Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

You will see.  It is difficult even for brothers to travel together on such a voyage.  The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons.  If indeed they come to an understanding of them at all.  Listen to the corridos of this country.  They will tell you.  Then you see in your own life what is the cost of things.  Perhaps it is true and nothing is hidden.  Yet many do not wish to see what lies before them in plain sight.  You will see.  The shape of the road is the road.  There is not some other road that wears that shape but only the one.  And every voyage begun upon it will be completed.

Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing opens with a vagrant Native American--an Indian, in the language of young Billy Parham, the young rancher's son who is the novel's protagonist--coming upon Billy and his brother Boyd out in the wilderness around their New Mexico home.  He demands under threat that Billy and Boyd steal food from their parents and bring it to him, which they do.  That is to say that it begins more or less like Great Expectations.

But the Indian never returns.  He never comes back to pay his respects or to menace further; when Billy's parents are murdered by horse thieves there's no intimation that it's the Indian who's responsible.  He comes on the page and plays his part and then leaves.  Don't look for coincidences, McCarthy seems to say; don't expect the shapeliness of a literary story, even as one of the themes of the book is the way that we use stories to shape our knowledge about the world which is essentially unknowable.

The Crossing is really three separate crossings.  In the first, Billy traps a pregnant shewolf that has been terrorizing his family's cattle and resolves to bring her, muzzled in a homemade strap, back to her home in the mountains of Mexico.  But she ends up being taken hostage by a traveling feria and made to fight dogs.  Billy, unable to secure her freedom, ends up shooting her.  It's a Ned Stark-level surprise, because to this point it seems as if the thrust of the novel is about Billy and the wolf, but just like the opening episode with the Indian, McCarthy enjoys dashing our narrative expectations.  The second crossing is when Billy returns with his brother Boyd to Mexico in order to hunt down the horses that have been stolen from his family's farm when his parents were murdered--an event that Boyd stayed home to witness, hardening him and making him alien to Billy, whose priority is protecting him.  The third is when Billy returns to Mexico to find Boyd, who has been shot in the chest and run off with a young Mexican girl.

Each of these plays like a dreamscape, or a nightmare.  The Parhams' adventures in Mexico are episodic and lyrical, containing hundreds of characters who may appear for no more than a page or two.  There's a blind man whose explanation for his blindness is straight out of a more baroquely violent McCarthy novel like The Road or Blood Meridian, the primadonna of a traveling theater company, a band of gypsies towing a downed airplane.  It reads something like a cross between Dante and Don Quixote.  Oh, and most of the dialogue is in untranslated Spanish. 

I've found that reading McCarthy is more fun when you approach it with a sense of humor.  It keeps you from rolling your eyes when he writes sentences like, "Dreams of that malignant lesser god come pale and naked and alien to slaughter all his kin and rout them from their house."  Paradoxically, I think it makes me more receptive when McCarthy is most profound, when he deals with his major theme, which is the essential unknowability of the universe:

Finally he asked him why this was such a blessing and the blind man did not answer and did not answer and then at last he said that because what can be touched falls into dust there can be no mistaking these things for the real.  At best they are only tracings of what the real has been.  Perhaps they are not even that.  Perhaps they are no more than obstacles to be negotiated in the ultimate sightlessness of the world.

Stories, for McCarthy, are also "tracings of the real," as the corrido ballads which strike Billy as being about his missing brother's courageous and tragic exploits.  As someone explains to him, the stories are older than his brother, but his brother has become a part of them, and that is a kind of truth that is as real as any other we might trust in.  That is, not very real at all, but whatever reality is we don't have access to it.  McCarthy's at his best--and his scariest--when thinking about these things.

The book ends with Billy alone in an abandoned building back in New Mexico.  He shoos away a dog, and wakes up to a false dawn before the real one and weeps.  I could be wrong but my guess is that this is meant to be the Trinity Test, the testing of a nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert months before it was used on Japan.  It's as ominous an ending as any of McCarthy's novels has, a suggestion of the grandeur of evil beyond the reckoning of any individual human being, and a foreshadowing of a novel like The Road. 

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