Books: The twilight cowboy

With tales of desert storms and backwoods mayhem, Cormac McCarthy has grown into a legendary bard of the boondocks. Scott Bradfield follows his trail

For the first three decades of his career, Cormac McCarthy laboured solidly and obscurely in the field of American letters. He published well- written books which nobody read. He subsisted entirely by means of university- sponsored grants and literary awards. And while residing in a succession of cheap Texas motels, dairy barns and minimally furnished cottages (one located next door to an El Paso shopping mall), he never showed much interest in either financial or critical success. His first two novels, The Orchard Keeper (1965) and Outer Dark (1968), featured backwoods coon-hunting hicks, incest, a rapidly decomposing father-figure in the underbrush, and one very brutal campfire infanticide.

Then, as if to prove himself more unpalatable to New York literary circles than canned chilli, McCarthy published Child of God (1973), a short, brilliant book about a serial necrophiliac in the white-trash hills of Tennessee who kills people in order to love them, then drags them into his cavernous home to provide himself the perfect extended family - one that doesn't talk back. Obviously for McCarthy, being a "shut-down American male" isn't a special type of behaviour, it's a general metaphysical condition.

Despite his highly regarded, semi-autobiographical Suttree (1979), none of McCarthy's early work prepared anybody for his fifth novel, Blood Meridian (1989). Loosely based on the exploits of renegade scalphunters in the late 19th century, this is an astonishingly written parable of the American South-west in which human beings chop, defile, massacre, maim and dismember one another in every conceivable fashion, and without expressing a single moment of emotion, not even rage. "A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with," pronounces the Satanic judge who haunts this book like a cadaverous Ahab. "He can know his heart, but he don't want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there." In other words, people shouldn't go looking too hard for the truth about themselves. They just might find it.

Then, in 1992, the world caught up with McCarthy, encouraged by an astute marketing campaign from the American publisher, Knopf, and the arrival of McCarthy's most accessible novel. Presented as the first volume of "The Border Trilogy", All the Pretty Horses accomplished all the pretty things literary novels usually don't. It remained on the bestseller lists for many months, sold to the movies, and promised two sequels already in preparation.

All the Pretty Horses tells the story of McCarthy's first certifiably good man, 16-year-old West Texan John Grady Cole. You can tell Cole is McCarthy's idea of a hero because he doesn't talk much (unless it's to animals), and when cut comes to draw, he can hold his own in a prison brawl. Set in the US-Mexico borderlands just after the Second World War, Horses describes Cole's journey into a world more primitive and real to him than that dubious American prosperity he leaves behind, where ranches are being paved over by supermarkets, and sensible horses are giving way to insensible cars. In The Crossing (1994), an unrelated youth, Billy Parham, likewise goes to Mexico in search of things he can't bring back, and loses his devoted brother in the bargain. And now, with Cities of the Plain (Picador, pounds 16.99), Cole and Parham meet up while waiting for a new military base to close down their ranch and turn them both into anachronisms.

Still relatively young, Billy and John have a lot in common. They like horses more than they do people. They've seen terrible things happen in Mexico. And during hours of roaming the wide landscape together, they haven't exchanged any substantial information about themselves or their histories. In other words: now we have two good men. Which doesn't bode well for either of them.

Cities of the Plain is McCarthy's most laconic and understated book. While the trilogy's previous instalments extended into the wide, still- bubbling spaces of post-revolutionary Mexico, this one sticks close to the border towns of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, two grid-like cities lying snugly in a panorama of deserts, watched over by the brooding, stone-carved pictographs of prehistoric hunters. It's a wide, empty landscape where the primitive can still happen, and often does. Especially to those who think too hard about it.

Like most American stories about the friendship of men, things go desperately wrong the moment a woman gets involved. In this case, the femme fatale is a 16-year-old epileptic Mexican whore. From the moment he spots her across a crowded cantina, Cole decides to marry her. With the permission of his boss (another man wounded by love), Cole takes an old, roofless shack and turns it into a home. He arranges to purchase his woman from her pimp, borrows a suitable wedding ring, and even decides to sell his horse. Uh-oh.

In many ways, McCarthy is a classic 1930s naturalist who doesn't believe in psychology. And when his characters have something to say it is usually about the nobility of animals, whom they admire for their abilities to perform physical functions without making too big a deal about it. As Cole argues to his friend, Oren, horses are basically moral creatures who know right from wrong: "A good horse will figure things out on his own. You can see what's in his heart. He won't do one thing while you're watchin him and another when you ain't. He's all of a piece. When you've got a horse to that place you can't hardly get him to do somethin he knows is wrong. He'll fight you over it. And if you mistreat him it just about kills him. A good horse has justice in his heart. I've seen it."

Which, of course, puts horses at least one up on human beings, since human beings harbour plenty of injustice in their hearts, and can usually hide it from everybody, even from themselves.

It is hard to think of a contemporary American writer more worth reading in his or her entirety than Cormac McCarthy. But while Cities of the Plain provides everything readers expect from him - it is funny, beautifully written, and sui generis - it sadly falls flat in its concluding pages. As usual in McCarthy, the female protagonist isn't very convincing. And then, after a rather stagey knife fight, the trilogy trails off into the next millennium, during which a rambling epilogue belabours those themes which most readers have already gleaned. (Men are faced with choices - between good and evil, truth and lies, north and south - which aren't genuine choices at all, but merely vague suppositions.) In other words, these books don't quite come off as a trilogy. (Though it's hard to think of an American trilogy since Dos Passos's that does.) But as three independent novels filled with considerable beauty and inspiring craftsmanship, they all deserve to be read by just about anybody who loves words.

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