a spell at Don Hector’s ranch and fallen for his daughter Alejandra, the girl with the world-altering eyes. The two boys get out of jail, but the romance cannot continue, because Alejandra has promised her great-aunt that it won’t, and she’s the sort of heroine who keeps promises. John Grady returns to the US and an uncertain future. Perhaps he’ll work on an oil rig, but all we see is the figure of a horse and rider in the evening, headed into ‘the darkening land, the world to come’.

What stays in the mind is the cryptic, kindly relation of the boys to each other, the affection that sounds like insult; the wasted, changing landscapes and the endless riding; the criss-crossing encounters of travellers at night; a marvellous scene where the boys break in wild horses; a nightmare moment in the prison where John Grady is almost killed, and manages at the last moment to knife his wouldbe killer to death. There is a large shift here from the massacrous world of Blood Meridian, since the boy worries even about this act of self-defence: ‘I dont know. I dont know nothin about him. I never even knew his name. He could have been a pretty good old boy. I dont know. I dont know that he’s supposed to be dead.’ These reflections concern a paid assassin. John Grady’s interlocutor, a sympathetic Texan judge, says: ‘You know he wasnt a pretty good old boy. Dont you?’ And what could be merely portentous dialogue at times does lift into myth, into the sense, for instance, of an argument right at the end of its moral tether. Here is John Grady talking to a mysterious figure in the prison, a man who is himself a prisoner yet seems to control the place:

   Some people dont have a price.

   That is true.

   What about those people?

   Those people die.

   I aint afraid to die

   That is good. It will help you to die. It will not help you to live.

No character from All the Pretty Horses reappears in The Crossing, unless we think of Mexico as a character. The mood and the timing are different too, even if the landscapes are the same. All the Pretty Horses is about the discovery of sorrow, and its plotting is tidy, circular. Alejandra’s sorrow is larger than her unhappiness over the impossibility of love; John Grady’s sorrow is larger than his loss. The sorrow is still there in The Crossing, but it has become settled, repetitive, no longer a discovery. It is not a (merely) human sorrow, and it is not the blood madness of McCarthy’s earlier work. The crucial act here is not knowing sorrow, but living it: mourning. Billy Parham crosses into Mexico several times – in the early Forties, just before and just after the US entry into the Second World War – and twice his companion dies there; the first casualty is a she-wolf, the second his younger brother. At the start of the novel Billy is 16, like John Grady; by the end of the book he seems ageless. He is somewhere in the desert close to the border; he sits on the road and weeps.

The novel is full of obscure, unspoken motivations – so full that we might see all the chattering sages as a form of nervous reaction to everything that can’t be said, a noise to cover the unbearable silence. Billy catches the wolf in a trap, and is taking her home – to his parents’ house near Cloverdale, New Mexico. Suddenly he decides to take her home, to the mountains in Mexico where she came from. He muzzles her, takes his horse, half-leads, half-drags the wolf across the border and into Sonora. The wolf is soon taken from him, as ‘contraband’, as the horse is taken from the young boy in All the Pretty Horses. After being exhibited in a fair, she is set to fight against dogs on a hacienda: wolf-baiting as a sport for the betting man. In a spectacular scene, Billy rescues the wolf from her tormentors, but only at the price, finally, of killing the wolf himself rather than leave her to her enemies. He buries her in the mountains. When he gets back to the US, he finds both his parents have been killed, probably by Indians. Six horses were stolen, and Billy knows where they are, at least to within several thousand square miles, because he saw his father’s horse in Mexico. He picks up his brother Boyd, aged 14, and they cross the border, in search of the horses and the killers and something that they can’t name and perhaps don’t think about but which at various times looks like peace, action, death, justice, old age, independence, experience, violence. All they can openly acknowledge is that they are trying to get the horses back. One of the less unbearable Mexicans says Boyd is ‘young enough to believe that the past still exists,’ and perhaps his brother is too. It’s a painful belief if a piece of your past has been slaughtered. When Billy counsels caution because they have ‘come too far down here to go back dead’, Boyd pauses, and doesn’t spit, and says: ‘You think there is a place that far?’

The relationship between the brothers is beautifully done, and is more complex than the friendship between the boys in All the Pretty Horses. Here the gruffness is not all affection, they have different ways of failing to handle their grief, and for all their loyalty to each other, they don’t understand each other at all. Boyd tells Billy not to worry about him, to give the elder brother role a rest.

   I’m all right.

   I know you are, said Billy. But I aint.

Boyd disappears into Mexico, and is killed, perhaps finding the death he wants. In one of the finest sequences of the novel Billy tracks his dead brother through the lines of a popular song, a corrido, into which his brother’s life seems to have been subsumed. The song tells of a pale young man, a güero, who comes down from the North in search of justice. In another of those moments where portentousness turns to amazing, lucid authority, an older man explains to Billy where his brother is and is not, and spells out the radical scepticism which may underlie all of this fiction. ‘The corrido tells all and it tells nothing,’ the man says.

   I heard the tale of the güerito years ago, Before your brother was even born.

   You dont think it tells about him?

   Yes, it tells about him. It tells what it wishes to tell ...

Then he adds: ‘Even if the güerito in the song is your brother he is no longer your brother. He cannot be reclaimed.’

Billy does reclaim his brother, or at least his body, and takes it back to the US. But not before he has been told that ‘the dead have no nationality’ and ‘the world has no name.’ The border is what Billy crosses with the body, and it is also what vanishes into abstraction. Into those abstractions we cling to and make real.

The world has no name ... The names of cerros and the sierras and the deserts exist only on maps. We name them that we do not lose our way. Yet it was because the way was lost to us already that we have made those names. The world cannot be lost. We are the ones. And it is because these names and these co-ordinates are our own naming that they cannot save us.

It is for the same reason, perhaps, that overwriting cannot lose us. In such a scheme all writing is overwriting, mere repetition of the initial instance of loss