BOOK REVIEW / Long shadows passing: 'The Crossing' - Cormac McCarthy: Picador, 14.99

VIRTUALLY unknown in this country for most of his writing life, Cormac McCarthy last year found himself hailed as a modern master on the publication of All The Pretty Horses. A lyrical rites-of-passage story, an elegy for the cowboy lifestyle, a celebration of horses and horsemanship - whichever way you read it, the book felt like something you wouldn't forget in a hurry. There is no mistaking McCarthy's sentences for anybody else's. Some are spare, clipped, taut; some are stacked so high they seem about to topple. Shorn of most punctuation, they have a kind of archaic grandeur that suggests they couldn't have been written any other way: 'The desert he rode was red and red the dust he raised, the small dust that powdered the legs of the horse he rode, the horse he led.'

That began the final paragraph of the novel, with the boy-hero, John Grady Cole, riding out 'into the darkening land, the world to come'. One of many exciting aspects of All The Pretty Horses was its billing as the first part of a projected triptych, The Border Trilogy: here was an epic American narrative in the making. But anyone hoping for a further instalment of John Grady's dusty peregrinations will be disappointed by McCarthy's follow-up volume. The Crossing is another pony tale, but it rides back rather than forward in time, and abandons all the characters from the first book. Set around 1939, ten years earlier than All The Pretty Horses, it saddles up a new hero, 16-year-old Billy Parham, who will also undergo a traumatic passage from innocence to experience. So, the good news: the first quarter of the book is superb, dramatising a long battle of wits between Billy and a she-wolf, which has been hunting around the Parham family's farm in New Mexico. The animal has, with insolent cunning, eluded all attempts at capture, overturning traps and leaving mangled cattle in its wake. After long hours of patient tracking Billy eventually does get the better of the wolf, but instead of shooting it he makes a quixotic decision to lead it back home to Mexico.

Adjusting to the role of benignant captor, the boy reveals the same kind of resourcefulness and skill in dealing with the animal as John Grady did breaking horses. The relationship between boy and wolf unfurls against the gnarled, implacable landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico, which dwarf the cast of

vaqueros and caballeros and bandoleros that ride through them. The drama of the book builds even when nothing seems to be happening; it's there in the blood-red sunsets, the sudden thrashing of the rain, the passage of day to night, and the weather. Where many would be content to write 'the wind blew', and leave it at that, McCarthy goes all the way with it, watching as it 'burned up the fire and burned up the coals of the fire and the balled and twisted shape of redhot wire burned briefly like the incandescent armature of an enormous heart in the night's darkness . . .'

Unfortunately, for long stretches of the book's second half, McCarthy tends to be, well, windy. It promises much when Billy and his younger brother Boyd set out for Mexico to avenge the murder of their parents and recover the family horses, but the action dwindles into an ungainly picaresque. The boys encounter a variety of characters on their travels - a young Mexican girl, a peasant woman, a blind war veteran, a troupe of gypsies - some of whom are much given to lengthy homilies on life and how it must be lived. The book, swift and exhilarating in its first 120 pages, is fatally hobbled, and several times threatens to come to a dead halt. McCarthy decides to have death in the book reported rather than dramatised, a curious change from his hitherto sanguinary narratives. In the feral and frightening Blood Meridian, his last novel but one, a gang of scalp-hunters roam Texas before the Civil War, and scenes of atrocity are served up with Jacobean relish.

The Crossing has menace in spades, but for the most part shirks the explosive set-pieces of old. In one passage towards the end of the book Billy sits in a Mexican bar surrounded by some less than friendly locals - you steel your nerve for all hell to break loose, but McCarthy doesn't follow it through and the scene simply fizzles out. Yet it's not a dearth of Grand Guignol that makes the book a slight anticlimax; it's a dearth of plot. Longer and looser than All The Pretty Horses, the book never becomes more than a sequence of events, and the pace doesn't get beyond a canter. What sustains interest isn't the portentous rumble of the prose but the laconic dialogues between Billy and Boyd:

'What was he goin to do with Nino's papers and no horse? Boyd said.

I don't know. Find a horse to fit them. Go to sleep.

Papers aint worth a damn noways.

I know it.

I'm a hungry son of a bitch.

When did you take to cussin so much?

When I quit eatin.'

An air of unfinished business hangs over the final pages, much as it did in the last book when 'rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being' - likewise, Billy is left to ride the high country and ponder the bleak turns of fortune. Rejected even by the army - the war is a distant rumour in the novel - Billy looks doomed to a life of solitary wandering. One is left to conclude that the author regards the human experience as a hopeless battle against the impersonal, unforgiving operations of fate; but, saddlesore after 400 pages, I reached this terminus with a keen sense that I'd been going round in circles.

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