In the 1930s, two teenage brothers whose ranch in New Mexico was raided by bandits, cross into Mexico to search for stolen horses. The novel follows them through the revolution-torn countryside, meeting soldiers, peasants, priests and thieves, all proffering advice. By the author of All the Pretty Horses.
So he goes into the winter night and crawls to the edge of a broad valley.
“They were running on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world entire. They moved down the valley and turned and moved far out on the plain until they were the smallest of figures in that dim whiteness and then they disappeared.”
Already the untamed and inexplicable are upon us. Already you can hear echoes of William Faulkner in the voice of a new master stylist. McCarthy’s use of language is the reason I started reading this book and the reason I stayed with it despite some serious disappointments in the story he tells.
McCarthy’s writing style swings from unadorned sentences into dense tangles of abstract thought. You find whole paragraphs describing in plain language and in great detail simple actions of no apparent importance such as a man lighting a cigarette or a horse drinking water.
At one point he takes 11 pages to describe a doctor cleaning and dressing a bullet wound in Billy’s brother Boyd. In this example, the long description adds to the suspense of not knowing if Boyd will survive, but I suspect McCarthy’s usual purpose is to rivet our attention on detail, to make each scene intensely visual.
The entire novel is intensely visual. There’s no interior; no description of what a person is thinking at any given moment. We can only guess at what they’re thinking from watching what they do or listening to their stories.
McCarthy takes chances with his writing. Some of it goes too far and verges on silly. Instead of saying the boy looked into the wolf’s ear, McCarthy writes: “He studied the veined and velvet grotto into which the audible world poured.”
Some of it, though, gives me a rush of pleasure. It’s over the top writing. Here’s his description of Boyd staring into a campfire shortly after the brothers ride into Mexico to recover horses stolen from their murdered parents.
“He looked up. His pale hair looked white. He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’d been sitting there and God had made the trees and rocks around him.”
One moment you’re reading simple descriptions and the next you’re swept into long sentences of cosmic truth beyond reckoning:
“He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never to be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.”
To me, though, the story doesn’t quite live up to the writing. The book is rich in memorable encounters, suspenseful and funny in places, punctuated with bursts of action, but it’s also maddeningly aimless. Billy rides into Mexico. He rides into a town. He rides on. He meets an old man. He rides on. He crosses the border back into America. He returns to Mexico. He meets a woman. He meets some gypsies. He leaves Mexico.
I almost gave up at the point where Billy wakes up one morning and discovers Boyd has left with a girl they had rescued. He left without saying good-bye, without leaving a note, without saying where he was going or for how long. He just left, exactly as Billy did when he rode into Mexico without telling his family.
Is Billy angry? Hurt? Perturbed? We don’t know. The boys talk very little and rarely about how they feel. They are laconic to the point of caricature. Billy and Boyd have many admirable qualities, but to a fanciful degree. They are stoic, taciturn, courteous, honorable, brave and self-reliant, little John Waynes 14 and 17 years old who ride into a foreign country expecting somehow to find and retrieve six horses that someone committed murder to steal.
I missed a lot of meaning in The Crossing, in part because of my limitations as a reader, but also because of all the Mexican terminology and Spanish dialogue McCarthy insists on using without translation. The meaning can usually be guessed, but it’s distracting.
The Crossing appears to be a novel that must be read a second time to be fully appreciated. Not this reader, though, because the endless, impossible quests wearied me. I discovered while dipping into the book to write this essay that I get more enjoyment out of reading episodes in isolation. I come to the scenes fresh, unconcerned about meaning or what comes next. I am able to let the writing envelop me. I see what McCarthy saw so vividly when he wrote the scenes and they are usually fascinating.
Our theme this quarter was the search for self. In All the Pretty Horses, Parham is constantly on a search for who he is, and what is his purpose. He is a boy at the start of the novel with only 16 years of age, and by the end of the novel he is 21, and has spent 5 years wandering the countryside of Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico. This book starts with Parham trying to take a she- wolf back into the mountains of Mexico. In this journey and all the other journeys Parahm embarks on, he goes attempting to accomplish a task. It is in this task he is attempting to find out his purpose, and who he is. This book is sad because towards the end of the novel, he just begins to realize more and more he does not know who he is, or what his purpose is. He feels though he failed in his goal. His search for self is long, arduous, and saddening. It is a perfect example of blind effort, and the reader feels all the pain Parham feels in his search for self.
I would recommend this novel if you have read All the Pretty Horses and enjoyed it. This book is longer, and is much more depressing and sad. The setting in the deserts of Mexico and Arizona is the same as in All the Pretty Horses and the appeal of the wild of Mexico is really intriguing. In summation, I would give this book about 3.5 out of 5 stars. It was not as good as All the Pretty Horses, but The Crossing in my opinion is yet another classic of American Literature and a search for self.
Rating: 4 stars
Eventually McCarthy gives us a date, but in the mean time The Crossing leaves us wondering about the era and how it relates to All the Pretty Horses, and why this books is so completely different, and how long does the Peter and Wolf thing need to go on.
I'll spoil it a bit and tell you that Billy Parham crosses over to Mexico the first time about the winter of 1939, with his lame wolf in ropes. He's about 15 years old, making him about nine years older then John Grady. Billy is nothing like John Grady, nor really is his book. The Crossing is distinctly slow and plotless. Billy just wanders. The reader wanders with him, but mostly that reader is pondering the details, all the Spanish, and the various ways Billy handles the ropes to manage the wolf, the paths of his wanderings, the horses, and what exactly is unspoken. There is a managed tension throughout. Notably, from wondering if that wolf will get loose. But also between Billy and his younger brother Boyd. Billy is the epitome of hard luck. Boyd however naturally attracts affections and is quite beautiful in many different ways. Billy tries to protect Boyd, but he can never manage to talk to him.
But the notable aspect of this book is that McCarthy has added in quite a bit of thought and philosophy. I think McCarthy tried hard to work out his own mindset here, the one running through all his work, and then to spell it out for the reader in his own way. That is to say, with some reconstruction a lot is revealed. McCarthy's worldview is cold, but not baseless.
He uses numerous prophets, including a gypsie, a variety of oddball wise men and women, and his favorite teller, an expriest. McCarthy loves ex- and fallen-priests. There has to be a loss of faith to get his attention. This one gets the most acreage, covering several pages, giving Billy a lesson and, as I'm only just now realizing, an accurate fortune telling. He tells his story in third person:
“And the priest? A man of broad principles. Of liberal sentiments. Even a generous man. Something of a philosopher. Yet one might say that his way through the world was so broad it scarcely made a path at all. He carried within himself a great reverence for the world, this priest. He heard the voice of the Deity in the murmur of the wind in the trees. Even the stones were sacred. He was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart.
There was not. Nor does God whisper through the trees. His voice is not to be mistaken. When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay His presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken can contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair.
As for Billy, he will find only sadness and a very hard lonely world.
He got his things from the house and saddled the horse in the road and rode out. He said goodbye to no one. He sat the horse in the road beyond the river cottonwoods and he looked off down country at the mountains and he looked to the west where thunderheads were standing sheared off from the thin dark horizon and he looked at the deep cyanic sky taut and vaulted over the whole of Mexico where the antique world clung to the stones and to the spores of living things and dwelt in the blood of men. He turned the horse and set out along the road south, shadowless in the gray day, riding with the shotgun unscabbarded across his lap. For the enmity of the world was newly plain to him that day and cold and inameliorate as it must be to all who have no longer cause except themselves to stand against it.
I developed a lot of affection for this book. I read it slow and enjoyed lingering around in it. Scattered about are many lines of note, although as we say online, YMMV.
...(on the nature of the world)...
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.
To see God everywhere is to see Him nowhere.
...the truth may often be carried about by those who themselves remain unaware of it.
...the order which the righteous seek is never righteousness itself but is only order, the disorder of evil is in fact the thing itself.
... (on writing)...
Always the teller must be at pains to devise against his listener's claim—perhaps spoken, perhaps not—that he has heard the tale before.
... (I see this fragment as characterizing part of what drives McCarthy)...
...that elusive freedom which men seek with such unending desperation.
McCarthy is pretty much on top of his game in this one--meditating on the meaning of life and death in a strange and alien with a sometimes apocalyptic landscape filling out the background. Over the course of the book Billy Parham will find himself returning to Mexico twice more--both times the result of family catastrophes that leave him an orphan--and then all alone in the world. By its end there is a kindly of lonesome hardwon redemption for him--but whether it was worth the price he pays for it is very open to question.
I have read reviews that think that the first section about the wolf is maybe McCarthy's finest writing ever. I would not argue with that. There is a raw and understated emotional quality to McCarthy's prose here that is especially evident in that first part but also can be seen throughout the text. Combined with the epic Odyssey like plotline and the apocalyptic landscapes and the often existentialist/religious like meditations of many of those whom Billy meets along and converses with along his via crucis--that I found this to be an intriguing book throughout. Excellently written and well thought out and plotted. A minor warning though--oftentimes McCarthy has Billy conversing in spanish with other characters. Sometimes he hints at what is being said within the paragraph or in the next paragraph but not always. Having very rudimentary spanish reading skills I was able to pick up the gist about 90% of the time but it may bother some who do decide to read this.
In any case despite that I would highly recommend this book of his and would rate this along with Suttree as my favorite of his works.
(And I could understand almost all the Spanish! This would be a good novel to recommend to second semester Spanish students--a good motivator to learn more)
There's also the feeling of Latino literature. The way many LA writers tell a tale. The Mexican characters verge on the allegorical or the magical realist. I thought of how Fellini would film this--the caravan of actors, the opera singer bathing, the nameless girl barely escaping the gang of ladrones/rapists/murderers.
And the way the Mexican characters talk! Big themes, the meaning of life, God, civil war. Contrast this with the laconic (though colorfully idiomatic) language of the American characters. Or should I say the characters when in America?
Finally, very near the end, we get about a paragraph's work of self talk from Billy, told to an unsympathetic gringo who happens upon his campfire. What's that all about? How much has Billy learned?
The Crossing is filled with moments like that described above telling of Billy Parham's movements south and north through a country that seems to be perpetually gray, with little room for the sun. This is the second novel of The Border Trilogy. In it we are introduced to Billy Parham who is sixteen years old as the story begins, recently moved to New Mexico and fated to travel to Mexico and back - it follows Billy's travels and travails as he crosses and recrosses the border. These begin with Billy and his father setting traps for a she-wolf which has been marauding and killing their sheep. Billy is able to catch it in one of his traps, however instead of killing it he decides to take it to Mexico presumably to let it loose. It is with this act that his adventures begin and, operating without any apparent overarching aim, Billy who is later joined by his younger brother Boyd, set out on a series of quests, all of which are doomed to failure. While the travels of Billy make up the action of the novel, like All the Pretty Horses, the first novel in the trilogy, this novel is more about larger themes of good and evil, fate and responsibility, and the nature of friendship and relationships in this gray and desolate world. Related to these themes permeating the novel is the characters' ability or inability to see the world around them.
"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." (p 46)
This was related by an "old man" that Billy met as he was headed to Mexico on his first trip. Their are several characters like this whom Billy meets on his travels who relay stories and make important-sounding pronouncements. These along with the narrator raise issues that Billy may or may not understand. Among these comments are those about story-telling itself which may be key to understanding Billy's world and ours. McCarthy's odd narrational devices, his inimitable use of metaphor set against a background of realistic detail makes this volume the equal of the first in the trilogy. The story is bleak and narrates a tale of preservation in a world filled with enmity, yet it is a world that has many kind people and one in which Billy survives to see visions of unusual days and nights and perhaps a future.
The Crossing, the second book in the Border Trilogy, is a gripping, and often moving account of a young boy's adventures and troubles. While filled with minute detail words are never wasted, and McCarthy's only use of punctuation is the full stop, and even that is used with economy. Billy's story is occasionally interspersed with the stories of others, such as that of the ageing blind man.
A lot of the dialogue is in Spanish, and there are no translations, but that does not seem to interfere with or hamper one's understanding. The Crossing is a most absorbing and memorable read.
All the Spanish conversation got really old, very quickly. I know a bit of Spanish so often I would be able to extract enough to get the gist. For a while I tried looking up words in my Spanish/English dictionary then I gave that up knowing I'd never get through this book if I kept that up. Most authors would give you enough to work with in English that it didn't really matter what you missed in a foreign language but not McCarthy. If you know no Spanish I would absolutely steer you away from this book.
This is the second book of the Border Trilogy and I just don't know if I can do the third after this. The first, All the Pretty Horses, I listened to the audiobook (not realizing it was the first of a series). No unabridged audiobook exists for The Crossing, and having read it,and all its Spanish dialogue, I now understand why.
McCarthy's descriptions are sharp and vivid. The scenes roll off his pen like the landscape in which they are set. The dialogue is exceptional. I always want to talk like one of his cowboys after reading one of his books.
Another great aspect is that he leads us to think we are into another standard western story, but then takes a turn into original. fascinating plots.
itself and take on majesty. Early on we grow to intensely like the young man, and then share in the experiences of his savage adventure. The mind attempts to classify in vain each mini narrative, to find the meaning - is it a fable or not? Instead i was left with a sense of wonder.
Billy’s journeys through Mexico, both alone and with his younger brother, Boyd, take him among different places and different people, many of whom share vivid stories of their lives and worldviews. Billy’s vagrant spirit and listlessness are mirrored in the stark and desolate landscapes he travels through, and the uncertainty of his future is shown in his often inexplicable choices and transient views.
The novel is sometimes beautiful, but often stark, harsh, and keenly painful even if the reader cannot agree with or understand Billy’s (and Boyd’s) decisions. The novel is in many ways bleaker than McCarthy’s The Road, and the characters in The Crossing lack the sense of connection with each another or with the world that is seen in The Road’s father and son.
McCarthy demonstrates again that he can deepen a reader's understanding of the world and the wild, harsh plains of the Southwest and Mexico. I'm looking forward to reading Cities of the Plains.
I loved the first book in McCarthy's trilogy "All The Pretty Horses" and planned to read the following two (of which "The Crossing is the second.) In the interim, I read McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," which I detested for all the violence for violence's sake.
Like that book, "The Crossing" is filled with animal cruelty for animal cruelty's sake as a wolf gets tortured over and over again. I get the rancher hatred of wolves but I don't care to read about it. I kept skipping over paragraph after paragraph and realized I should just put the book down since I wasn't reading most of it anyway. Based on the last two experiences with his novels, McCarthy and I will part ways here.