Cities of the Plain (Border Trilogy Series #3)

Cities of the Plain (Border Trilogy Series #3)

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by Cormac McCarthy

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In this final volume of The Border Trilogy, two men marked by the boyhood adventures of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing now stand together, in the still point between their vivid pasts and uncertain futures, to confront a country changing or already changed beyond recognition.

In the fall of 1952, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham--nine…  See more details below


In this final volume of The Border Trilogy, two men marked by the boyhood adventures of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing now stand together, in the still point between their vivid pasts and uncertain futures, to confront a country changing or already changed beyond recognition.

In the fall of 1952, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham--nine years apart in age, yet with a kinship greater than perhaps they know--are cowboys on a New Mexico ranch encroached upon from the north, at Alamogordo, by the military. To the south, always on the horizon are the mountains of Mexico, looming over El Paso, Ciudad Juárez and all the cities of the plain.
Bound by nature to horses and cattle and range, these two discover that ranchlife domesticity is compromised, for them and the men they work with, by a geometry of loss afflicting old and young alike, those who have survived it and anyone about to try. And what draws one of them across the border again and again, what would bind "those disparate but fragile worlds," is a girl seized by ill fortune, and a love as dangerous as it is inevitable.

This story of friendship and passion is enfolded in a narrative replete with character and place and event--a blind musician, a marauding pack of dogs, curio shops and ancient petroglyphs, a precocious shoe-shine boy, trail drives from the century before, midnight on the highway--and with landforms and wildlife and horses and men, most of all men and the women they love and mourn, men and their persistence and memories and dreams.

With the terrible beauty of Cities of the Plain--with its magisterial prose, humor both wry and out-right, fierce conviction and unwavering humanity--Cormac McCarthy has completed a landmark of our literature and times, an epic that reaches from tales of the old west, the world past, into the new millennium, the world to come.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. —Cormac McCarthy, BLOOD MERIDIAN

One sentence. This account of a Comanche attack is among the best and most famous in a novel full of hewn, harrowing sentences, not all of them nearly as long.Thebook begins with "See the child." It ends with "He says that he will never die." The sentence quoted above is followed, appropriately, by, "Oh my god, said the sergeant."

Long as the above sentence is, it is only superficially Faulknerian. It was written by a southerner, in a high style — dense, yes, and biblical, too, but not so Latinate as Faulkner's. Its editor, Albert Erskine, was also for some time Faulkner's editor. It involves people on horses. Violence oozes from the prose's very cadences — though McCarthy, especially in Blood Meridian, sometimes has in a single page more violence than Faulkner included in his entire body of work.

An athlete who bursts upon the scene will inevitably be compared glibly to the great ones who have come before ("the next Jordan"; "the next Willie Mays"; "the next Martina"). If the athlete attains greatness, the athlete is compared to no one, and others are compared to him. With writers, there are no box scores, only book reviews, and so this comparison rarely fully ceases until the writer is long dead. But when a writer is championed as an original by giants of the previous generation (Bellow, Ellison, Robert Penn Warren, Shelby Foote) and is compared by critics not only to the greatest of the great but also to a long list of extraordinarily different great writers, it's probably time for the comparisons to stop. Exhibit A: Cormac McCarthy, who has been compared on multiple occasions to Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Melville, Beckett, Conrad, Proust, Twain, Poe, Paul Bowles, Owen Wister, de Sade, Dante, Shakespeare, and the translators of the King James Bible.

None of these comparisons seems to me without merit. But, in aggregate, they also suggest that it's high time to let McCarthy be McCarthy.

McCarthy is, of course, best known for the three novels that comprise his magnificent and commercially successful Border Trilogy: ALL THE PRETTY HORSES (1992), THE CROSSING (1994), and CITIES OF THE PLAIN (1998). A generation after the Western stopped being a commercial or cinematic force, these books tell the mid-20th-century stories of horseman extraordinaire John Grady Cole (All the Pretty Horses) and tracker-savant Billy Parham (The Crossing). The two join forces in the final book of the trilogy (which McCarthy wrote as a screenplay in the late 1970s and shelved): the episodic, deceptively simple Cities of the Plain. The title is an allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah, and anyone who thinks McCarthy has a penchant for sick stories told in deadpan, laconic prose should check out Genesis 19.

The books are as reader-friendly as Larry McMurtry's and as dense with American mythology as McCarthy's favorite novel, MOBY-DICK (oops, I slipped; no more comparisons). Take the American myth of being able, when all else fails, to light out for the territory. What does the heroic American protagonist do when there is no more territory? Where does an American myth go when it dies? These are questions the Border Trilogy confronts directly.

The "border" in question is explicitly that between the United States and Mexico, but the books concern other borders, too, all ones that can be crossed but not erased: the ones between men and women, between men and animals (especially horses, for John Grady, and wolves/dogs, for Billy), between men and landscape, between adolescence and adulthood, between innocence and experience, and, most resonantly, between the first half and the last half of the trilogy, the American century.

They are also adventure stories of the first rank.

But you probably know all that. You know that he's a photogenically gaunt semirecluse who won a genius grant and lives in El Paso.

What's easy to forget, though, is that McCarthy has been on the scene for almost 35 years, since the publication, fine reviews, and meager sales of his first novel, THE ORCHARD KEEPER. His first four novels, all set in eastern Tennessee, inspired first a kind of respectful, writer's-writer following that gradually grew to cult status, first with CHILD OF GOD (featuring a sympathetically drawn necrophilic hero who lives in an underground cave with huge stuffed animals he wins at carnivals and several male and female rotting corpses). Then, for my money, comes McCarthy's first masterpiece, SUTTREE, a book he began as his second novel then worked on for 20 years and published as his fourth. Cornelius Suttree evokes Joyce's Leopold Bloom and Shakespeare's Prince Hal (this is not comparison but evocation), but he is his own Knoxville, Tennessee self. Set among prostitutes, beggars, gravediggers, preachers, witches, and cops, the book's Falstaff figure is Gene Harrogate, whose violation of a field full of watermelons ranks with the funniest moments in American literature.

But it is McCarthy's fifth novel, Blood Meridian, that is among the cognoscenti most widely considered his best. It is certainly an incomparable book, probably the most violent serious novel in our literature and among the most exuberant and lyrically written, a historically based story set on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, one that punctures the pieties of anyone with PC notions about the West but that also unflinchingly depicts the evil wrought by America's fixation on manifest destiny. It's the story of a 14-year-old Tennessean known as "the kid," whose journey manages both to embrace and to explode the idea of the heroic quest. The novel's villain, Judge Holden, lives in a central circle of American literary infamy. His only peers are Captain Ahab and Thomas Sutpen.

I have again broken my own rule. But I again assert McCarthy's singular genius: Neither Moby-Dick nor ABSALOM, ABSALOM!, those other overtly biblical American masterpieces, contain an apocalyptic vision of a company of mounted clowns.

—Mark Winegardner

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Border Trilogy Series , #3
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt

Late that night lying in his bunk in the dark he heard the kitchen door close and heard the screendoor close after it. He lay there. Then he sat and swung his feet to the floor and got his boots and his jeans and pulled them on and put on his hat and walked out. The moon was almost full and it was cold and late and no smoke rose from the kitchen chimney. Mr Johnson was sitting on the back stoop in his duckingcoat smoking a cigarette. He looked up at John Grady and nodded. John Grady sat on the stoop beside him. What are you doin out here without your hat? he said.

I dont know.

You all right?

Yeah. I'm all right. Sometimes you miss bein outside at night. You want a cigarette?

No thanks.

Could you not sleep either?

No sir. I guess not.

How's them new horses?

I think he done all right.

Them was some boogerish colts I seen penned up in the corral.

I think he's goin to sell off some of them.

Horsetradin, the old man said. He shook his head. He smoked.

Did you used to break horses, Mr Johnson?

Some. Mostly just what was required. I was never a twister in any sense of the word. I got hurt once pretty bad. You can get spooked and not know it. Just little things. You dont hardly even know it.

But you like to ride.

I do. Margaret could outride me two to one though. As good a woman with a horse as I ever saw. Way bettern me. Hard thing for a man to admit but it's the truth.

You worked for the Matadors didnt you?

Yep. I did.

How was that?

Hard work. That's how it was.

I guess that aint changed.

Oh it probably has. Some. I was never in love with the cattle business. It's just the only one I ever knew.

He smoked.

Can I ask you somethin? said John Grady.

Ask it.

How old were you when you got married?

I was never married. Never found anybody that'd have me.

He looked at John Grady.

Margaret was my brother's girl. Him and his wife both was carried off in the influenza epidemic in nineteen and eighteen.

I didnt know that.

She never really knowed her parents. She was just a baby. Well, five. Where's your coat at?

I'm all right.

I was in Fort Collins Colorado at the time. They sent for me. I shipped my horses and come back on the train with em. Dont catch cold out here now.

No sir. I wont. I aint cold.

I had ever motivation in the world but I never could find one I thought would suit Margaret.

One what?

Wife. One wife. We finally just give it up. Probably a mistake. I dont know. Socorro pretty much raised her. She spoke better spanish than Socorro did. It's just awful hard. It liked to of killed Socorro. She still aint right. I dont expect she ever will be.


We tried ever way in the world to spoil her rotten but it didnt take. I dont know why she turned out the way she did. It's just a miracle I guess you could say. I dont take no credit for it, I'll tell you that.


Look yonder. The old man nodded toward the moon.


You cant see em now. Wait a minute. No. They're gone.

What was it?

Birds flyin across the moon. Geese maybe. I dont know.

I didnt see em. Which way were they headed?

Upcountry. Probably headed for that marsh country on the river up around Belen.


I used to love to ride of a night.

I did too.

You'll see things on the desert at night that you cant understand. Your horse will see things. He'll see things that will spook him of course but then he'll see things that dont spook him but still you know he seen somethin.

What sort of things?

I dont know.

You mean like ghosts or somethin?

No. I dont know what. You just knows he sees em. They're out there.

Not just some class of varmint?


Not somethin that will booger him?

No. It's more like somethin he knows about.

But you dont.

But you dont. Yes.

The old man smoked. He watched the moon. No further birds flew. After a while he said: I aint talkin about spooks. It's more like just the way things are. If you only knew it.


We was up on the Platte River out of Ogallala one night and I was bedded down in my soogan out away from the camp. It was a moonlit night just about like tonight. Cold. Spring of the year. I woke up and I guess I'd heard em in my sleep and it was just this big whisperin sound all over and it was geese just by the thousands headed up the river. They passed for the better part of a hour. They blacked out the moon. I thought the herd would get up off the grounds but they didnt. I got up and walked out and stood watchin em and some of the other young waddies in the outfit they had got up too and we was all standin out there in our longjohns watchin. It was just this whisperin sound. They was up high and it wasnt loud or nothin and I wouldnt of thought about somethin like that a wakin us wore out as we was. I had a nighthorse in my string named Boozer and old Boozer he come to me. I reckon he thought the herd'd get up too but they didnt. And they was a snuffy bunch, too.

Did you ever have a stampede?

Yes. We was drivin to Abilene in eighteen and eighty-five. I wasnt much more than a button. And we had got into it with a rep from one of the outfits and he followed us to where we crossed the Red River at Doane's store into Indian Territory. He knew we'd have a harder time gettin our stock back there and we did but we caught the old boy and it was him for you could still smell the coaloil on him. He come by in the night and set a cat on fire and thowed it onto the herd. I mean slung it. Walter Devereaux was comin in off the middle watch and he heard it and looked back. Said it looked like a comet goin out through there and just a squallin. Lord didnt they come up from there. It took us three days to shape that herd back and whenever we left out of there we was still missin forty some odd head lost or crippled or stole and two horses.

What happened to the boy?

The boy?

That threw the cat.

Oh. Best I remember he didnt make out too well.

I guess not.

People will do anything.

Yessir. They will.

You live long enough you'll see it.

Yessir. I have.

Mr Johnson didnt answer. He flipped the butt of his cigarette out across the yard in a slow red arc.

Aint nothin to burn out there. I remember when you could have grassfires in this country.

I didnt mean I'd seen everthing, John Grady said.

I know you didnt.

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 dont know. Maybe it's just that when things are gone they're gone. They aint comin back.


They sat. After a while the old man said: The day after my fiftieth birthday in March of nineteen and seventeen I rode into the old headquarters at the Wilde well and there was six dead wolves hangin on the fence. I rode along the fence and ran my hand along em. I looked at their eyes. A government trapper had brought em in the night before. They'd been killed with poison baits. Strychnine. Whatever. Up in the Sacramentos. A week later he brought in four more. I aint heard a wolf in this country since. I suppose that's a good thing. They can be hell on stock. But I guess I was always what you might call superstitious. I know I damn sure wasnt religious. And it had always seemed to me that somethin can live and die but that the kind of thing that they were was always there. I didnt know you could poison that. I aint heard a wolf howl in thirty odd years. I dont know where you'd go to hear one. There may not be any such a place.

When he walked back through the barn Billy was standing in the doorway.

Has he gone back to bed?


What was he doin up?

He said he couldnt sleep. What were you?

Same thing. You?

Same thing.

Somethin in the air I reckon.

I dont know.

What was he talkin about?

Just stuff.

What did he say?

I guess he said cattle could tell the difference between a flight of geese and a cat on fire.

Maybe you dont need to be hangin around him so much.

You might be right.

You all seem to have a lot in common.

He aint crazy, Billy.

Maybe. But I dont know as you'd be the first one I'd come to for an opinion about it.

I'm goin to bed.



From the Hardcover edition.

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What People are saying about this

Kurt Tidmore
A book of remarkable beauty and strength, a work of a master in perfect command of his classic literary journeys before it -- from Jason and the Argonauts chasing the Golden Fleece to Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi -- this is a trip that covers the distance from childhood to adulthood and innocence to experience.

Meet the Author

Cormac McCarthy received the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for All the Pretty Horses.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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