Modern classic for tenacious reader

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 September, 1998, 12:00am

READERS of the third in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy will feel at times that they are running around in circles, rather like one of the horses being broken in by the cowboys who inhabit McCarthy's world.

McCarthy's first two in the series - All The Pretty Horses and The Crossing - were acclaimed not only as well-written works, but also as stories about an area not much written about - the border between America and Mexico.

Readers should not worry if they have not read the first two in the series - this last stands alone.

Imagine a car ride across the great American outdoors where long stretches appear the same.

It is only at the end of the journey that the true immensity of the task undertaken makes its impact, and the same is true for Cities Of The Plain.

The McCarthy idiosyncracies are enough to put off all but the determined, yet the determination will pay off. There is the lack of apostrophes and quotation marks, which will frequently result in the impatient reader not knowing who is saying what.

And a particularly annoying aspect is the conversations that take place in Spanish.

It led to one reviewer on an East Coast newspaper in the United States advising readers to have a Spanish dictionary at hand.

Yet such is the book's impact that these stylisms serve only to make the reader appreciate the lilting qualities to the voices and the subtle nuances of what is often sparse dialogue, and to tread carefully through the lyrical language.

John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are hands on a New Mexico ranch in 1952.

To the north is the military with its encroaching demands that are generating a feeling of uneasiness. To the south are the brooding mountains that mark the start of Mexico.

This is a land that is in transition, while two men struggle to cope with upheavals in their own lives. Billy is still bruised from the death of his brother Boyd which occurred in The Crossing, while John is pining for Magdalena, a 16-year-old prostitute he has come to love after visiting her in a Mexican brothel.

As John plots to rescue his beloved from the clutches of her pimp, Eduardo, we are treated to snapshots of a disappearing way of life. And it is this that marks out Cities as a modern classic.

One particular scene describes in evocative detail the two men capturing a wild dog that has been preying on their cattle.

Like the tantalising vistas of the Wild West, McCarthy knows no boundaries in his descriptive prose that is as captivating as it can be long-winded.

'The slack of Billy's catchrope hissed along the ground and stopped, and the big yellow dog rose suddenly from the ground in headlong flight caught between the two ropes and the ropes resonated a single brief full note and then the dog exploded.' Another occurs in a funeral scene watched by Magdalena as she is trying to escape from her brothel - a reminder perhaps of what lies ahead for her if she fails in her bid for freedom.

'The musicians who appeared were old men in suits of dusty black. Behind them came two mismatched horses drawing to a weathered wooden cart and in the bed of it unswept of its straw and chaff a wooden coffin box of handplaned boards pinned with wooden trunnels and no nails to it like some sephardic box of old and the wood blacked by scorching it.' But it is the men's day-to-day lives that bristle with compelling details.

You feel they are old way before their time; who say little but reveal volumes in their few words.

Take the old man of the ranch, Mac, who muses wistfully over how times used to be.

'I dont miss pullin a tooth with a pair of shoein tongs and nothing but cold wellwater to numb it. But I miss the old range life. I went up the trail four times. Best times of my life. The best. Bein out. Seein new country. There's nothing like it in the world. There never will be.' Readers here may never have visited Mac's land. But they will know instantly what Mac means and that he is right, and it will leave an overwhelming sadness for a way of life that is all but extinct.

Cities Of The Plain by Cormac McCarthy Picador, $288