Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Knopf Publishers, 1998. 292 pp)


Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island in 1933. One of six children, Cormac’s family moved multiple times in his childhood as his father accepted different occupations. In 1951, McCarthy attended the University of Tennessee majoring in Liberal Arts. Midway through his studies, McCarthy served in the Air Force for four years. After his service, McCarthy returned to college, writing his first short stories. In 1959 and 1960, he won the Ingram-Merrill Award for Creative Writing. Mccarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1965. Several years, grants, and fellowships later, McCarthy published SuttreeBlood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses marking his rise in literary acclaim. McCarthy is widely considered one of the great modern American authors and many of his works have been translated to film.


The Border

In a Grantland piece posted this summer, column writer Brian Phillips pontificated on the U.S.-Mexican soccer rivalry through the meaning of the Border, a place where Mexico and America bleed together as a “sun-obliterated desert where law and chaos expire into each other and civilization dissolves.”
Setting aside the significance of the soccer portion of this piece, Phillips rightly defines the mythic qualities of two vastly different cultures operating in close proximity to each other.
In the mouth of a Mexican pimp, Cormac McCarthy points to the core of this conflict in Cities of the Plain when he writes,

“Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary. That it contain nothing save what stands before one. But the Mexican world is a world of adornment only and underneath it is very plain indeed. While your world – he passed the blade back and forth like a shuttle through a loom – your world totters upon an unspoken labyrinth of questions. And we will devour you, my friend. You and all your pale empire” (253).

In other words, Mexican and American culture clash violently in this land as both try to consume each other.

A Eulogy

Upon reading Cities of the Plain, the last installment of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy (a series of stories set on the Mexico-Texas border featuring John Grady Cole and Billy Parham), I must amend my previous review. In it, I suggest that the Border Trilogy acts as an anti-western, that McCarthy writes of a mundane Cowboy adventure in order to dispel any romanticized notions of the great frontier.
With a big giant spoiler warning in effect, Cities of the Plain alters my viewpoint in such a way that I suggest that the Border Trilogy is not an anti-western, but rather a eulogy to the Western genre.
The days of blockbuster Westerns are long gone. With CGI and high budget action films dominating the box office, movie executives view westerns as a genre of waning popularity. Even Jon Favraeu’s big budget Cowboys & Aliens failed miserably this year barely breaking even.

John Grady Cole and Billy Parham

Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Cities of the Plain specifically function as a reaction to the grim reality of the failing western. With gorgeous prose evidenced in the quotes you will read shortly, McCarthy elegantly portrays the lives of mid-nineteenth-century cowboys. From intense hunting sequences to poetic lines discussing love gained and lost, McCarthy’s pen depicts the pure beauty that the western genre provides.
With this third episode, McCarthy unites the protagonists of the previous works in the series, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham. Laboring together on a cattle ranch in post-World-War-II New Mexico, John Grady and Billy develop a close-knit friendship. The duo, developing horses and living close to the land, clearly enjoy their lot in life and find the ranch owners to be generous and kind people.

Nothing New Under the Sun

At the center of the story, themes are presented from the previous books of the trilogy. Similar to All the Pretty Horses, John Grady falls in love with a woman he cannot have – this time a young prostitute named Magdalena; he engages in a knife fight with an outlaw – this time a pimp.
In fact, McCarthy cites these themes in the text itself:

“He did not know if she was awake but he told her things about his life that he had not told her. He told her about working for the hacendado at Cuatro Ciénegas and about the man’s daughter and the last time he saw her and about being in the prison in Saltillo and about the scar on his face that he had promised to tell her about and never had” (205).

Billy, on the other hand, remains centrally influenced by the history presented in The Crossing. Haunted by the death of his brother, Billy acts cautiously and considering the evils of Mexican-American border country.

The Standard McCarthian Refrain

Likewise, Cities of the Plain ponders the meaning of death – a standard McCarthian refrain. With a dark, twisted, and brutal ending, the reader sweats through violent passages. Yet, McCarthy finds value in telling the story of life and death.
He writes,

“Every man’s death is a standing in for every other. And since death comes to all there is no way to abate the fear of it except to love that man who stands for us. We are not waiting for his history to be written. He passed here long ago. That man who is all men and who stands in the dock for us until our own time come and we must stand for him. Do you love him, that man? Will you honor the path he has taken? Will you listen to his tale” (289)?

This beautiful passage brings meaning to the story of a life; it also elegantly eulogizes the Western genre. From urban to rural, every person tells a meaningful story. Cities of the Plain is a beautiful capstone to an excellent trilogy. While Westerns are going the way of the buffalo, the book honors the genre and the lifestyle in its glory and its death. I urge you to read the Border Trilogy, and Cities of the Plain in particular.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Donovan Richards is a University of Washington undergraduate alumnus from 2008, graduating with a BA in Philosophy. He is also a graduate of the inaugural Seattle Pacific University School of Theology graduate program class of 2009 as an MA student in Business and Theology. He is a huge fan of music, books, and movies. You can reach him via email at lemurfarmer@gmail.com.

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2 Comments Leave a comment
  • Seth

    I'm still holding at just one McCarthy title read: The Road. But every time I read a new review of his work, I realize I need to get the lead out and read some more.

  • Donovan Richards

    I appreciate the comment, Seth. In a somewhat ironic twist, The Road is one of McCarthy's more popular books that I have yet to read. Hopefully I'll get to it at some point next year but I have heard good things. I would recommend reading more of McCarthy when you have time!

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