The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (New York: Knopf Publishers, 1994. 432 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 Suttree, Blood 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.

American Cowboys

Burned into the American psyche is the cowboy persona of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Over the years, Hollywood has earned gigantic monetary sums producing Western blockbusters. We conceptualize the Southwest in romantic terms.
On one side, the sheriff fights for the virtues of honor, peace, and justice. Bandits, on the other, drink booze, steal possessions, and undiscerningly use firearms. Amongst ruddy mesas and sparsely lit saloons, the cowboy lives a life of adventure. While most of us sit in our cubicles, it is easy glorify this unanchored wanderer.

The Anti-Western Novel

In The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy turns this paradigm upside down. In short, this book is the anti-western novel. Although the narrative communicates enough action to keep the reader interested, the lives of the protagonists, Billy and Boyd, are depicted rather mundanely as they traverse the U.S./Mexico Border.
Instead of shooting their way through each town as depicted in classic, western narratives, Billy and Boyd meander through the country, splitting their time between tracking their family’s stolen horses and searching for their own horses as they continually wander off in the night.

The Lone Wolf

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar
Over the course of the book, McCarthy splits the narrative into three sections. First, Billy – the main character – hunts a lone wolf who is terrorizing the family cattle. Upon catching the wolf in a trap, Billy feels compelled to return the wolf to its mountainous habitat across the border.
In my mind, McCarthy’s prose in this section defines the book. Using deeply poetic language, he illustrates the hunt and capture from the perspective of both human and wolf.
The author writes,

“What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it” (127).


The Search for Something Lost

In the second section, the brothers, Billy and Boyd, unite under the common purpose of locating horses stolen from the family. As these cowboys search the border country, they find curious characters, love, and, most importantly, a connection to the land.
During this time, and throughout the work, McCarthy masterfully keys the reader into upcoming events without divulging future narrative.
While the boys search for their horses, McCarthy writes,

“Long voyages often lose themselves.
Mam?
You will see. It is difficult even for brothers to travel together on such a voyage. The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons. If indeed they come to an understanding of them at all. Listen to the corridos of the country. They will tell you. Then you will see in your own life what is the cost of things. Perhaps it is true that nothing is hidden. Yet many do not wish to see what lies before them in plain sight. You will see. The shape of the road is the road. There is not some other road that wears that shape but only the one. And every voyage begun upon it will be completed. Whether horses are found or not” (230).”

Therefore, while the second section alludes to and ends with the brothers parting ways, the third finds Billy seeking to reunite with Boyd. Although the end result is not necessarily cheery, The Crossing communicates its story with an incredible gravity. As a reader, you really connect with the characters.

Some Reservations

Despite my joy while I read this impressive book, it is by no means perfectly composed. First, at 4 chapters and 432 pages, The Crossing is not a book to read in short spurts. Stopping points rarely arrive and McCarthy’s dense writing style requires 100% attention.
Second, as Billy and Boyd met new characters, McCarthy possessed a tendency to elaborate on a character’s backstory whether or not it contributed to the central thrust of the narrative. I often found myself not caring about these backstories and ultimately becoming disappointed at its lack of cohesion with Billy and Boyd’s narrative framework.

A True Western

Nevertheless, The Crossing is masterfully crafted and its main characters carry the utmost intrigue. In truth, these cowboys engage in an adventure – just not a romanticized adventure so often depicted on the silver screen. Billy and Boyd’s story seems true. McCarthy finds reality amongst his vivid descriptions of the mundane actions encountered during a long-term adventure. The Crossing is an excellent book and one worth reading. I recommend this book to everyone.

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