Cities of the plain

by Cormac McCarthy

Hardcover, 1998





New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1998.


A Texas cowboy falls in love with a Mexican prostitute, only to discover he has a rival, her pimp. The pimp refuses to let her go because he will lose money and the stage is set for a violent confrontation.

Media reviews

That brief moment between a culture's existence and extinction -- this is the border that McCarthy's characters keep crossing and recrossing, and the one story, as he's forever writing, that contains all others.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lriley
The heroes of the two previous novels in Cormac McCarthy's border trilogy return together in this one. John Grady Cole (from All the pretty horses) is still a young man whereas Billy Parham (The Crossing) is somewhat older--both working on a ranch near the New Mexico-Mexico border near the border cities of El Paso and Ciudad Jaurez.

The story's main thread is developed around Cole's falling in love with a teenage Mexican prostitute--Magdalena and his attempting to bring her back over the border to marry her. Her Mexican brothel keepers/protectors have much different ideas about someone(thing) they consider their property. As in the previous two novels of this trilogy the novels denouement revolves around the clash between two different cultures living right on each others doorsteps. John recruits Billy Parham to act as a kind of go between between himself and the brothelkeepers (Eduardo and Tiburcio) but they're only interested in discouraging this liason. John then turns to an older Mexican he's met--a blind man but he cannot help him. He is in love though and cannot be stopped from the course he is on which only leads us to the books tragic and bloody climax.

Though not quite as good as The Crossing--this is a simpler and shorter story and it plays to McCarthy's strengths as a writer. A little less concentrated in style than other works of his--the prose is clearer and more lucid. McCarthy is very economical in his dialogue and is one if not just about the best writer of action scenes in the United States today. Many writers would have turned this kind of material into a tearjerker but McCarthy maintains a very tight control over his story and the vision of where to go with it. The whole series is very enjoyable and well worth reading --at least IMO and I expect that within the next couple of years I may have read all his books. I look very much forward to his next.
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LibraryThing member jeanned
It's 1952 and Mac's ranch has been purchased by the US Government. Jack Grady Cole and Billy Parham, two young cowboys who have grown up on the US-Mexican border (origin stories in [All the Pretty Horses] and [The Crossing]), face the disappearance of their way of life.

McCarthy tells us what these characters do, what they say, but not what they think. The rhythm of their deeds and speech entwines with the cadence of McCarthy's language, irrevocably leading to what must come next: "Each event is revealed to us only at the surrender of every alternate course." The best description I can give you of this NY Times Notable Book of 1998 is to call it a Literary Shakesperean American Western Tragic Romance. And say that I rate it at 10 out of 10 stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member Periodista
Not as absorbing as The Crossing, which has a magical realism quality but probably too much Spanish for anyone that doesn't have a little hs Spanish. The Spanish here is sparse and very basic.

It is a slow start, which must put off many readers new to McCarthy or the trilogy. (My advice: you can skim over the dog-hunting section.) However, once I got to the part where The Girl/ hooker with the heart of gold was walking toward her fate, I couldn't stop/had to keep stopping, if you get my drift. McCarthy's style is so understated, I didn't know he had it in him.

Female characters are not McCarthy's strong suit, I gather after reading three of his novels. Yes, most depictions of Third World prostitutes by male novelists bear no semblance to reality but there are far more ridiculous ones than this one. At least in a dream-like thought of John Grady's we get an idea of how she reached this point. All too similar to the route so many in Thailand follow (although they're not going to end up servicing the high-end johns, not for long). You're never going to see that in Graham Greene's dusky wet dreams. That being said, every woman in a locked brothel/indentured situation has a buy-out price. This woman in particular does not have much of a shelf life. Eduardo is supposed to be "in love" with her? Then he wouldn't be renting her out. He wouldn't marry her; he'd keep her on the side. He has to be married already, FWIW.

It's nitpicky but ... why was this rigamarole, getting a green card, etc. necessary? Why trust so many intermediaries? John Grady Cole has been seeing her, communicates the plan to her ...why doesn't he, possibly with Billy, just escort her personally across? It seems that the plan was to take her across the river at an unofficial crossing regardless. She could pass for Socorro's grandchild or whatever. Would a card be necessary for a wedding? I just don't buy it. Which of these Americans has any official id?

Eduardo: "This is what had brought you here and will always bring you here. Your kind cannot bear that the world be ordinary. That it contains nothing save what stands before one. But the Mexican world is a world of adornment only and underneath it is very plain indeed ...And we will devour you, my friend. You and all your pale empire."
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Whew. Read the trilogy over a span of three or four days. What a ride.

Beautiful writing as always. This one has more philosophical discourse on life and death, much more so than the other two. A tragic story, but one which is cathartic and oddly dignifying.
LibraryThing member jjtyler
It's been a while since I've read good fiction, and it seems I've read some stinkers of late.

But I went back to McCarthy and was welcomed back to his violent Texas border town world with open arms.

John Grady and Billy Parham were each the focus in their respective narratives about them, The Crossing and All The Pretty Horses, and here's where they story ends, or what comes to be of these two cowboys.

They're together on a ranch, working as hands, and John Grady falls in love with a young Mexican prostitute, and this sets the back drop of what happens in the novel.

It's rare to laugh out loud at a book, but I did this several times while reading the exchanges between the two main characters and the other ranch hands. There' s a love between them, for what they do and what they are, and you can see in the wording.

As much as I laughed at the dialogue, these books are never an easy pill to swallow with Cormac, as he takes you to places you don't want to go, and people die who you don't want to die. But isn't that a way to show how powerful his writing is?

In other stories, in most pop fiction, I'm not going to lose sleep over who is killed and who is let to live, but McCarthy connects you with his characters, with their flesh, weaknesses and flaws, and also with their more honorable sides. He makes you give a hang.

John Grady Cole wanted to take a girl who was in trouble, and give her a good life, not even mentioning that he loved her, and that is such a good sentiment and a powerful gesture. Everyone was against it but her and him, and he goes for it anyway.

This wasn't my favorite out of the Border trilogy. Most would pick All The Pretty Horses, but my heart places The Crossing above the rest.

That being said, this is a great read, and I highly recommend picking it up if you are a fan of modern day Westerns (set in the 30's or 40's), or if you are a fan of McCarthy.
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LibraryThing member Libra500
Beautiful, and heartbreaking.
LibraryThing member readyreader
The last of the trilogy and the one I enjoyed the most, perhaps because of the continuation of the characters from Book one and Book two. Violent and sad ending, but it was a compelling read for me. A look back at a bygone era in our country that was really short-lived, but certainly holds our imagination and fascination still today. The sections in which characters would philosophize and moralize became a little tedious. I feel the story and the character development should express what the author is trying to express more than characters invented for his voice. Perhaps I am missing the point...but all in all, I like the series.… (more)
LibraryThing member b.masonjudy
The Border Trilogy really took it out of me. Cities of the Plain is more a meditation on the state of men who are caught between or unwilling to adapt to the modern world and its left me with a heavy heart. The tone of Cities of the Plain is definitely in line with All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing and it is a worthy finale. I was surprised at the amount of dialogue, it's like McCarthy was saving it all for this book, and the themes the author develops in No Country for Old Men and The Road are at the forefront of this novel, the imagery that struck me the most was the constant juxtaposition of the neon lights of Juarez and the ancient cave paintings out in the desert. I would have liked a bit more development between John Grady and Billy to ground the reader in their friendship rather than making it a foregone conclusion. If you've made it this far in the Border Trilogy don't stop now, although if you have made it this far I'd say you're liable to read this book regardless of reviews.… (more)
LibraryThing member danlai
Cormac McCarthy is one of the most depressing authors I have ever read, but he’s also one of my favorites, simply because he writes some of the most beautiful imagery out there. The first two books in the trilogy, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, are two of my favorite books, so I was very excited to read this.

Cormac McCarthy is a poet that has simply never bothered to write poetry. Cities of the Plain is no exception for McCarthy’s habits, although we see this to a lesser extent than we do in the other books of the trilogy, which is slightly disappointing. The protagonists of the first two books are now friends, and the story is set in motion when John Grady Cole falls in love with a Mexican prostitute.

Cities of the Plain is somewhat lacking when compared with the rest of the trilogy. All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing are epics, while Cities of the Plain is calmer. It makes sense because the characters are older, but this book is just not as hard-hitting as the other two. All the Pretty Horses was like learning something that I never wished to learn, and The Crossing was like being gutted. This book, while still quite good, didn’t really live up to my expectations. And the epilogue, a thirty page discussion about a homeless man’s dreams, was confusing and out of place. This is definitely a book I need to reread, because I trust Cormac McCarthy’s creative judgments enough not to just write it off.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
65. Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy (1998, 292 pages within an Everyman's Library Hardcover edition of The Border Trilogy, read Oct 4 - 18)
Rating: 4.5 stars

John Grady Cole and Billy Parham finally meet up as ranch hands on an old New Mexico ranch run a old man, Johnson. Johnson is going slowly senile. He walks in his sleep, looks defeated and lost after the somewhat recent death of his daughter. His ranch is run by his son-in-law, Mac, but is about to taken by the US military. Let's call it 1952. Juarez, Mexico is the city of the plain. It's twin El Paso gives the title its plural, but doesn't get touched on all that deeply.

I found it interesting to learn Cities of the Plain was the first book of the Trilogy written. McCarthy felt he needed to flesh out the back story for the book to work. So, John Grady and Billy each got their own book. But McCarthy's writing evolved and the first two books are probably better than this one, making [Cities of the Plain] somewhat anticlimactic. Also, I don't think the extra talkative Billy here can have come from the reticent, uncommunicative Billy in The Crossing.

But still I really got into this book, loved reading it, was struck by the end, and felt I had some insight into what drove McCarthy onto this trilogy. It's worth noting The Border Trilogy marks a major change in McCarthy's style. Gone are the hypnotic language-bending lexicon of Suttree or Blood Meridian. The language in the trilogy is toned down and very direct, where English. (There is a great deal of dialogue in Spanish.)

Some of my thoughts on this book revolve around a major spoiler. Don't take this warning lightly. Quit here if you might read the book. The end gives the whole series a Romeo and Juliet feel. I also had the sense McCarthy was killing off a part of himself. John Grady represents a purity youth, and the beauty of a simplistic, focused, logic. This is a whole side of all of McCarthy's writing...the plain, heartless yet pure logic to life and nature. In JG it's also given a heart. And killing him off is maybe the author shedding or losing this idealism. The world is a complicated place. And McCarthy lives on by continuing to search it for answers. In that sense, he evolves from JG into a lesser but wiser, but still hopeless Billy.

One affect of the end of the this story is the emotional thrumming it can leave in the reader. I was kind of stunned by the direction this went, and left in an agitated state for the books final, lengthy section; and in that state that section became one of the most interesting of the trilogy. An elder, homeless Billy meets another homeless man from Mexico and gets a tale. The man tells of a dream of man within his own dream. It's chopped to death, this dream, by the dialogue of Billy and the unnamed (?) Mexican. Billy raking him with blunt questions about the point and about how he knows what he has seen. The Mexican responds formally, elegantly, with patience, about the disconnect between reality and the dream, and the hopeless logic of trying to gather how one can dream of another dreaming and still give the story a logic that has some consistency with reality.

In any case it is difficult to stand outside of one’s desires and see things of their own volition.

I think you just see whatever’s in front of you.

Yes. I don’t think that.

about the dreaming traveler inside the dream

How do you know he was asleep?

I could see him sleeping.

Did he dream?

The man sat looking at his shoes. He uncrossed his legs and recrossed them the other way. Well, he said. I’m not sure how to answer you. Certain events occurred. Some things about them remain unclear. It is difficult to know, for instance, when it was that these events took place.


The dream I had was on a certain night. And in the dream the traveler appeared. What night was this? In the life of the traveler when was it that he came to spend the night in that rocky posada? He slept and events took place which I will tell you of, but when was this? You can see the problem. Let us say that the events which took place were a dream of this man whose own reality remains conjectural. How assess the world of that conjectural mind? And what with him is sleep and what is waking? How comes he to own a world of night at all? Things need a ground to stand upon. As every soul requires a body. A dream within a dream makes other claims than what a man might suppose.

A dream inside a dream might not be a dream

You have to consider the possibility.

It's a dialogue about story telling, but one between two dramatically different characters that seem to define the whole trilogy. I think McCarthy's fascination with Mexico comes in a bit more clearly here. He loves the contrast between the blunt American cowboys and the stylized Mexican avoidance of such. Both are very much interested in the same thing, vaguely McCarthy's search of understanding.

All knowledge is a borrowing and every fact a debt. For each event is revealed to us only at the surrender of every alternate course.

But the path they take and the mindset toward there are quite different. And in their meeting something is revealed about stories and their telling.

This last section is just to close my review:

Although I should point out that you are the one with the questions.

No you shouldnt.

Yes. Of course.

Just get on with it.


Mum's the word here.


Nothing. I'll shut up askin questions, that's all.

They were good questions.

You aint goin to tell the story, are you?
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LibraryThing member presto
he concluding part in the Border Trilogy brings together the main character from each of the preceding novels, John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses, and Billy Parham from The Crossing. It is set after the war, John Grady is nineteen and Billy some ten years older, they are working together on a ranch at a time when the traditional life of the cowboy is threatened.

This book is very much about the friendship between these two young men, a friendship closer perhaps than they realise, with Billy seeing himself very much as looking out for John Grady. The story centres around their life on the ranch and John Grady's ill-advised love for a young prostitute. We get to know also their co-workers on the ranch, and along the way there are little vignettes involving additional characters very much in the vein of the other books in the Trilogy.

Cities of the Plain is every bit as good as the preceding books, beautifully written the sparse prose yet evokes the setting and the life of these men in a time of change. It is a most enjoyable read, there is humour, but is also heart-warming and at times heart-rending, deep in meaning; a worthy conclusion to a superb Trilogy.
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