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Cities of the Plain (Border Trilogy Series #3) [NOOK Book]

Overview

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 ...
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Cities of the Plain (Border Trilogy Series #3)

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Overview

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

From Barnes & Noble
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

David Bowman
Cormac McCarthy is an absolutely original writer. No one writes books like Cormac McCarthy. No other American writes sentences like Cormac McCarthy. In reading his new novel, Cities of the Plain, I came across a passage that could serve as a sublimated self-portrait of the author himself. Let me substitute the word "writer" for "horse" to illustrate:
A good writer [horse] will figure things out on his own. You can see what's in his heart. He won't do one thing while you're watchin' him and another when you ain't. He's all of a piece. When you've got a writer [horse] to that place you can't hardly get him to do somethin he knows is wrong. He'll fight you over it. And if you mistreat him it just about kills him. A good writer [horse] has justice in his heart. I've seen it.

Cormac McCarthy's heart is something else. For years, the man's mad muscle was pumping Faulkner, Faulkner, Faulkner. Between 1965 and 1979, McCarthy wrote four novels set in the South. These titles began at the demented places where Faulkner left off. We're talking necrophilia and incest and cannibalism -- all done southern style. Cormac McCarthy raked Faulkner's ashes from the American South to Dante's Inferno to a place that might as well have been the planet Mars.

Then, in the late '70s, McCarthy left Dixie in both body and fiction. The man moved to El Paso, Texas, where he wrote a holy Hieronymus Bosch/Sam Peckinpah of a novel about 19th-century scalp hunters in Mexico, titled Blood Meridian. This is truly one of the most amazing books of the 20th century. This is a book that academics are making their careers on.

Sad to say, it was only academics and critics and foundations that give grants to geniuses who were actually reading McCarthy back then. But in the '90s, he joined the stable of a certain big-shot agent with the silly name of Binky. Then Knopf bigshot Gary Fisketjon became his editor. Literary muscle triumphed and McCarthy's next book became a bestseller. His next one, too. And here comes his third -- the final volume of the Border Trilogy, three titles about cowboys and horses in the mid-20th-century.

And McCarthy's cowboys are boys. It's traditional for young men to write coming-of-age stories. You know some of these writers. I do too. (I was once one myself.) There is a false innocence in these bildungsromans -- a hidden tension created because youthful writers still need to be weaned into experience themselves. Not so with Cormac McCarthy's coming-of-age novels. His books contain scenes of true innocence. He achieves this not just because he's an experienced old guy but because he's an experienced old guy who has written about necrophilia and incest and cannibalism. That man left his innocence by the side of the road years ago. This gives him the freedom to write beautifully of the unabashed purity in the wills of young cowboys.

McCarthy's trilogy begins with All the Pretty Horses. The year is 1949 and 16-year-old John Grady has ridden off with his pal Lacey Rawlins down into Mexico. They have adventures with horses and death and John Grady falls in love with a Mexican girl named Alejandra. Next is The Crossing, set ten years earlier, in the late '30s. It's about another 16-year-old, Billy Parham, and his journey south into Mexico to set a she-wolf free. Now Cities of the Plain closes the trilogy, bringing Billy Parham and John Grady together as cowboys working in the same south-Texas outfit. John Grady -- only a little bit older than he was in All the Pretty Horses -- falls in love with another Mexican girl. This one works in a Mexican brothel. She is also an epileptic. Billy Parham -- much older than he was in The Crossing -- unsuccessfully tries to talk Grady out of spiriting the girl north. Then Parham must come to Grady's aid because things happen.

You will read things you've never read in a novel. Some of these things are small details: how a horse's ears betray a hidden lameness. How a woman at a gas station becomes hysterical after seeing a hellish collection of severed heads in the grill of a car in the opposite pump. You will also read scenes of high drama. There is a knife fight between John Grady and a Mexican pimp named Eduardo that goes on and on and on. The single survivor of the novel will experience an epilogue that's part biblical parable with overtones of science fiction.

I will tell you again: You have never read a book like this before. Even if you've read All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing.

Now let me tell you a rumor. Supposedly Cities of the Plain was where McCarthy started the Border Trilogy. The book was originally a screenplay. Then McCarthy became interested in the backstories of John Grady and Billy Parham. He wrote those stories first.

Here's another rumor. You probably already know it: McCarthy is a terrible recluse. He isn't as much a phantom as Salinger or Pynchon, but the man has only given two interviews in 30 years. "That's just a myth about his reclusiveness," Garry Fisketjon, McCarthy's editor, tells me. "Cormac just doesn't move in writerly circles. He knows all sorts of folks. All walks of life. It's an amazing acquaintance over the years. He's far more social than people would expect."

So do any of you know Cormac McCarthy? It there a way to share your experiences with me? Today I got this e-mail from a fellow Cormac McCarthy freak: "David, I've driven by his house in El Paso, but didn't feel comfortable banging on the door. But his house is what you'd expect: a ramshackle faux-adobe structure with 2 rotting cars in the yard. This in the midst of an upper middle-class neighborhood of university professors. Weird...."

Is this true? Are any of you Cormac McCarthy's neighbors? Do you hear his typewriter clicking deep into the Texas night? I tell you in all sincerity, I cannot believe that Cormac McCarthy uses WordPerfect. I cannot believe Cormac McCarthy uses Microsoft Word. No. I picture him with a Royal typewriter or stack of legal pads and pencils. (Of course, McCarthy probably wrote Blood Meridian in blood on parchment -- but that was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.)

Let me now say this to those of you who want to read McCarthy but haven't yet. You can read the Border Trilogy novels in any order you want and not miss a thing. As for McCarthy's southern novels, I recommend Suttree with enthusiasm. It's a huge book that follows the eponymous Cornelius Suttree as he bums around on the Tennessee River outside of Knoxville. Then there's Blood Meridian, a visceral novel that is transcendentally bloody the way only the Bible can be. I dearly love Blood Meridian, but this title is where I make my confession:

Because Cormac McCarthy's concerns seem so intrinsically masculine, I worry that I am blind to his effect upon women readers. I tracked down Professor Dianne C. Luce, who has written extensively on McCarthy (and coedited Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, now, sadly, out of print), to share a woman's perspective on this writer.

"I would say that a woman would love Cormac McCarthy for the same reason that a man would love him -- that he is a great writer," she told me on the phone from South Carolina. Even if he's so relentlessly male? "Maybe I'm unusual, but I don't mind that he's relentlessly male," she said. "Why shouldn't a writer be what he is? I personally don't hold with only reading people who reflect exactly what you are. Then why read? Besides, McCarthy is such a brilliant stylist. He is so philosophically intense. He writes with so much integrity that it's hard for me to imagine why anyone would not respect him."

There. This is a woman who sees the justice in McCarthy's heart. To men and women alike I paraphrase this paragraph from Suttree:

Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is Cormac McCarthy and in the brooming corn and in the castellated press of cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world.

Read him.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This volume concludes McCarthy's Border Trilogy, the first two books being All the Pretty Horses, which won the National Book Award in 1992, and The Crossing, published to great acclaim in '94. Devoted McCarthy readers will know not to expect any neat or dramatic resolution in Cities of the Plain, for the author is more of a poet than a novelist, more interested in wedding language to experience in successive moments than in building and setting afloat some narrative ark. Cities, like the other books, takes place sometime shortly after WWII along the Texas-Mexico border. John Grady Cole, the young, horse-savvy wanderer from All the Pretty Horses, and Billy Parham, who traveled in search of stolen horses with his younger brother in The Crossing, are now cowhands working outside El Paso. John Grady falls in love with Magdalena, a teenage prostitute working in Juarez, Mexico; determined to marry her, he runs afoul of her pimp, Eduardo. That is basically the narrative. Along the way, McCarthy treats the reader to the most fabulous descriptions of sunrises, sunsets, the ways of horses and wild dogs, how to patch an inner tube. The cowboys engage in almost mythically worldly-wise, laconic dialogues that are models of concision and logic. Although there is less of it here than in the earlier books, McCarthy does include a few of his familiar seers, old men and blind men who speak in prophetic voices. Their words serve as earnest if cryptic instructions to the younger lads and seem to unburden the novelist of his vision of America and its love affair with free will. If a philosophy of life were to be extracted from these tales, it would seem to be that we are fated to be whatever we are, that what we think are choices are really not; that betrayals of the heart are always avenged; and that following one's heart is a guarantee of nothing.
Library Journal
The final volume of the "Border Trilogy" finds John Grady and Billy Parham, the heroes of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, respectively, working side by side on a New Mexico cattle ranch in the early 1950s. Grady is 19, and Billy is just a few years older, but these are two of the toughest, most self-possessed hombres in recent fiction. Their uncanny maturity makes sense only in the context of the previous books. The plot, long in development, is simple: Grady falls in love with an epileptic teenage prostitute across the border in Juarez and vows to rescue her, whatever the cost. Again, Grady's earlier Mexican adventures motivate and inform this desperate romance. McCarthy's prose is mesmerizing, and his descriptions of the Southwest and the vanishing cowboy lifestyle are superb. This work is a strong and satisfying conclusion to a magisterial series, but it is probably advisable to read this installment in its proper sequence. Libraries will want all three volumes, which make up one of the great literary works of the decade. -- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles
Library Journal
The final volume of the "Border Trilogy" finds John Grady and Billy Parham, the heroes of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, respectively, working side by side on a New Mexico cattle ranch in the early 1950s. Grady is 19, and Billy is just a few years older, but these are two of the toughest, most self-possessed hombres in recent fiction. Their uncanny maturity makes sense only in the context of the previous books. The plot, long in development, is simple: Grady falls in love with an epileptic teenage prostitute across the border in Juarez and vows to rescue her, whatever the cost. Again, Grady's earlier Mexican adventures motivate and inform this desperate romance. McCarthy's prose is mesmerizing, and his descriptions of the Southwest and the vanishing cowboy lifestyle are superb. This work is a strong and satisfying conclusion to a magisterial series, but it is probably advisable to read this installment in its proper sequence. Libraries will want all three volumes, which make up one of the great literary works of the decade. -- Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles
School Library Journal
YA-The final book in a trilogy that began with All the Pretty Horses (1992) and continued with The Crossing (1994, both Knopf). John Grady Cole and Billy Parham still love the life of the cowboy, but by 1951 they recognize that this lifestyle is fast disappearing. They work on a ranch near the Mexican border that will eventually be taken over by the federal government for use by the military. On a trip south of the border, John Grady sees a beautiful young woman in a whorehouse and becomes obsessed with her. She has been in bondage since she was barely in her teens and suffers from epileptic seizures. Much of the novel follows his efforts to free her and take her back to New Mexico. His efforts are doomed, however, for her powerful pimp will not let her go, and the story ends in tragedy. Despite the serious and even depressing subject matter, the novel is both arresting and entertaining in its depiction of the southwest in all its sere beauty and its realistic look at ranch life and the characters who choose it.-Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA
Robert Hass
A master work...a miracle in prose, an American original....and, most interesting of all, Mr. McCarthy is not through yet. We can await the conclusion of The Border trilogy. -- The New York Times Book Review
Malcolm Jones
With each book Cormac McCarthy expands the territory of American fiction...He laid claim to a large and appreciative audience with [the first two novels of his Border trilogy]. The concluding volume can only burnish that reputation. -- Newsweek
Carey Harrison
Cities of the Plain, like its predecessors, speaks directly to the heart, to the senses, to our experience of life at its most intense, savorous and inexpressible. This, the novelist's true mission, has rarely been more thrillingly and faithfully served than in McCarthy's Border Trilogy...It is an American classic to stand with the finest literary achievements of the century. -- San Francisco Chronicle
Kirkus Reviews
The concluding volume of McCarthy's hitherto lavishly praised Border Trilogy is a long dying fall that brings together the two surviving protagonists of the previous novels, John Cole Grady of All the Pretty Horses (1992) and Billy Pawson of The Crossing (1994). Once again, McCarthy offers an unflinching depiction of the hard lives and complex fates of men ripped loose from the moorings of home and family, pursuing destinies that seem imposed upon them by indifferent external forces. As it begins (in 1952), Billy is still a cowboy with an "outlaw" heart, and John Grady (with whom he works as a ranch hand in southwestern New Mexico), who's nine years his senior, dreams of finally settling down. The object of the latter's desires, a teenaged Mexican prostitute (and "epileptica") named Magdalena, is the "property" of a malevolent pimp whose possessiveness will precipitate this increasingly somber story's inevitably violent climax—a one-on-one G"tterd„mmerung that McCarthy unaccountably follows with a mystical Epilogue that feels like something lifted from an Ingmar Bergman film. This is the least impressive book of the Trilogy, but it's still a sizable cut above most contemporary novels. McCarthy's magnificent descriptions of landscape, weather, and animals in their relationship to men, and the stripped-down dialogue that perfectly captures his characters' laconic fatalism are as impressive—and unusual—as ever. If his perverse habit of presenting numbingly prolonged conversations between his principal characters and their several reality instructors unfortunately persists, so do his mastery of action sequences (a description of the ranch hands hunting down apack of cattle-killing dogs very nearly equals The Crossing's sublime opening sequence) and precise thematic statements. Judged, as it must be, in the context of its brother novels, Cities of the Plain is nonetheless, flaws and all, an essential component of a contemporary masterpiece.
From the Publisher
"An American classic to stand with the finest literary achievements of the century."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Grave and majestic.... McCarthy has created an imaginative oeuvre greater and deeper than any single book. Such writers wrestle with the gods themselves." —Washington Post Book World

"Showcases Mr. McCarthy's gifts as an old-fashioned storyteller.... His most readable, emotionally engaging novel yet." —The New York Times

"Soars as few novels have in recent years...a work of which any writer would be proud." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

"If you love classic narrative, quest stories, adventure stories of high order transformed by one of the lapidary masters of contemporary American fiction, now is your hour of triumph."
Chicago Tribune

"Captures a way of life so unspoken and deep that most people never knew it existed—. [McCarthy] can go places in prose as remote as a mountain pass in a high wind."—The Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307777522
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/11/2010
  • Series: Border Trilogy Series , #3
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 94,011
  • File size: 2 MB

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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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.

Yessir.

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.

Yessir.

Look yonder. The old man nodded toward the moon.

What?

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.

Yessir.

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?

No.

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.

Yessir.

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.

Yessir.

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?

Yeah.

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.

Night.

Night.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

1. For discussion of Cities of the Plain

2. What is the significance of the novel's title? What were the original "cities of the plain, " and what do they correspond to within the novel?

3. What role do horses play in the book, and how are they characterized? How are the "souls" of horses seen to differ from those of men?

4. Cities of the Plain is in many respects a novel about the inevitability and tragedy of change. What events and situations has McCarthy used to dramatize that subject? "The war changed everything, " says Billy. "I dont think people even know it yet" [p. 78]. What, precisely, has it changed? Which characters adjust to the changes, and which are unwilling or incapable of doing so?

5. What does the statement "beauty and loss are one" [p. 71] mean, and how does the novel illustrate this contention?

6. Of Magdalena, the old blind man says, "My belief is that she is at best a visitor. At best. She does not belong here. Among us" [p. 81]. What does he mean by this statement, and how is his premonition borne out? Can Magdalena's end be seen as inevitable, within the novel's particular world? What other predictions or auguries are offered in the novel? Do they add to the suspense or detract from it?

7. Which characters in the novel function as archetypes, and what do they represent? Do these archetypal characters keep them from being believable personalities?

8. Which of the characters have been affected by the Mexican Revolution, and in what ways has the Revolution changed their lives and helped to form their world? What are their feelings about the Revolution in retrospect?

9. How do you react to the manyinstances of violence in the novel? Do they seem gratuitous, or integral to the story? Is the graphic description of individual acts of violence included for mere titillation or shock value, or is it necessary in making the reader truly understand and come to terms with the novel's time and setting?

10. In spite of the widespread violence in the Border country, it is also a place in which people are unusually hospitable, at least by modern urban standards. Archer describes his travels through Mexico after the Revolution: "They didnt have no reason to be hospitable to anybody. Least of all a gringo kid. That plateful of beans they set in front of you was hard come by. But I was never turned away. Not a time" [p. 90]. What other examples of unusual hospitality can you find in the book? Is this hospitality connected in some way with the everyday violence that affects these people's lives?

11. In Cities of the Plain Mexico is characterized as female, the United States as male. What is the reason for this dichotomy, and how has McCarthy achieved the effect? In what ways is the southwestern United States qualitatively different from Mexico, just across the border? What does Mac mean when he reflects that, "In Mexico there is no God. Just her [the Virgin]" [p. 116]?

12. Billy says to John Grady, "You know you been actin peculiar since you had that wreck?" [p. 121] Is that true? If so, what happened during the wreck to alter John Grady's behavior or change his thinking?

13. What does the blind man mean when he tells John Grady, "Your love has no friends. You think that it does but it does not. None. Perhaps not even God" [p. 199]? Why does it have no friends? Why is it impossible that John Grady and Magdalena's love should ever succeed? Is John Grady aware of the impossibility, or does his love blind him to reality?

14. Billy says that Mexico is "another world. Everbody I ever knew that ever went back was goin after somethin" [p. 218]. What is John Grady going after? To what extent is he aware of his needs and his motivations? Eduardo says that John Grady is seeking death. Is he right? Why would John Grady choose death over life? Why is Billy different, opting for life, however diminished?

15. Who is the mysterious stranger that Billy, in old age, meets on the highway? What is the significance of the long story he tells, and what relation does it bear to Billy's life?

16. "In everything that he'd ever thought about the world and about his life in it he'd been wrong" [p. 265], Billy reflects as an old man. Which of his opinions were proved wrong? How does the world differ from the one he had thought he knew, and in what ways is old Billy different from young Billy?

17. Who is the real hero of this story: John Grady or Billy? Does the author play with conventional notions of what makes a hero? How do these young men fit into the chivalric tradition, and which earlier literary heroes do each of them resemble? For discussion of The Border Trilogy

18. The Border Trilogy is in many ways a work about the inevitability and tragedy of change. What events in the novels, both personal and historical, dramatize this theme? What has changed or is in the process of changing? Which characters adjust to these changes, and which are unable or unwilling to do so?

19. All three of the novels in the Border Trilogy are extremely violent. At a time when graphic and gratuitous descriptions of mayhem are standard in much popular fiction for purposes of mere shock and titillation, has McCarthy succeeded in restoring to violence its ancient qualities of pity and terror? How has he managed this?

20. There are many different Border crossings in the trilogy, and each crossing is in itself something in the nature of a quest. What, in each case, are the travelers seeking? Do they attain their goal? What do all the crossings have in common?

21. In what ways do John Grady Cole and Boyd Parham resemble one another? How is Billy different from both of them? Does he ever fully understand them? What ways does he find of dealing with them?

22. Who is the real hero of the trilogy, John Grady or Billy? Does the author play with conventional ideas of what makes a hero? How do these young men fit into the chivalric tradition, and which earlier literary heroes do each of them resemble?

23. The cowboys or vaqueros abide by an age-old moral code. Is this moral code viable in the new world in which they find themselves? Is it merely anachronistic, or are its values still alive and essential? What moral code exists in the modern world, and how does it correspond to the older one?

24. The culture on both sides of the Border as described in this trilogy is essentially a masculine one, some would say a macho one. Does this fact alienate you from the world described, or is the machismo an important, even a vital and necessary, part of a noble ethos?

25. How does the Border Trilogy exploit, and play against, the classic myth of the American West? What is its place within the tradition of the Western, alongside prototypes like The Virginian? Does it uphold, or subvert, the traditional values of the genre?

26. Who in the trilogy can be seen as archetypes, rather than as fully-fleshed characters? Which characters succeed both as personalities and as archetypes? Why has the author chosen to rely so heavily on archetypal figures to tell his story?

27. How has the history of the Border region, from the Alamo to the Mexican Revolution to the nuclear tests at Alamogordo, affected the lives of the Border Trilogy's characters and helped to form their world? How do historical events and tragedies continue to resonate in the narrative's present?

28. What well-known myths, legends and fairy tales can you discern within the Border Trilogy? Does the fact that it is a very "literary" piece of work distance you from it, or does it serve to draw you in more completely? Suggestions for further reading Paul Bowles, Collected Stories, The Sheltering Sky; William Burroughs, The Place of Dead Roads; Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces; Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, Nostromo, Victory; William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, The Reivers; Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier; Jim Harrison, Legends of the Fall; Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea; James Jones, From Here to Eternity; Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead; Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove; Susan Minot, Evening; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Foretopman; B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Owen Wister, The Virginian. And for background material on McCarthy, see Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, edited by Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2000

    Powerful and Memorable End to a Great Trilogy

    Cormac McCarthy manages the difficult trick of presenting a incredible, romantic story in a grim, authentic style that convinces and captivates from page one. John Grady Cole (Hero of 'All the Pretty Horses') and Billy Parham (Hero of 'The Crossing') are some of the last cowboys at an old ranch in Southern New Mexico in 1951. The ranch has been bought out by the government for weapons testing and its days are numbered. Slowly the laconic but awesomely competant John Grady Cole ('The All American Cowboy' as the ranch-hands call him) opens up to an older, wiser but more cynical Billy Parham. Simultanously, Cole attempts his last great romantic journey to Mexico, with predictably disasterous consequences... Both young men have a lifestyle, a code of honour and skills (wonderfully described) that are almost obsolete by the 1950s. Intelligent, but uneducated in a conventional sense, they realise this but take refuge in their work and the New Mexico landscape. Occasionally McCarthy's ponderous symbols and extended 'meaningful' speeches by blind men and strangers intrude, but the overall effect is vivid, realistic, and touching. The disappearance of the Wild West is the theme of a thousand westerns and dime store novels, but McCarthy takes these simple well-known elements and blends the mythical aspects of the story with the tough simple reality of a vanished sub-culture. Not perhaps a great novel, but a very good one indeed.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2002

    LOVED THIS ONE!!

    Loved this story and loved the characters. Gritty and realistic landscape. Sparse but realistic prose. I will highly recommend this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 6, 2014

    9825

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