Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

So I didn’t like this one as much as All the Pretty Horses. In fact, there were times when it felt like I as forcing myself to finish it.

But not at the start. At the start I was really into it. I was with Billy Parham and the wolf he had captured, because I thought I knew what McCarthy was trying to say.

He said that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there. Finally he said that if men drink the blood of God yet they do not understand the seriousness of what they do. He said that men wish to be serious but they do not understand how to be so. Between their acts and their ceremonies lies the world and in this world the storms blow and the trees twist in the wind and all the animals that God has made go to and fro yet this world men do not see. They see the acts of their own hands or they see that which they name and call out to one another but the world between is invisible to them.

It wasn’t just a wolf, you see. It was nature itself. Nature that existed separate from man and all his manifestations. Ancient and wise, and thoroughly adapted to reality in a way man’s desire could never be. When Billy began his quest south with the harnessed she-wolf, it was not just a journey of distance, but a journey of understanding he embarked upon.

He woke all night with the cold. He’d rise and mend back the fire and she was always watching him. When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void. A world construed out of blood and blood’s alkahest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to devour it. He wrapped himself in the blanket and watched her. When those eyes and the nation to which they stood witness were gone at last with their dignity back into their origins there would perhaps be other fires and other witnesses and other worlds otherwise beheld. But they would not be this one.

And in Billy’s desire to see the wolf returned to Mexico, what he believes to be her homeland, he also wants to see Nature returned to a place beyond man’s influence. But no such place still exists, and the wolf is captured by a group of men who fight dogs for sport and profit.

She was lying in the floor of the cart in a bed of straw. They’d taken the rope from her collar and fitted the collar with a chain and run the chain through the floorboards of the cart so that it was all that she could do to rise and stand. Beside her in the straw was a clay bowl that perhaps held water. A young boy stood with his elbows hung over the top board of the cart with a jockeystick held loosely across his shoulder. When he saw enter what he took for a paying customer he stood up and began to prod the wolf with the stick and to hiss at her.

She ignored the prodding. She was lying on her side breathing in and out quietly. He looked at the injured leg. He stood the rifle against the cart and called to her.

She rose instantly and turned and stood looking at him with her ears erect. The boy holding the jockeystick looked up at him across the top of the cart.

He talked to her a long time and as the boy tending the wolf could not understand what it was he said he said what was in his heart. He made promises that he swore to keep in the making. That he would take her to the mountains where she would find others of her kind. She watched him with her yellow eyes and in them was no despair but only that same reckonless deep of loneliness that cored the world to its heart. He turned and looked at the boy. He was about to speak when the pitchman ducked inside under the canopy and hissed at them. El viene, he said. El viene.

Billy fights for the wolf; fights to have her returned to his care. But the men ignore him, desperate to see how their trained dogs will fare against the wild animal. And after she has defeated several dogs, gravely wounded in the process, and is about to face two fresh new antagonists, Billy takes the only action he can.

He stepped over the parapet and walked toward the wolf and levered a shell into the chamber of the rifle and halted ten feet from her and raised the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the bloodied head and fired.

It’s a mercy killing, but in the extended metaphor of nature being raped by man’s lust and greed, it has even more ominous overtones. It also transforms Billy—transforms him, I believe, from a boy into a man. For in that one shot, he loses all the idealism of his youth and in ready to tackle the harsh reality of his adulthood.

This is the crossing referred to in the book’s title. There are other crossings, to be sure—three trips into Mexico in all—and these can be thought of as crossings, too. But they are not The Crossing. That is reserved for what happens to Billy and his way of being in the world.

It’s a crossing is younger brother Boyd is not ready to make. Upon Billy’s return after the tragedy with the wolf, he finds his parents murdered and their horses stolen and taken into Mexico. Billy and Boyd decide to go after the horses, but they both approach the task from different perspectives, Billy hardened and Boyd shattered.

He looked up. His pale hair looked white. He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’s been sitting there and God had made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy not of fact or incident or event but of the way the world was.

Boyd doesn’t yet understand how cruel the world can be. Billy does. He’s seen it first hand, and he’s much more serious about the task they’ve set before them. He understands the risks, and isn’t willing to push them too far. Boyd, inexperienced, is lost and unable to rationally calculate what’s to be done and what isn’t. He finds and falls for a girl, gets shot in a confrontation with the horse thieves, and, when healed, runs off on Billy to be with the girl. Eventually Billy leaves Mexico, but returns to find what happened to his brother when he can no longer find a place for himself. He discovers that Boyd has been killed and buried in an unmarked grave, and he risks his life to retrieve his brother’s remains and return them to the land of his birth.

In many ways, this novel is like the corrido (a Mexican form of ballad and oral poem) spoken of near the end of the book.

It tells what it wishes to tell. It tells what makes the story run. The corrido is the poor man’s history. It does not owe its allegiance to the truths of history but to the truths of men. It tells the tale of that solitary man who is all men. It believes that where two men meet one of two things can occur and nothing else. In one case a lie is born and in the other death.

Billy is the solitary man who is all men. And in living he is a lie, always at odds with the world that surrounds him.

McCarthy’s Writing

One thing about McCarthy—he’s a damn good writer. His imagery is so vivid, especially in the most horrifying of scenes.

The German then did something very strange. He smiled and licked the man’s spittle from about his mouth. He was a very large man with enormous hands and he reached and seized the young captive’s head in both these hands and bent as if to kiss him. But it was no kiss. He seized him by the face and it may well have looked to others that he bent to kiss him on each cheek perhaps in the military manner of the French but what he did instead with a great caving of his cheeks was to suck each in turn the man’s eyes from his head and spit them out again and leave them dangling by their cords wet and strange and wobbling on his cheeks.

And so he stood. His pain was great but his agony at the disassembled world he now beheld which could never be put right again was greater. Nor could he bring himself to touch the eyes. He cried out in his despair and waved his hands about before him. He could not see the face of his enemy. The architect of his darkness, the thief of his light. He could see the trampled dust of the street beneath him. A crazed jumble of men’s boots. He could see his own mouth. When the prisoners were turned and marched away his friends steadied him by the arm and led him along while the ground swang wildly underfoot. No one had ever seen such a thing. They spoke in awe. The red holes in his skull glowed like lamps. As if there were a deeper fire there that the demon had sucked forth.

They tried to put his eyes back into their sockets with a spoon but none could manage it and the eyes dried on his cheeks like grapes and the world grew dim and colorless and then it vanished forever.

This reminds me a lot of the scene in The Road, when the man and the boy find a locked basement full of people who are being kept by cannibals for the stringy meat on their bones, one of them laying on a mattress on the floor with both his legs amputated and his stumps burned black to stop him from bleeding to death. It’s unreal. It’s unbelievable. And yet it’s so true. So honest. You see it as if it actually happened.

And through the story of this blinded man, McCarthy reveals much wisdom.

He said that the light of the world was in men’s eyes only for the world itself moved in eternal darkness and darkness was its true nature and true condition and that in this darkness it turned with perfect cohesion in all its parts but that there was naught there to see. He said that the world was sentient to its core and secret and black beyond men’s imagining and that its nature did not reside in what could be seen or not seen. He said that he could stare down the sun and what use was that?

This a Conrad and Melville rolled up into one—Moby-Dick swimming through the Heart of Darkness—and it ties directly to Billy’s first adventure with the wolf and the natural world that it represents.

One device that McCarthy uses again and again is the run-on sentence. There’s little punctuation anyway in his novel (nary a quotation mark or an apostrophe to be found), and that freedom of form seems to encourage him to go on and on whenever the mood strikes him. For me, it seldom works. But when it does work, it works extraordinarily well, evoking, as it seems to, the fully fleshed characters and the lives that they lead through a on-going stream of images and impressions.

She said that her grandmother had been widowed again within the year and married a third time and was a third time widowed and wed no more although there were opportunities enough her for to do so as she was a great beauty and not yet twenty years of age when the last husband fell as detailed by his own uncle at Torreon with one hand over his breast in a gesture of fidelity sworn, clutching the rifleball to him like a gift, the sword and pistol he carried falling away behind him useless in the palmettos, in the sand, the riderless horse stepping about in the melee of shot and shell and the cries of men, trotting off with the stirrups flapping, coming back, wandering in silhouette with others of its kind among the bodies of the dead on that senseless plain while the dark drew down around them all about and small birds driven from their arbors in the thorns returned and flitted about and chattered and the moon rose blind and white in the east and the little jackal wolves came trotting that would eat the dead from out of their clothes.

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