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Thread: The Crossing, by Cormack McCarthy

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    running amok Sancho's Avatar
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    The Crossing, by Cormack McCarthy

    Has anybody here read this one? I just finished it and boy-howdy what a good book. I’ve mentioned this before but every couple of years I’ll read a Cormack McCarthy book just so as to leave my comfort zone for a while. The last one I read was Child Of God and that one took me way - way out my comfort zone. This one, not as much.

    Anyway there’s a lot going on in this book. And as art tends to do, it will mean different things to different readers. One thing that struck me was how well McCarthy writes animals. In the opening scene the main character, Billy Parham, then a young boy awakens to hear wolves. He dresses and goes out and crouches in a dry creek bed to watch them. The writing is amazing. I couldn’t have gotten a better picture of a pack of wolves in a snowy meadow if I’d watched a National Geographic special. Here’s a small part of it:

    There were seven of them and they passed within twenty feet of where he lay. He could see their almond eyes in the moonlight. He could hear their breath. He could feel the presence of their knowing that was electric in the air. They bunched and nuzzled and licked one another. Then they stopped. They stood with their ears cocked. Some with a forefoot raised to their chest. They were looking at him. He did not breathe. They did not breathe. They stood. Then they turned and quietly trotted on. When he got back to the house Boyd was awake but he didn’t tell him where he’d been nor what he’d seen. He never told anybody.
    (Boyd is Billy’s little brother)

    So the book starts with a glorious scene of wolves, antelopes, and a young boy on a snowy moonlit New Mexico plain. The book ends with another canid, this one an old decrepit arthritic dog who:

    … stood there inside the door with the rain falling in the weeds and gravel behind it and it was wet and wretched and so scarred and broken that it might have been patched up out of parts of dogs by demented vivisectionists.

    Here’s a one sentence paragraph from the middle of the book. The context is Billy and Boyd are on the road in Mexico and on horseback when they come upon a gypsy encampment:

    The horse’s ears quartered the compass for the source of the music.
    I will say the book can be hard on a reader who is an animal lover. It can also be hard on a reader who is expecting traditional western tropes - Good guy wears a white hat. Bad guy wears a black hat. Black hat does something sh*tty so White hat opens a can of whoop-a$$ on black hat.

    Hey, that reminds me of a joke:

    Dog walks into a bar.
    Dog’s got his foot all bandaged up
    Dog says, “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw!”
    Uhhhh...

  2. #2
    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Hi, Sancho,
    Good to see you and with a comment on a book.
    This Cormack McCarthy seems in fact to be rather tough, makes Faulkner appear a author for small kids.
    He is much appreciated though. Hope you find response.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

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    running amok Sancho's Avatar
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    Thanks, danik. I think you win the award for the most dependable Lit-Net member, also the most polite. I can alway depend on you to pick up a thread, and to be respectful of others opinions and feelings.

    Anyway, I’ve found analysis of this book comparing it to Faulkner’s The Bear, Melville’s Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, even Homer’s Odyssey. I suppose whenever you have a hero-takes-a-journey story there will be comparisons to Odysseus. Robert Hass wrote a glowing review of it the New York Times where he compared Billy Parham’s crossing into Mexico with the she-wolf to Cervantes’ Man From La Mancha wandering around the Iberian peninsula with his trusty sidekick, (a man whose name I lifted for my handle on this website). Though comparisons can be expedient, they always seem to somehow fall short for me.

    One thing that struck me about this book and made it seem real to me was how it rejected just about every western trope. I had no idea just how invested I am in those kinds of stories. I kept expecting something to happen and it didn’t. I mean in a traditional western tale if somebody stabs your horse you track them down and exact revenge, and more than likely in the process you save a damsel in distress, and all this happens after a long struggle and many adventures. Right? That’s what’s suppose to happen, eh? Well this isn’t a traditional western story. Towards the end of the book Billy sums it up well. He meets up with another traveler and over a campfire they’re sharing some beans and coffee and a little conversation:

    You look like you might of been down here a while, the man said.

    I don’t know. What does that look like?

    Like you need to get back.

    Well. You probably right about that. This is my third trip. It’s the only time I was ever down here that I got what I come after. But it sure as hell wasn’t what I wanted.
    Ya gotta read the book to figure out what things were that he didn’t get and then did get but didn’t want. I suppose the Don Quixote comparison ain’t bad when you consider the way the book rejects traditional story lines.
    Uhhhh...

  4. #4
    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    "Thanks, danik. I think you win the award for the most dependable Lit-Net member, also the most polite. I can alway depend on you to pick up a thread, and to be respectful of others opinions and feelings."

    Thanks, Sancho, this award really made my day , though I don´t feel so deserving of it.
    I enjoyed your review of The Crossing, without having read the book though. If you remember, the Don Quixote is probably the first novel that laughs at these proceedings that you name, "I mean in a traditional western tale if somebody stabs your horse you track them down and exact revenge, and more than likely in the process you save a damsel in distress, and all this happens after a long struggle and many adventures" only what Cervantes had in mind where the medieval knight tales. Maybe Billi Parham is the antihero of a post western world where those adventures aren´t possible any more.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

  5. #5
    running amok Sancho's Avatar
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    Exactly, Danik. And I think that’s one aspect of Don Quixote that the reviewer for The NY Times must have been thinking of. The other was simply the Quixotic nature of Billy’s first crossing. Robert Hass in his review put it this way:

    Billy Parham, the protagonist, who has dreamed of wolves, finally stumbles on a method and traps the wolf and, also unexpectedly, hogties it, muzzles it, leashes it with a catch-rope -- all of this heart-stopping to read -- and sets off south across the unfenced land to return it to the mountains of Mexico from which it came. And at once we are in the world of romance. If an old man in antique armor on a bone-thin horse, followed by a fat would-be squire on a mule, was once a strange apparition on the highways of Cervantes's Spain, then a young man on a cow pony dragging behind him a wild and recalcitrant she-wolf through ranches, American and Mexican, where wolves are a remembered tale of ravenous ferocity and terror, may well seem to replay that story, with the same mix of comedy, cruelty and philosophical wonder.
    What he leaves out is the backstory. This pack of wolves has come up from Mexico and has been reeking havoc on their hard scramble ranch. The she-wolf lost her mate to a steel leg-hold trap south of the border and consequently is wise to the method. Also she is pregnant with her first litter of cubs. Billy, in his attempt to run a trap line, has come to respect the wolves.

    Anyway where Cervantes set out to parody the noble knight genre, I don’t think it was McCarthy’s aim to poke fun at cowboy stories. I think he was more interested in exploring something real and deeply human in the psyche of a young man of that time and place and in those circumstances.
    Uhhhh...

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    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    No, there doesn´t seem to be any fun in Mc Carthy! Hes stories are cruel but, so it seems, deeply representative of the world of today.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

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    running amok Sancho's Avatar
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    Ah there’s plenty of funny stuff, most of it in the dialogue, a fair amount of it fairly course. So I broke my rule and I’m now reading McCarthy’s last book of the Border Trilogy, Cities Of The Plain. This one occurs a few years later and the protagonist from the first book, John Grady Cole, and the second book, Billy Parham, are working as ranch hands on a spread near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

    I’ll use an example from this book since it’s close at hand. As the book opens a few of the cowboys are patronizing a house of ill repute in Juarez, the border town in Mexico across from El Paso. They get to discussing the merits of the whores, particularly the big ones - La Grandes:

    You remember the time we brought Clyde Stapp down here? I do and he was a man of judgment. Picked him out a gal with some genuine heft to her.

    JC and them slipped the old woman a couple of dollars to let em go back there and peek. They was goin to take his picture but they got to laughin and blew the deal.

    We told Clyde he looked like a monkey f**kin a football.



    JC told everbody that Clyde fell in love with the old gal and wanted to take her back with him but all they had was the pickup and they’d of had to send for the flatbed. By then Clyde had done sobered up and fell out of love and JC said he wasnt takin him to no more whore houses. Said he hadnt acted in a manly and responsible fashion.
    Uhhhh...

  8. #8
    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Well, I prefer Cervante's sense of humor, dear Sancho.
    Last edited by Danik 2016; 09-17-2021 at 12:08 PM.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

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    running amok Sancho's Avatar
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    ^ Whoops. Haha. Coarse humor. I meant coarse not course. You sea, homophones have always bedeviled me.

    Yes, well, so anyway, I’ll make another post about this book and then I’ll shut up.

    I had a unique experience reading it. I was getting towards the last few pages, sort of coasting in, thinking things were winding down and I had it all figured out. It was getting late and I had an early get-up. Then I got to the last scene. It had to do with the old dog who “might have been patched up out of parts of dogs by demented vivisectionists.” (one of the quotes I used in my original post)

    That scene was so vivid that despite the late hour and the early get-up, when I put the book down I couldn’t get to sleep. Then when I finally did, I dreamt about about it. It bothered me. And that was the unique experience. I’d never read a book that made me sleepless and then gave me bad dreams. I won’t tell you what the scene was about. It’d be a spoiler. And you can’t really pick up the book and skip to the end and read it because it wouldn’t make any sense without reading what led up to it. Anyway with everything else that happened in the story (and there’s a lot that happened) I wouldn’t think this short vignette would have such a impact, but it did. Donno. Maybe it’s because I’ve got an old arthritic dog hobbling around my house that I love dearly. Maybe it’s because the Billy character had developed into such a good guy. Or maybe it’s because Cormack McCarthy really knows what he’s doing when he sits down to write a novel.
    Uhhhh...

  10. #10
    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Don´t mind me please, Sancho. I´m enjoying the discussion. And I bet the silent readers (there is still a considerable amount left, if they aren´t all robots) probably too.
    I´ll risk to say that the book also is about America today, or at the time when it was written. Maybe that´s what left your sleepless. Our continent isn´t living the best of times.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

  11. #11
    running amok Sancho's Avatar
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    I suppose I should’ve named this thread The Border Trilogy. All three of the books in the trilogy were written in the 1990’s.

    The first of the series, All The Pretty Horses, was set in the 1940’s just after the WWII. I read it a few years ago and although I remember parts of it vividly, a lot of the finer points are lost to me now - it had something to do with Matt Damon going to Mexico and breaking some horses - Joking, Joking. (They made a movie of it with Damon playing the main character, John Grady Cole) Cole is a teenager when the ranch he grew up on is sold from under him due to death of the owner, his grandfather.

    The Crossing is set just before WWII. In fact, after one of his crossings, Billy learns that country is at war and he tries mightily to enlist. He goes so far as to lie about his age to qualify. But he is rejected for military service by the army doctor due to a heart murmur. He goes to several other enlistment centers to try to join up, but each time is rejected by the medical screening and labeled 4F - unfit for military service. In one particularly galling scene he is accused by a drunken soldier and a bartender of cowardice and shirking because he’s not in uniform. He doesn’t defend himself. He just leaves the bar.

    Cities Of The Plain is set in the early 50’s with Billy and John Grady working on a ranch in New Mexico. It looks like the ranch is about to taken as an eminent domain project by the army (probably for what is now White Sands Missile Range) I’m not really sure. I’m just getting started.

    At any rate, each book involves huge changes to the status quo, which of course is a catalyst to move the story ahead. And as you say, Danik, not the best of times - then or now. Come to think of it, when are the best of times? When has it ever been the best of times? Maybe a 150 years earlier than the events of these books and in a different war and on a another continent:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
    Uhhhh...

  12. #12
    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    The citation above is one of my favorite book openings!
    The Crossing - just before WWII
    All The Pretty Horses - the 1940’s just after the WWII
    Cities Of The Plain - the early 50’s

    Looking at the chronology of the trilogy you presented I was wondering if there was a story behind it, concerning life and work on the small ranches. I googled a bit and found this article which might interest you. I didn´t read it all, I just looked at the introduction and at the enormously decreasing number of ranch workers.
    https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/pub...66_eib3_1_.pdf
    The fact is, those Johns and Billys that owned the small ranches of the plain or worked on them were displaced as these small ranches were substituted by larger and more modern farms. So the Johns and Billys first had to cover quite a strech of country to find a new employment. Later even that became difficult. This might account for Billy´s quixoting around. As the knight has lost his function In Cervantes time, Mc Carthy´s saga deals with the end of the agicultural period in the region that was sustained by the small ranchers. They become vagrant´s. And in Billy´s case the second option, the army fails also. I guess WWII plays it´s part in the process too. And Mc Carthy doesn´t want to tell the a success story, but the story of a vanishing mood of life and the consequent decay of that part of the country.

    That´s of course all guesswork as I haven´t read any of the books, but your comments seem to point at that.

    "What would you call a cowboy who has just retired? You say that he has been de-ranged!"
    https://kidadl.com/articles/cowboy-j...ur-on-laughter
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

  13. #13
    running amok Sancho's Avatar
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    No doubt about, Danik, that’s gotta one of the best opening sentences of all time. We could do a whole thread on best first sentences, or probably we already have here on this most illustrious of World Wide Web communities.

    Here’s a few more that come to mind:

    Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
    — Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

    I’m pretty much f**ked.
    — The Martian, by Andy Weir

    The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
    — Neuromancer, by William Gibson

    In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
    — Torah, by you know who

    Anyway I finished the third book of the border trilogy, Cities Of The Plain. It’s a bit more conventional, as western stories go. The cowboy dialogue is still mesmerizing and the descriptions of animals, southwestern terrain, and handiwork is poetic. I also think that McCarthy can get at the nature of someone deftly and with very few words. I’ll give an example. At the end of the story there’s an epilogue in which he fast-forwards to year 2002. Billy is 78 years old and still drifting around the southwest, where he’d stop “to talk to children or to horses.” He drifts back to New Mexico and a family near the town of Portales takes him in and lets him sleep in a shed room off the kitchen. The woman seems to know about him.

    The family had a girl twelve and a boy fourteen and their father had bought them a colt they kept stabled in a shed behind the house. It wasn’t much of a colt but he went out in the afternoon when they came in off the schoolbus and showed them how to work the colt with rope and halter. The boy liked the colt but the girl was in love with it and she’d go out at night after supper in the cold and sit in the straw floor of the shed and talk to it.
    My wife was such a girl, and whoever said Cormack McCarthy couldn’t write women must of missed this part.
    Uhhhh...

  14. #14
    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Sure! Let me add:
    As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
    Metamorphosis, Kafka

    As the seventeen-year-old Karl Rossman – who had been shipped off to America by his poor parents because a maid had seduced him and had a child with him – introduced himself to New York’s harbor on a slowly advancing ship, he caught sight of the Statue of Liberty in a sudden, strong advance of sunlight. Her arm with the sword rose upwards now, and over her figure the free air blew.
    Amerika, Kafka

    Nonought. Shots you heard weren’t a shootout, God be. I was training sights on trees in the backyard, at the bottom of the creek. Keeps my aim good. Do it every day, I enjoy it; have since the tendrest age.
    Grande Sertão: Veredas, Guimarães Rosa
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

  15. #15
    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Grand beginnings! Let me add some more:
    As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
    Metamorphosis, Kafka

    As the seventeen-year-old Karl Rossman – who had been shipped off to America by his poor parents because a maid had seduced him and had a child with him – introduced himself to New York’s harbor on a slowly advancing ship, he caught sight of the Statue of Liberty in a sudden, strong advance of sunlight. Her arm with the sword rose upwards now, and over her figure the free air blew.
    Amerika, Kafka

    Nonought. Shots you heard weren’t a shootout, God be. I was training sights on trees in the backyard, at the bottom of the creek. Keeps my aim good. Do it every day, I enjoy it; have since the tendrest age.
    Grande Sertão: Veredas, Guimarães Rosa

    ...and a memoble dedication:

    To the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with fond remembrance these Posthumous Memoirs
    Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas , Machado de Assis


    That last book of the trilogy looks McCarthy very softened down. Who would think Cormack McCarthy able to write the paragraph you cited?

    And I think Mrs. Sancho would enjoy the comparison, whether she likes Cormack McCarthy or not.
    #Stay home as much as you can and stay well

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