CBR10Bingo – AND SO IT BEGINS and THIS IS THE END
So this series of books came out in the 1990s and sort of represents a significant shift in Cormac McCarthy’s writing or more so signals the closing of the second phase of his writing and he moved toward the final section (depending on how much more he publishes — he’s pretty old). The first phase is more or less represented through his Tennessee novels. These novels are (simplistically) defined by working within the Southern Gothic sub-genre, or perhaps thinking through the novels as the “grotesque” or even “carnivalesque” to borrow the term from Bahktin. These novels more or less earned him his reputation as being similar to Faulkner, especially “Suttree” which is very similar in scope and tone to “Absalom, Absalom!” or Peter Matthiessen’s “Killing Mr. Watson.” Then he changed everything, including a lot of the landscape of American fiction in writing “Blood Meridian” which is a rather divisive book both because it’s horribly violent and disturbing, but also because the writing is quite bleak and experimental. These novels are also Western in genre, but also more accessible and sympathetic and in very very oblique ways sentimental. They’re funnier and they’re more engaging and hopeful. So they’re less bleak, but still pretty bleak. There’s more hope here than in any other of his novels.
In the final phase, it’s almost pure nihilism. “No Country for Old Men” is more bleak than “Blood Meridian” in my mind. The world of that novel is more dangerous, but it doesn’t lie to you about safety. And then “The Road” which is not as bleak, but still pretty bleak because the danger is real, but the message is more hopeful.
All the Pretty Horses
In this novel, we have the story of John Grady Cole, a sixteen year old boy from Texas, who runs away (though no one is trying to stop him) with a friend from school to become a cowboy in Mexico. While there, he falls into a lot of trouble involving stolen horses and a rich girl. He halls head over heels with the girl, with the life presented to him in Mexico, and forgets that he’s essentially nobody. Through the novel we see his Romanticism about the world, that kind of teenage boy way of seeing things get completely eradicated. There’s a very clearly older voice and understanding of the world trying to show him how different things really are from his expectations without dashing them completely. But they definitely get completely dashed. In a lot of ways, this book is also a commentary on the kinds of Western novels we all know or Western movies, where a heroic (white, American) man comes to a foreign lands and tames it with his di…er gun. We know the world doesn’t work this way. John Grady Cole will learn. All this happens in the years just after WWII and so if the setting feels ripe for this attitude change, it is.
This is another story in a similar setting. Billy and Boyd Parham also go to Mexico for a couple different reasons in a couple different moments. About the same age as John Grady Cole, but set several years earlier (pre-WWII), Billy starts by hunting a wolf (controlling the environment) and falls continually downward. He’s unable to join up to fight the war (he’s 4f for a heart murmur), and this kills him (not literally).
Cities of the Plain
This final section takes place about 1950 and pairs John Grady Cole and Billy Parham together working for the same Texas ranch on the border. John Grady is 19 and Billy is 28, and this age gap explains a lot of their relationship. Billy does not quite represent an older brother character, but does kind of. There’s a line in the middle of this book that says something like “When a man doesn’t get the best thing he wants, he often goes after the next worse” and then speaks to the novel in a lot of ways.
I am avoiding spoiling some of the plot of the novels because a lot of them are gut-checks or even gut-wrenching at times. There’s humor, there’s death, there’s torture, and there’s the kind of violent growth that only these kinds of experiences can have for someone. What I see here is a set of very post-Vietnam novels, where America is searching for a sense of meaning as a dying empire. The “successes” of WWII give over to the useless horror of Korea and the useless losses of Vietnam writ small along the border.