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The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (Book Review)

The Crossing, the second book in Cormac McCarthy’s the Border trilogy, continues the trend of self-reflection in the aftermath of grief. All 3 books may be depressing in some instances, but this also gives them room to engage in lots of soul-searching reflection on the meaning of life.

In All the Pretty Horses we followed a young love struck protagonist into Mexico and marvelled as he made wrong decision after wrong decision as he allowed his boyish impulses guide him. For most our years of teenage rebellion pass with nothing more serious than the occasional telling off by an adult, but for John Grady his adventures lead him from prison to a stint as an outlaw trying to outrun the Mexican authorities. He is made to pay for every wrong turn instigated by his obstreperousness.

In the Crossing, however, we have a new cowboy in the shape of Billy Parham. Parham is as different from Grady as oil is from water. Both are cowboys, a dying breed in their times (around the Second World War), but where Grady only thinks with his heart and passions Parham on the contrary seems to be the level headed one, a characteristic perplexingly lost to him at the early stage of the novel when he makes a decision to go into Mexico.

Let’s backtrack for a moment and start from the beginning of the story: Billy is with his younger brother Boyd, who is more like Grady in that he is headstrong and capricious, when they meet a mysterious Indian on their way home – a humble homestead where their dad keeps horses. In a scene reminiscent of the opening of Great Expectations, the Indian asks for some food but then starts to dig for information on the family, do they have dogs out at night at their home etc. Billy is dubious but polite to the man and promises to bring him something to eat.

Meanwhile, the livestock starts to suffer when a pregnant wolf starts hunting them. Billy and his father set out to hunt the wolf with traps, but the wolf, smart as it is, evades all their attempts to catch her. Soon enough Billy goes out by himself in the middle of winter to try and eventually nabs her only to then feel pity for the animal.
It’s at this stage that he doesn’t think with his head, as I suggested earlier. Inexplicably, Billy decides to return the wolf to her home country and starts off on his journey to Mexico, crossing the border and continuing on toward the distant snow-capped mountains.
On his journey he meets with a country devastated by war where he as a white man is immediately conspicuous and is by turns both marvelled at and despised, especially by those who’ve taken up arms. On the other hand he will find with the ordinary citizenry, who’ve often found themselves displaced by all the fighting – he’ll find kindness and people who share what little food and shelter they have happily.

It’s this contrast of kindness and wickedness through his journey that makes for such a riveting story. Billy is still a teenager but has for all intents and purposes he’s adopted his captured wolf and is strongly attached to it and is highly motivated to return her to the wilderness.

He makes for a striking figure, this cowboy on a horse and leading a wolf by a rope, and then he meets with some armed men who want to buy the wolf off him. Billy refuses. By and by the wolf is stolen and Billy, still feeling a strong sense of responsibility toward the animal goes out in search for it and finds her being used roughly to entertain the locals in dogfights. The scene is brutal and Billy is helpless in the face of such callousness.

Finally he returns to America and finds his home desolate. Knowing a great tragedy has occurred he goes out in search for answers. Boyd is staying with some neighbours and he finds out that they were robbed and both his parents were killed, most likely by the Indian he and Boyd met with at the start.

Both orphans now decide to go after their father’s stolen horses. They cross the border, now Billy’s second time, and consequently come upon their horses and manage to take them back after a gunfight. Then as they start heading for home they come upon a beautiful young girl who is obviously in trouble.

Boyd convinces Billy to rescue her and together all 3 continue on. But while Boyd, recalcitrant and difficult to reason with, is enamoured by the girl, who is a revolutionary in the war, Billy is left to watch helplessly as his brother falls in love with her despite his warnings against it. Boyd is then shot through the chest by pursuing gunmen, leaving Billy to carry his dying brother on his horse in an attempt to get away.

He comes upon labourers in a truck, and when it seems his pursuers will not let up with their quest to capture he and Boyd, Billy hands over his brother to the men and rides in a different direction to lead off the gunmen.

After he shakes off their pursuers Billy comes upon a cabin where he meets a blind man and his wife. They talk about the nature of misfortune. The wife tells the story of her husband and how he came to be blinded by a vicious attack while in custody as a Prisoner of War. She goes on to say he wandered in his new darkness and came to a town where he met her, recently enduring her own misfortune and grieving for her father and brothers who were executed along with all the men in her village in a war where so many of the locals have lost so much.

She then goes on to tell of meeting a priest at the cemetery where she’s come to pay her respects and this priest discusses the unfairness of life. Just like the author of Ecclesiastes he reflects on how the wicked seemingly prosper in their wickedness, and, contrary to what is expected, also live long lives, while others die young. The priest advises her to keep her dead family in her memory for in her heart is where they should reside.

Her blind husband then speaks, and says that he believes the priest doesn’t see the whole picture and therefore his judgement is incomplete. He advises that life instead, rather than have you hold on to misfortune, actually demands you start over again. “For the world to survive it must be replenished daily. This man will be required to begin again whether he wishes to or not.”
In his third crossing over the border Billy, now fully rested from his ordeal in Mexico, goes back to look for his brother. He finds that Boyd recovered from his gunshot wound but then went on to join the revolutionary, the girl they’d rescued before, and was consequently shot dead.

Billy goes for his brother’s remains but again finds it impossible in a country much different from what he has been used to, for the locals have adopted Boyd, who they see as a freedom fighter, as their own and won’t allow his bones to be removed. In other words he now belongs to the people.

Billy, refusing to leave Boyd alone to rest in a foreign land, steals the bones from the graveyard, but is then tracked by locals who stab his horse in the chest. Here he meets kindness again in the form of a local healer who nurses the horse back to some semblance of health.
Billy returns to the United States, broken and destitute with no family and no money to speak of. It’s a different place from where he’s just come from. Now he needs money for basics where as in Mexico he was welcomed into any home, no matter how poor, to share what little they had to offer. But it’s also much safer from violent men and revolutionaries, and even as he reflects on his misfortune, probably considering the words of the blind man, whether to carry the dead in his heart or start over as life demands, he sees a dog, beat up, and not unlike the wolf that started his adventures not so long ago.

Billy shoos the dog away and is mean to it. He’s apparently changed – he will not help this poor creature like he did the wolf and be drawn into something he’ll have no control over. But change is hard and certainly in this situation not called for. He realises he’s wrong and goes out to look for the wounded dog to make amends. Upon not finding it he finally breaks down and weeps.


All the Pretty Horses (Book Review)

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Warning! This is a story of exhilarating and dangerous puppy love: John Grady Cole is sixteen and a cowboy who knows and loves horses. Grady’s grandfather dies and the ranch he was born on is to be sold.

Grady decides he’d rather be a cowboy in the wilds of Mexico where he can continue to work with horses than go into the city to look for work. Without saying goodbye to his dad, who’s sick, possibly from lung cancer, Grady leaves with his best friend Lacey Rawlins who’s just one year older than he is.

Together they leave the United States and cross into Mexico where they marvel at the beauty and wildness of the untamed countryside. As they ride they are soon aware that they’re being followed. They try to shake their tail, but whoever it is he’s persistent and he won’t give up the chase.

Finally, they get down from their horses and lay in wait for their pursuer only to discover a kid – just 13 years at most. His name’s Jimmy Belvins and he’s riding a handsome bay horse, which they guess must be stolen. Belvins swears it’s not, that the horse is well and truly his.

However, Rawlins has a dark portent of what allowing this child to accompany them might actually mean for them in the end and he doesn’t hide his distaste for the kid who also just happens to be a marvellous shot with a colt gun that also seems (along with the horse) to be too fine a thing for him to own and which he also insists he did not steal.

They continue to travel south and run into a severe storm that leaves the Belvins kid shell-shocked. Stripping down to the skin he runs in the rain insisting he has bad luck with storms and that he’s sure to be struck by lightning. He runs off and they continue on alone.

When the storm passes they find Belvins limping with only one shoe on. The horse, it turns out, ran away with his things and his gun. Belvins begs them to go into town to search for his property. Rawlins has a bad idea about that plan. Something about the kid just doesn’t add up. But Grady decides they should help and together they go into town. Sure enough Belvins finds his horse, which is now in the hands of somebody else, and with no way to prove it’s his horse.

Impatient, and against advice, Belvins steals the horse back. They all ride out with the men of the town in hot pursuit. Finally Belvins insists on separating from the other two to throw their pursuers off. He rides off leaving them alone. For the moment it seems fate has finally removed him from their lives.

Grady and Rawlins head further south where they come upon a hacienda and get a meal and ingratiate themselves with the owner of the Ranch, a Mexican aristocrat, Don Hector, when Grady shows him how good he is with horses. Don Hector is impressed by Grady’s understanding of horses and makes him a breeder and sets him to breeding some wild horses.

But Grady falls in love with the aristocrat’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra, and they both start an affair. Meanwhile, Alejandra’s grandaunt, Alfonsa, becomes aware of the affair and summons Grady to her quarters.

They dine together where she reveals her past to him, that she also was wild and untamed like Alejandra and was also a romantic and also fell in love with the wrong man – a Mexican revolutionary who fought during the civil war. She cautions him: falling in love with the wrong man in Mexico is an unforgivable act. Her family had prevented her own marriage to her lover and rather than sympathise with her great niece she’ll instead oppose their union.

Grady, though, is completely enamoured by Alejandra and can’t break himself free from her enchantment. Rawlins, meanwhile, begs Grady to get over his infatuation, there’ll be no good to come of it. But Grady is unable to, and refuses to forget about her.

Don Hector, when made aware of his daughter’s salacious rendezvous with his employer, takes Grady out among the horses and for a moment it looks like he’ll take matters into his own hands and kill the young man. In the end he relents and opts instead to hand him over to the corrupt the Mexican authorities who take both Grady and Rawlins away to prison where they’re tortured.

In the prison they’re reunited with Belvins. He also has been severely tortured and it seems his spirit has been broken. After he’d left them it turns out he went back to the town to get back his colt gun and was captured, but not before killing a man.

The captain of the unit, an amoral man known as Raul, tells the young men that the only way for them to get out of their predicament is with a bribe. Seeing that they are American he assumes he’ll make a killing from getting them, or their families back in America, to pay for their freedom.

Grady and Rawlins, both broke themselves, tell the captain that they have no money and that they come from poor homes back in America and no one will be able to pay a ransom for them.

Raul is unimpressed by their protestations and decides to move them to a bigger prison where the hardships there are likely to cause them to rethink their position on bribing him. On the journey to the prison the company stops to rest at an abandoned ranch. Raul has taken a bribe from a relative of the man Belvins killed and both Grady and Rawlins watch on helplessly as the young boy is taken away and shot dead.

Their journey ends at the prison, which is a no-holds-barred-free-for-all cesspit of the worst criminals Mexico has to offer. Grady and Rawlins stay together, but are harried and beaten severely over their first few days there. And just as they would give up hope they’re summoned by Perez, a wealthy and influential prisoner who advises that money is the only thing likely to save their lives. They refuse to pay him for their lives.

Then Rawlins is stabbed – presumable on Perez’s orders – and he’s dragged off immediately so that Grady doesn’t even know if he’s alive or dead. It seems the whole prison has their eyes set on killing both Americans. Now Grady knows it’s his turn and he steels himself for the inevitable encounter with death, which seems to be on every corner of that godforsaken place.

Grady acquires a shiv as a weapon. When the attack finally comes he’s in the cafeteria. Grady barely survives the brutal encounter and manages to kill the assassin. He’s taken to the prison hospital to recuperate where he’s reunited with Rawlins who it turns out is still alive.

As they recover from their wounds they both agonize over going back where their chances of surviving for a second time will most certainly be unlikely. Then they’re released suddenly and are left to ponder why.

Grady can guess who was responsible for paying for their release. Still stubborn, and still hopelessly in love, he makes up his mind to go back to the hacienda. Rawlins for his part has had his fill of their Mexican adventure and though it pains him he can’t continue on with his friend – he’s simply had enough.

Grady heads back for the ranch where he confronts Alfonsa. As he’d suspected it was she who’d paid for their release, but only after Alejandra had begged her and only on condition she never see John Grady Cole again.

Angry, Grady leaves in search for Alejandra. When he finds her they spend one more passionate night together, but that will be the last time they are together. Alejandra can’t or won’t leave her family. Her aunty and father’s hold on her is too strong and she refuses to run away with Grady.

Left alone and with nothing left to lose Grady goes back in search of his horses and maybe a little retribution for his suffering. His, Belvins, and Rawlins’ horses are with the captain and his men. Grady confronts him, and after a shootout in which he’s shot he takes the captain prisoner, and then he’s chased across the Mexican countryside.

Grady considers killing the captain for the things he and Rawlins were made to suffer and for killing Belvins and just to be rid of him to make his escape easier, but in the end he doesn’t, and he comes upon some Mexicans who take the captain off his hands as their prisoner.

Grady is now free to return to Texas where he searches for Belvins’ family to return his horse. But no one knows Belvins and no one will take ownership of the horse. Then some men claim the horse is theirs and it was stolen from them. Grady is arrested and when he consequently stands trial he recounts his incredible story and everyone in court is mesmerised by the telling of his adventure.

Finally, the judge, who can’t believe anyone could fabricate such a story, rules in his favour and the horse is given back to him. Grady, though, can’t shake off all the evil that’s been done to him and that he himself has also done and seeks restitution. He goes back to the judge, this time seeking him in his house. They speak.

The judge asks him if anything he said in court was the truth and Grady confirms everything he’d told was the truth to which the judge consoles the young man:

Son, he said, you strike me as someone that maybe tends to be a little hard on theirselves. I think from what you told me you done real well to get out of there with a whole hide. Maybe the best thing to do might be just to go on and put it behind you. My daddy used to tell me not to chew on something that was eatin you.


There’s somethin else, ain’t there?


What is it?

When I was in the penitentiary down there I killed a boy.

The judge sat back in his chair. Well, he said. I’m sorry to hear that.

It keeps botherin me.

You must have had some provocation.

I did. But it don’t help. He tried to kill me with a knife. I just happened to get the best of him.

Grady leaves and resumes his search for Belvins’ horse’s owner. When he still doesn’t find the rightful owner he goes back to his own town and is reunited temporarily with Rawlins who confirms Grady’s dad is dead. Grady says he figured this was so as he had a premonition.

The last lines of the novel show Grady attending the funeral of one of his family’s lifelong employees. It seems all that would tie him to this country is now gone. As he’d said earlier when Rawlins had tried to convince him to stay, saying, “this is still good country.” Grady had replied, “Yeah. I know it is. But it ain’t my country.”

Then, riding on Belvins’ horse, he just goes on.


The style is consistent with other McCarthy novels: the omission of quotation marks, the distinctive Southern American slang, and the use of polysyndetons, that is the repetitive use of conjunctions in a sentence.


Again, in keeping with McCarthy’s style, there is a deeply religious subtext and discussions of sin and wickedness. As with his other works it almost seems as if bad things happen to people until they take responsibilities for their bad actions. These themes are, however, not given as primary a role as other novels – the primary thing here is the romance between Grady and Alejandra.

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 See Also

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy (Book Review)

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Outer Dark, a Cormac McCarthy Novel

The second novel in a distinguished career, Outer Dark was published in 1968 and is everything you’d expect from a Cormac McCarthy novel. The language used in the dialogue is rural and laidback – something I can appreciate being Igbo myself and from a pastoral part of the world with similar tastes in linguistic wit and poetry.

The scenes of the novel I also recognise: rustic, placid, somnolent fields at times, wild, untamed, eerie woodlands at others. There’s also that trademark violence that appears jauntily in scenes, seemingly at home in otherwise ordinary settings. This lends something of the unexpected to the story.

For me the pacing of the novel was faultless and the violence kept to a minimum, unlike in his other novel Blood Meridian where someone seems to die every other page or so.


Outer Dark by Cormac MacCarthy
Outer Dark by Cormac MacCarthy

Like Hemingway Mr McCarthy doesn’t waste words, no needless adjectives here. There’s economy albeit rich in complexity, the ease of the language of the American South sitting in stark contrast with his seductive prose.

McCarthy opts for showing his characters not through their thoughts or by describing their characteristics, but by their habits and their dialogue. Often with fiction a writer can find himself stuck on facial expressions having nothing left in a steadily depleting repertoire of phrases like “he smiled” or “she frowned” and so forth, but Mr McCarthy isn’t deficient in his understanding and use of gestures, something borne, no doubt, out of practised observation of his fellow man. Like Mr Guy Davenport said in his article in the New York Times (29 September 1968):

“…Mr. McCarthy waste a single word on his character’s thoughts. With total objectivity he describes what they do and records their speech. Such discipline comes not only from mastery over words but from an understanding wise enough and compassionate enough to dare tell so abysmally dark a story.”

From Tennessee, Georgia himself Mr McCarthy succeeds in capturing the allure of the Deep South in his style. Indeed there are few novelists who’ve managed to capture the contradictions of the land as successfully as he has, right down to the showing of wickedness living right next to religiosity.  As in one scene where the protagonist Culla Holme is wrongly accused of murder. A preacher appears as tensions rise in the mob, but he isn’t the source of succour one would expect from one of his profession, and instead he engages in an inane debate over the right way to dispose of Holme for his perceived crimes.

The theme of religion resonates throughout the entire novel. Guy Davenport again:

“Though it pays its homage to Faulkner’s rhetoric and imagery, it is not a Faulknerian novel. It is much leaner, closer in pace and spareness of line to the Gothic masters Gertrud Le Fort and her disciple Isak Dinesen, and lacks Faulkner’s sociological dimension. Mr. McCarthy is unashamedly an allegorist. His responsibility as a storyteller includes believing with his characters in the devil, or at least in the absolute destructiveness of evil.”

There’s no escaping that the protagonists are being judged for their sins. And while Culla has a hard time of it right from the start, his sister Rinthy seems to be treated more kindly by people until she meets the tinker, a spectral eldritch character who took her baby, and has to face her own transgressions. 

Plot Summary

Culla Holme of Jackson County in Appalachia has a baby boy with his sister Rinthy. Ashamed of his incest and afraid of how the world will judge him Culla takes the baby as soon as it’s born and steals away in the middle of the night while his sister recovers from childbirth and lays the child out in the woods. A mysterious tinker has been following him through the dark and takes up the child.

Rinthy wakes up and asks for her baby and doesn’t believe her brother when he informs her of the child’s death. Rinthy goes looking for the grave and digs it to find it empty. She then sets out on a journey to recover the babe after confronting her brother for his actions.

Her journey will lead her to many dangerous eerie places where she meets weird locals, but they all treat her well and offer her food and board, unlike her brother, who sets out on his own journey after her: Culla finds bad luck everywhere he goes. His arrested, and at one point threatened with a lynching. And through it all he’s stalked by 3 mysterious otherworldly men who in the end will pronounce a terrifying judgement on him for his sin and bring the story to its unsettling conclusion.

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Summary: Cormac McCarthy’s book sees Father and Son journey through a post-apocalyptic world. Their only duty is to survive and keep their humanity alive.

The Road by Cormac MacCarthy. Image courtesy of IMP Awards
The Road by Cormac MacCarthy. Image courtesy of IMP Awards


“It isn’t the intensity of a battle that finally gets to some soldiers it’s the battle’s duration.” So says E.B Sledge, author of With The Old Breed. And he should know, having survived a number of battles himself in WW2.


But the protagonists of this story are by no means soldiers. They are survivors, and of what would appear to be a nuclear holocaust: Cormac McCarthy refers again and again to the ash in the air, and the ash on the road.

The road. That’s where the book gets its name. A post-apocalyptic tale of man gone feral. Of suburban angst, but this time with different players. Gone is the grey husband complete with Volvo and striped tie forced on him by middleclass children on father’s day, and enter the tattered form of a humble, withered father, taking care of the only and last thing he cares about on the earth: his son.

The antagonists in The Road are the same as in any horror novel – though this, strictly speaking, is not one – and the same in any story of man’s struggle with man, of survival. The antagonists exist for themselves, willing at every turn to deceive, kill, and destroy. McCarthy opts for a very visceral expression of this angst, choosing an extreme show of man’s cruelty to his own species – cannibalism.


Pulitzer and James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner, Cormac McCarthy handles the tension superbly, and with sensitivity. You are never left without fear for father and son. And yet there is a hope that resonates throughout the book, characterised when son asks father: “Do we carry the fire?” This hope propels the book from just being one of violence, another book of doom to grace our shelves and to take advantage of both individual and collective fears that have grown stronger in recent times.

We will the father to succeed in protecting his son. We feel his pain, and we understand his expectations. In the lulls between violence we are reminded of why we are human. The answer can’t be found in the models of cars we drive or the size of the houses we live in. These things still exist in their world, albeit discarded shells, mere shadows of their former glory. (I mean, who wants to drive a Bentley when someone just shot you through the leg with an arrow?) But we are human because we carry the light. That love and care for each other that exists in some form in even the darkest heart.

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy shows a father fanning this light with particular care. He watches it, realising he has a son watching him. For father it is not just enough to get yet another meal for the day, it is everything to see the day clearly, unclouded by the prism of the ashes of the destruction of times past. The Wind will do its job and clear the ashes from the way. For father it is important that that same wind not blow out the light preserved in both him and his son.