Cities of the Plain (1998)

Cities of the Plain, the final volume of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, binds together the separate tales of John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham from The Crossing to create a more realistic Billy and a more mythic John Grady. Within the confines of a relatively spare 293 pages, the classic “all-american cowboy” John Grady devotes himself to saving every hurt or wounded creature that crosses his path, a noble and impossible task that leads ultimately to his own destruction. The tragedy of his failed rescue of the epilectic prostitute Magdalena makes a martyr of the near-faultless John Grady, yet McCarthy stubbornly refuses to let the novel backslide into blubbery melodrama. Told in both McCarthy’s signature lyrical style and his dead-on ranchero dialogue, Cities of the Plain ends the trilogy at the height of McCarthy’s storytelling skill.

In the fall of 1952, a 20-year-old John Grady and a 28-year-old Billy Parham are working together on Mac McGovern’s Cross Fours Ranch in Alamogordo, New Mexico, near El Paso and its twin city, Juarez. The ranch is a friendly and sociable place for the two men, but under the surface lies a perceptible feeling of loss on almost all sides; Mac and his father-in-law Mr. Johnson continually mourn the loss of Margaret Johnson McGovern, while other stories are told of fellow rancher Oren’s failed marriage and a man named Johnny whose stubborn love for an unfaithful woman somehow caused his death. Billy is casual enough about women, preferring to confine his alliances to the Juarez whorehouses, but on the visit that opens the novel John Grady inevitably picks out the youngest and most frightened prostitute in the room to fall in love with.

Far from the naive boy of All the Pretty Horses, the John Grady four years later can do no wrong—he successfully breaks the most unpromising of horses, defeats Mac at chess, and thwarts a shady horsedealer with the same quiet stubbornness that he then directs to the search for the young girl, who has disappeared from the whorehouse where he first saw her. He finds her at the White Lake, an expensive and foreboding brothel run by the serpentine alcahuete Eduardo. There, John Grady spends his earnings on nights with Magdalena, who despite her torturous existence finds it in her heart to fall in love with him as well. Ignoring the obvious risk he determines to save her, even as the blind pianist he calls maestro insists that “she does not belong here. Among us.”

To that end, John Grady pawns his grandfather’s gun for cash and is optimistic about his plan, though Magdalena says she believes Eduardo will kill her. He tells everything to Billy, who calls him crazy but agrees to go to the White Lake and offer Eduardo $2000 for purchase of the girl. Eduardo refuses out of his own twisted love for Magdalena; undeterred, John Grady proposes and fixes up a tumbledown shack into passable living quarters.

As the situation grows more dangerous for John Grady and Magdalena, he is called upon to help Billy and the other ranchers pursue a pack of wild dogs that are killing calves and avoiding the traps meant to catch them. They then retrieve the abandoned pups, and John Grady characteristically chooses the piteous animal curled up against its dead brother as his own pet.

Before his plan is set in motion, John Grady visits the maestro and asks him to be Magdalena’s padrino, or godfather. The maestro refuses out of knowledge of the girl’s inevitable doom, and also tells John Grady that Eduardo will kill her. Undaunted yet again, he instructs Magdalena to wait in a cafe for a man named Ramon who will drive her across the border to him. But she trusts the wrong man, who takes her instead to the river where Eduardo’s henchman Tiburcio is waiting.

John Grady finds her at the morgue, wet from the river and her throat slit open horribly. He goes to confront Eduardo and in a circling, bloody knife fight the pimp cuts his arms, his stomach, and a great slashing “E” into his thigh. Finally, by sitting motionless during the onslaught, John Grady is able to thrust a killing blow into Eduardo’s jaw and is helped to a children’s clubhouse where Billy finds him near death. John Grady instructs Billy to retrieve his gun, return Mac’s wedding ring, and take care of his pup before he dies. Billy weeps as he carries him out into the street, to the astonishment of a band of passing schoolchildren.

The epilogue takes place fifty years later, as a 78-year-old Billy rests under an overpass in Arizona and talks with a nameless, mysterious stranger. In an intricate and intensely lyrical dialogue, the man tells Billy the story of his dream of a traveler and the traveler’s own dream of death by pagan sacrifice. The conversation weaves in and out of alternate realities and dream worlds, which Billy struggles to understand and make sense of. In the final scene, he tells a woman who gives him a place to sleep that he understands neither his identity nor his purpose; the woman, with the voice of a kind listener or a reader coming to the end of a long tale, assures him that she knows both very well.

Cities of the Plain concludes The Border Trilogy, which began with All the Pretty Horses and continued with The Crossing.

The preceding précis is Copyright © 1998 by Stacey Peebles.