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Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

January 1, 2018


Cities of the Plain, the third in McCarthy’s border trilogy, finds John Grady Cole (protagonist from All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (protagonist from The Crossing) working together as ranchers in southern New Mexico in 1952. The ranches of the area are struggling and both men live in poor circumstance. With the war overseas and the ranches in decline, the U.S. government has been claiming ranches through eminent domain for use by the military.

While at a brothel in Ciudad Juarez, John Grady falls for an epileptic whore. His quixotic quest to rescue and marry the girl and Billy’s obligation to help his friend drive the plot of the novel. This is by far the bleakest of the trilogy. And because of the investment the reader has made in the characters throughout the series, it has more bite than some of McCarthy’s standalone novels. Here the brutality of the world acts upon characters we have come to know and love.

It’s not just the final note in the narrative arc of the characters that leaves one feeling heavy, cold. It’s that we feel the west closing, the days of the cowboys and the open ranges of the earlier novels, the freedom and romance of it all, quickly closed off without concern.

There is one scene that is perhaps good to leave this trilogy on, which is a fairly non-important scene in terms of the plot, just a conversation between John Grady and a neighbor, that captures their bewilderment at the changing world around them and a certain longing for a world gone, maybe the central theme of the trilogy all told.

People will do anything.
Yes sir they will.
You live long enough you’ll see it.
Yes sir I have.
Mr. Johnson didn’t answer. He flipped the butt of his cigarette out across the yard in a slow red arc.
Ain’t nothing to burn out there. I remember when you could have grass fires in this country.
I didn’t mean that I’d seen everything John Grady said.
I know you didn’t.
I just meant I’d seen things I’d as soon not of.
I know it. There’s hard lessons in this world.
What’s the hardest?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that when things are gone they’re gone. They ain’t comin’ back.
Yes sir.

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