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Book Forum: Literature   |    
Cities of the Plain
WILLIAM G. RYAN, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:1791-1791.
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by Cormac McCarthy. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, 293 pp., $25.00.

With Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy completes the Border Trilogy, begun with All the Pretty Horses (R3215512CHDBFAJD) and continued in The Crossing (R3215512CHDDGECB). McCarthy has again created a work of beauty and suffering, a tragedy wherein motives noble and base are explored. In Cities of the Plain, John Grady Cole, the protagonist of All the Pretty Horses, and Billy Parham, of The Crossing, are working together on a ranch in New Mexico, just north of El Paso. The novel opens with simply told pastoral vignettes of ranch life in the early 1950s and recollections of earlier days, told in McCarthy’s spare, precise prose. Cowboy humor, Western history, speculation about the mind of the horse, and details about how ranch work is done are all found. Yet even fromthe beginning, the theme of loss is heard. Ranching is already past its prime, and the entire way of life is threatened, as the spread itself will soon be swallowed by an Army base. Both the ranch owner and his son-in-law are mourning the recent death of Margaret, their daughter and wife, respectively, and this grief shows no sign of abating. From the ridges and caprock of the ranch, the lights and smoke of El Paso and Juarez, the cities of the plain, are visible. The allusion in the title is more to the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah than to Proust, for evil does seem to reside there.

John Grady sees Magdalena, a very young prostitute, in Mexico, and comes to love her and seek her for his wife. Although the young woman is beautiful, surprisingly innocent, and welcoming of John Grady’s attention and intentions, the impossibility of their love is made clear from the beginning. John Grady is warned, first by Billy, who acts toward him in much the same way as he did toward his lost younger brother; then by a friend, a blind Mexican musician, who says that Magdalena "does not belong here.… I do not mean in this house. I mean here. Among us"; and finally by Magdalena herself. He persists, undeterred, and the story moves inexorably ahead in counterpoint to the pastoral sections, as tension, hope, and doubt build. But the story is not the whole story. As elsewhere in the Border Trilogy, a rather commonplace tale of romance and doom is a vehicle for explorations of morality and grief.

Some readers, even those used to McCarthy’s darkness, may expect a grand conclusion to the Border Trilogy, or find Cities of the Plain slow moving, at least until the last 60 pages, or think it contains too few of McCarthy’s lyrical animal passages, but Cities of the Plain need not be a disappointment. It is still commendable as an honest exploration of human irrationality, of the pursuit of the desired object even when success is impossible. John Grady Cole, now 20 years old, is as admirable as he was at 16 in All the Pretty Horses—still wise in the ways of horses, tenacious, unflinchingly honest, and tender to those in need: "All his early dreams were the same. Something was afraid and he had come to comfort it. He dreamed it yet." This compassion, coupled with single-mindedness, certainly carries him deep into his fateful relationship with Magdalena. Searching such a novel for insights to help in our work with patients who make unhealthy choices may be an irresistible impulse, but it is probably futile here. We can come away from this book, as from other well-crafted novels, with humility and a renewed appreciation for the complexity of human lives, whether those in which we must intervene or those we merely observe.

The spiritual dimension is more obviously woven into Cities of the Plain than in McCarthy’s other work, perhaps in opposition to the bleak, bitter aspects of grief. Christian and other themes are woven in, from the introduction of Magdalena, who is, as was Mary Magdalene in some traditions, epileptic; to Mr. Johnson, the ranch owner, musing on whether creatures can vanish ("I was always what you might call superstitious. I know I damn sure wasn’t religious. And it had always seemed to me that something can live and die but the kind of thing they were was always there. I didn’t know you could poison that. I ain’t heard a wolf howl in thirty odd years. I don’t know where you’d go to hear one. There may not be any such place"); to John Grady and Magdalena, wondering, in a late encounter, about forgiveness ("He said that he believed in God even if he was doubtful of men’s claims to know God’s mind. But that a God unable to forgive was no God at all"). John Grady recalls the Comanches, whose trails remained behind his childhood ranch: "He would ride that trail in the moonlight in the fall of the year and the ghosts of the Comanches would pass all about him on their way to the other world again and again for a thing once set in motion has no ending in this world until the last witness has passed." And, in an otherwise puzzling, cryptical epilogue set in 2002, the aged survivor, dreaming of his lost ones, wandering alone in what used to be his own country, is taken in by a young family and assured by the mother that he’ll see a lost one again, that she knows who he is, and that he is not nothing. Here again, the reader is reminded not only that destructive events and behaviors partake of irrationality but also that our antidote to grief is not in the rational realm. So, perhaps, Cities of the Plain does not leave the reader bereft, with only the taste of ashes in the mouth. McCarthy makes his reader work for what is gained, and, as before, there is much to gain.

McCarthy C: All the Pretty Horses. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1992
 
McCarthy C: The Crossing. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1994
 
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References

McCarthy C: All the Pretty Horses. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1992
 
McCarthy C: The Crossing. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1994
 
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