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The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

January 1, 2018


When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they’d named Hidalgo was itself little older than the child. In the country they’d quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a crossfence.

So opens the second of McCarthy’s border trilogy, in which we find young Billy Parham and his brother Boyd two innocents come to witness the wild as it is pushed west and south. In that first year, Billy sneaks out on a winter night to watch wolves chase a herd of antelope across a snow-covered field in the moonlight.

The wild left in this country is beautiful, but it is still wild. Even the elder Parhams prove not suited to withstand it. And everywhere, even as the natural world senses the encroachment of these domestic interlopers, it looks to bite back. As we follow a she-wolf along the Animas range, starved and searching for food where the food has been slaughtered, the trees cut back, she turns to the cattle, these dumb domesticated beasts.

 The ranchers said they brutalized the cattle in a way they did not the wild game. As if the cows evoked in them some anger. As if they were offended by some violation of an old order. Old ceremonies. Old protocols.

In this part of the world, there are predators aplenty, some of the human variety, some still natural. That is the hard lesson the boys will learn. Although the wild is being pushed back, in some cases is strung out and bedraggled (such as the tired Indian the boys meet on their property, with Mexican boots worn down to nothing, who Billy dismisses as “just a drifter”) it is still full of danger.

The Crossing is a parallel story to first of the trilogy, All the Pretty Horses, with no overlap in plot, though the themes carry throughout. It establishes the story of Billy Parham, who will join John Grady Cole in the third of the trilogy, Cities of the Plain. Of the three, this is my favorite.

It tells of Billy’s three crossings from southern New Mexico into Mexico. In the first, he and his family have trapped the she-wolf and he seeks to return her to the mountains. In the second crossing, Billy and Boyd attempt to retrieve horses stolen from his family. In the third crossing, Billy searches for his brother.

The Crossing carries many of the McCarthy signatures—beautiful descriptions of the land, man enveloped within the natural surroundings, long lonely wanderings, a world defined by violence. We see his characters through their actions, their sparse bits of dialogue and are left to intuit their inner workings. And yet, despite this objective point of view, I found myself deeply connected to Billy and Boyd. They are young, vulnerable in a brutal world, fiercely independent yet with a brotherly loyalty.

By the end of Cities of the Plains we will see a west that has changed. Here, in the years leading up to and during World War II, with this west that still has wild, danger, a lack of fences, I found much wonder, much to love. It’s a bleak novel in many ways, and McCarthy has his moments where his prose can spin off into cryptic incantations, more lyrical than crystalline. But of his westerns, I found The Crossing to have the most to grab onto and the most that grabbed onto me.

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