Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (book review)

This may well be the driest book I’ve ever read. Readers of McCarthy won’t find this too surprising: the guy can make Hemingway look flowery; put a piece of toast next to his book and it starts to seem juicy. What they may find surprising is how relatively un-dark this novel is. It’s supposed to be a sequel-of-sorts to All The Pretty Horses (even though none of the characters carries over), which was so bloody I felt like I needed to wear rubber gloves to read it, and in which just about everything that possibly could go wrong did. The Crossing is certainly not upbeat, but violence is more a seasoning here than a main ingredient, and chance actually smiles on the hero at least a couple times.

I doubt there’s any writer now alive (or perhaps even dead) who is as attuned to the subtleties of landscape and body language as McCarthy. At his best, he can say more in one sentence about the clouds, or the tipping of a hat, than most writers can in a whole chapter about anything. Heck, he can reveal more emotion in a horse’s ears than most can in a human’s whole body (yet there’s nothing Disney about it). This is his great strength, which allows him to indulge in what almost seems a dare at times of never discussing the internal machinations of anyone (yet he’s not averse to narrating dreams, oddly). Instead we get action, action, action, from the pulling on of a boot to the melee of a small-scale war on horseback. The trouble with The Crossing, in a nutshell, is that it’s too much of the former—tiny, inconsequential actions—and not enough of the latter—big, interpersonal actions. The novel is 400-some pages, which is long for McCarthy, and hardly a single damn thing happens. To be more strictly accurate, two or three major, not clearly connected things happen, and in between is a lot of interesting, exquisitely described, but ultimately trivial scenery.

I may harbor a slight bias against this novel insofar as it’s so much like a John Wayne movie. Not The Duke per se, really, but cowboys-and-Indians in a way that seems probably a bit outdated even for the 1930s, when it’s ostensibly set, to say nothing of the 2010s. I can’t help feeling it’s a bit of a cop-out for McCarthy to write about a world that’s so completely gone—if it ever really was—though his apparent expertise in horsemanship is certainly impressive. I liked him better in No Country for Old Men, which offered a glimpse into present-day problems, or The Road, which postulated a very, very dark future which must somehow have arisen out of present-day problems. I also liked him better in All the Pretty Horses, the “prequel” to The Crossing, simply because more happened, and there were more characters, two of whom were even women—quite a rarity in McCarthy.

I’ll certainly keep reading McCarthy, and anyone who hasn’t tried him should. But I still like The Road best (by far), followed by No Country for Old Men (almost better in movie form), followed by All the Pretty Horses, and finally, a bit distantly, The Crossing. I bought it new, which I hardly ever do, mainly so that I could move on to Cities of the Plain, the next volume in The Border Trilogy, which I bought used a year ago—I hope it proves worth the trouble.


  1. I nominate Willa Cather for the author best able to convey the feeling of a landscape, to the point that her whole writing style shifts from book to book to match their different settings. (N.B. I haven't read McCarthy, so I'm not making comparisons--just outing another author who excels at this.)

    I also pose the question whether anyone has ever written a fictional dream description that made for compelling reading? As a literary device, they leave me cold. A play within a play allows for neat and clever parallels. But an imaginary dream within the imaginary unconscious of the imaginary mind of an imaginary character within an imaginary story is removed about four times too many from the actual plot!

  2. "At his best, he can say more in one sentence about the clouds, or the tipping of a hat, than most writers can in a whole chapter about anything."

    Great characterization.

    More happens in Cities of the Plains, and it's where John Grady and Billy meet. Supposedly, McCarthy wrote Cities of the Plains first, and then wrote the other two afterwards.

    I think No Country for Old Men seems "almost better in movie form" because it was originally a screenplay, that he turned into a novel.

  3. Between you and your visitors, interesting stuff here. But none of it--plus the other commentary I've heard about McCarthy--makes me want to read him. Ought to? Maybe, but I'm in the "want to" stage of life.

    I don't have the sense that M. reaches out to readers. I see any piece of writing as an offer to share, not a narcissistic display. Do you feel any sense of invitation from M.? Or just "Here is the spectacular Me. Take it or leave it"? I'll leave it, bub.

  4. Those are fair distinctions, B52--and ones my students would do well to heed. But the trouble is, many of the really great authors just don't seem to care about meeting the reader halfway. Faulkner was famously asked what he would say to someone who'd read his books three or four times and still didn't get them; he replied, "Read 'em again."