Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Crossing

In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner's now famous Frontier Thesis declared the American frontier closed. In relatively short course, men of the western world had subsumed and undertaken wholesale settlement of the entire expanse of the young nation. With the loss of the open frontier and its associated mythos came the arrival of what passes for civilization in our modern vernacular, and thus the death of "wildness," true freedom that I think the hearts of men burn for. Loss of the wild yes, but not just in the hearts of men, but also the alteration of the physical landscape, the land as it was, the real and psychic geography of the American west, the mythos of all that is truly free, salted earth.

The "Border Trilogy" of Cormac McCarthy painstakingly renders a requiem for this west, for our losses. He writes deeply of place, of death, change, temporality, fragility, not in the words of the philosopher always, but the words of the poet, one who shares kinship with this vanished world. These books are largely about a profound sense of place, a wonderment of landscape teased out in Michelangelo-like detail. If you have affinity for the ground, and maybe, just maybe, a nagging sense that its true nature is gone from our view somehow, yet loving it still- unrestrained love- then these pages speak to you in an epic poem form in which you will find solace.

The Crossing is a work with which McCarthy is at the absolute zenith of his craft. A master. This isn't simply storytelling, not a surface coming of age tale, but an existential meditation on life and loss through the conduit of teenaged Billy Parham, and even more, the environs he passes through. In many ways the characters are secondary to the backdrop--place scrambling to cling to a way of living that in our very guts we know maybe be the truest way to exist.

McCarthy doesn't just write the land, he knows it to its core, his words precise, calibrated geological instruments tapping at the rocks, penetrating their centers, a flash flood awash down the gully, kinetic blanket of watery probing, enveloping, slinking over, thus obtaining some intimate secret knowledge of the terrain.

Symbology of the wolf is essential to the writer's motive. By placing Billy in the 1930's and specifically in Hidalgo County, New Mexico, McCarthy sets him in a rare, unique setting, one in which a person would have had one of the last opportunities to encounter a wolf in the wild. Hidalgo and the Animas Mountains were part of an ancient throughway for wolves coming and going from Mexican territory.

Through the wolf Billy sheds the operant modeling of the his rancher upbringing and taps into a spiritual reverence for her wild cunning and untamed nature. At the moment of realization, he turns south toward Mexico, not onto the road home. This connection is so strong that ultimately he will kill the wolf rather than witness her spirit defiled at the hands of men.

The level of detail in these descriptions is striking--I've read of comparisons to Melville--at times the narrative reads like a detailed manual for the aspiring cowboy or trapper. Early 1940s wolf hunter, W.C. Echols, is the model for which the wolf tracking and trapping trade secrets of the Parhams were culled. Interestingly, Echols while always a hired assassin, operated with respect for his quarry. I envision an elderly Echols perhaps in the literary person of Don Arnuldo, who Billy consults on how to hunt the wolf but who ends up giving voice to the boy's intuitive sense of the value of the wolf's mysterious nature:

"The wolf is an unknowable thing. What is caught in the trap is no more than teeth and fur. The wolf itself cannot be known. The wolf or what the wolf knows. Like asking what the stones know. The trees. The world. You want to catch this can do that. But where is the wolf? The wolf is like the copo de catch the snowflake bout when you look in your hand you don't have it no more. If you catch it you will lose it. And where it goes there is no coming back from. Not even God can bring it back."

The wolf, the land, belong not even to us out on our perceived frontiers, but to a higher reality that we can glimpse at times, but never fully understand.

As Turner's proclamation of over a century ago informed us, much like the wolf, much like Billy's bleeding, dying horse, Nino, wildness with we humans in its frame is truly illusion and is in reality a body prostrate, chest heaving slowly up and down, sucking its last breaths.

The corpse. On Billy's journey back to the border with his brother's bones, the banditos having senselessly stabbed Nino, a band of gypsies happen upon the forlorn scene of the boy and the bloodletting horse. Is there hope in this desication and despair?

After tending to the horse, a gypsy sets a kettle of tea to boil and lights a cigar, squatting to tell a story. Within those words we find: "La historia del hijo termina en las montanas. Y por alla queda la realidad de el--The history of the son ends in the mountains, and there stays its reality."

1 comment:

moor-rambler said...

Nicely written review, I think I'll have to pick up my landlady's copy of 'all the pretty horses'. McCarthy sounds like my cup of tea...