The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy’s seventh novel and the second instalment in his Border Trilogy - begins with young Billy Parham attempting to bond with a wild wolf. By the novel’s conclusion Billy is sleeping in an abandoned waystation, in his early twenties but spiritually and psychologically aged in ways beyond imagining. When an old crippled dog - homeless, broken like Billy himself - seeks shelter from the rain, Billy no longer recognises his kinship with nature. As alienated from the world of animals as he is from the world of men, he chases the dog off with a piece of waterpipe. The dog ‘howled again and again in its heart’s despair ’ as though ‘some awful composite of grief had broke through from the preterite world.’ The Crossing may be the saddest of McCarthy’s novels. It may also be his finest.
In the first section of the novel, a novella in its own right, McCarthy devotes 127 pages to Billy’s attempts to trap a she-wolf that has been preying on his family’s cattle and then on his quixotic, and ultimately doomed, quest to return her to the Mexican mountains. The chapter ends with one of the most heartrendingly beautiful passages McCarthy has ever written, as Billy cradles in his lap the carcass of the wolf he swore to protect:
He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.
This one passage encapsulates both the style and underlying themes of the novel. In that narrative voice, at once timeless and as ancient as an Old Testament prophet, McCarthy makes us feel the loss of a vanishing world even as he intimates the eternality of a deeper world standing beyond our own mortality.
Nothing quite matches the immediacy of that extraordinary first section, but it hardly falters either. What McCarthy does, in effect, is repeat the process. Billy will come to make that border crossing three times in total, and each time the reader is taken deeper into a world of timeless beauty and almost unbearable loss.
Billy enters a Mexico still scarred by the events of a revolution that ended more than two decades before, but what he finds is a world much older - a world of ruined civilizations long since lost to time, of wild Indians living deep in the mountains, a landscape that seems beyond time itself. At each step he is made to realise that ‘the soul of Mexico is very old’. Along the way he meets a number of people who recount in parables the histories of a particular place – an ex-Mormon in a town devastated by an earthquake from the century before who tells the story of a hermit who took up residence in a ruined church to rail against God, a blind ex-revolutionary who narrates the story of how he came to his condition. While All The Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain focus more on the relationships between people along the U.S.-Mexico border, The Crossing has at its core theme nothing less than the question of God’s existence in a brutal, unforgiving world.
Which brings us to the difficulty of The Crossing. There are long passages and conversations in Spanish with little help given to non-Spanish speakers. There are lengthy philosophical discussions, often partly in Spanish. Then there is what the critic Vereen Bell, in an essay entitled ‘The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy’, called ‘the high degree of unassimilated raw material’ in McCarthy’s fiction and his ‘casual command of the right names for things’. While I would take issue with the use of the word ‘casual’ in relation to McCarthy’s writing - there is not one sentence that does not feel painstakingly agonised over, barely a phrase that does not appear exactly as its author intended - the obscurity of the many cultural and historical allusions in the novel, compounded by McCarthy’s incredibly oblique style, can be a barrier. Hopefully, the bookmarks in this profile help shed some light on the world depicted in the novel. However, I would argue even without in-depth knowledge of the background of the novel’s setting, The Crossing is still affective because its themes are timeless and universal.
In one of the few interviews the notoriously reclusive McCarthy has given he offered the opinion that a book that does not fundamentally deal with death cannot be considered a true book. The Crossing most certainly deals with death; and yet it is in the character of Billy Parham, who survives and must carry to the end the weight of so much loss and the deaths of all whom he is loved, where the real tragedy lies. The saddest aspect of all is that the cycle is destined to replay itself all over again in Cities of the Plain, the third and final part of the Border Trilogy.
The world depicted in the novel is, then, ultimately a dark one; but, like all true artists, McCarthy finds beauty within and on the edges of that darkness. In the end, perhaps that is all we can ask of art. The Crossing is simply a staggering achievement.
‘A superb and moving work of art which stands head and shoulders above most of contemporary fiction … He is unique in contemporary writing. There are moments of this book I shall never forget’
John Banville, Irish Times
‘The Crossing is a miracle in prose, it deserves to sit on the same shelf certainly as Beloved and As I Lay Dying’
Robert Has, New York Times Book Review
‘Rooted in a southern tradition, The Crossing talks to the wide open spaces, telling a tale on an epic scale. It slides into place as an American classic’
Ruaridh Nicol, Scotland on Sunday