Since we are immersing ourselves in Western Living this week, I brought the entire “Border Trilogy” of Cormac McCarthy, who is probably best known as the author of No Country for Old Men. Now that I’ve read all three, including All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, I’ve realized that three novels are WAAAAAY too much Cormac McCarthy in any short period. Don’t get me wrong. I love Cormac McCarthy. He produces some of the most beautiful, even mythic writing in America today. And I mean MYTHIC. If Homer were alive today and working part time as a ranch hand in one of the border states, these are the novels he’d be writing. But mythic can be pretty intense if you enter it thinking you are just going to get a nice couple of cowboy tales. For my money, McCarthy does what Hemmingway could only dream of doing. Produce prose so beautiful and so visual you can see each scene in detail, while using short sentences, minimal adjectives, little punctuation and lots of terse dialogue. But the subject matter! It’s the West of legend where cowboys are heros, bad men are evil beyond all reason and a few good lawmen try to protect the former from the latter. My brain is still reeling from the Trilogy. If you thought the movie, No Country for Old Men was intense, you should read the book. Then you should tackle the Border Trilogy which is that intensity times more than three.
Things I’ve learned from Cormac McCarthy:
1) Most cowboys are as consumed with a quest as Don Quixote or any of King Arthur’s knights.
2) Finding the Holy Grail would be easy compared to some of the tasks these cowboys set themselves. (How about transporting a wild and injured wolf over the border into Mexico to return it to the wilds? With nothing but your sixteen year old wits and a good horse. See The Crossing for details.)
3) There is always at least one cowboy in the bunch who has a “Horse Whisperer”-like ability to communicate with animals – especially horses, wild dogs and wolves.
4) You can travel through most of the back of beyond parts of Mexico without a peso in your pocket. People in dusty towns there will shelter you, feed you and take care of your horse. Without even asking your name.
5) Mexican women, whether they are wealthy rancher’s daughters (All The Pretty Horses) or doomed epileptic prostitutes (Cities of the Plain) are impossibly beautiful and will cause somebody’s death –either yours or that of someone close to you.
6) In contrast, many of the older cowboys in the book, especially lawmen, will have non-nonsense, loyal American wives and will be fully aware that these women are the ones who allowed them to survive and thrive for so long.
7) While Mexican villagers and most Vaqueros are Christlike in their desire to share everything even if they have nothing, run if you should meet a Mexican officer, official, Federale, bandido or pimp. They will try to kill you in horrible ways for no reason.
8) Every blind Mexican is an amazingly poetic prophet. No matter what you are running from or what you have to do, you must stop and listen to their very long, detailed stories of their cryptic dreams. They will predict your future.
9) Doesn’t matter if it’s the late Thirties, the early Fifties, the Seventies or today, the border areas are the land that time and justice forgot. People still get around by horse, Mexico is still a dangerous and lawless place and the West is still mythic. You’ll probably die in horrible ways, but you will do so with honor.
Meanwhile Cormac has me looking at aspects of our little corner of the West in a whole different way. Is that lizard a harbinger of doom? Does that creosote bush hide a wild canine – wolf or dog – that will set me off on an impossible quest? Is this area actually a former crossing for Native Americans? Because in McCarthy’s world, ghosts of those long-gone people always come back at you in a dream. And most importantly, is that Mexican on the corner or sitting in the cafe blind? Because you have to know they actually SEE everything. Ask them. That is, if you want to know they kind of future that would be in store for you in a Cormac McCarthy type of world.