Cormac McCarthy's 'Cities' - squalor, darkly


"Cities of The Plain: A Novel," by Cormac McCarthy. Knopf. 416 pages. $25.

Cormac McCarthy's work began in a best-selling way with the first book in his trilogy on life in the rural regions of New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. "Cities of the Plain," the tale of a tragic love affair between a cowboy and a Mexican girl, is the final installment of that three-volume set.

There is much to like, really like, in "Cities." Even so, the book takes a little getting used to. Written largely in dialogue, the book is interspersed with a considerable quantity of talk in Spanish. The structure of the dialogue itself is a series of quotes, placed in an odd form of the third person. Initially, it is uncomfortable; later engrossing. And then there is the Spanish.

As someone whose language skills provoke - at minimum - an occasional joke among my friends, the conversations in Spanish were more than a mere annoyance. Crucial scenes were obscured from my English brain. Armed with a Spanish dictionary, I struggled to understand too much of what was important to the story line and to the underlying theme of "Cities."

Happily, McCarthy's skill as a story teller captivated me. He did what few authors have done. He helped me make a connection with the characters. Too often, writers stress the story, the action and the dramatic arch of the narrative. Lost are characters you want to care about. Not so with McCarthy.

Yet it is just this talent that producted a deeper ambivalence with "Cities."

Here's why.

John Grady Cole, a cowboy with a insider's knowledge of horses, falls in love with Magdalena, a 16-year-old Mexican prostitute. John Grady is a sympathetic soul, lost in the wilderness of New Mexico working around horses and men. A chance meeting with Magdalena in a brothel called White Lake propels John Grady into a consuming love affair.

He knows little of the woman her pimp calls "a whore to the bone." Yet love her he does. And marry her he must. After several encounters, financed by his paycheck, loans and the pawnshop, John Grady and Magdalena agree to meet for a joyful trip to a marriage bed on a desolate hillside in New Mexico.

What happens next is heart-thumping, but hardly inspired.

I suspect that it is my unmitigated optimism that makes me perpetually dissatisfied with books that see only the dark and darker side of life. I would have been pleased if John Grady and Magdalena - no matter how perverse their beginnings - had been hopelessly happy. The cowboy and his girl deserved it. I also would have liked to find a little respite in this all-too-often squalid world. McCarthy, unfortunately, didn't help me find it. And for that I am distinctly ungrateful.

James Asher is city editor of The Sun, and former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been writing for newspapers for over 25 years.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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