Riff on (re-)reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing

  1. Yesterday afternoon, I finished rereading Cormac McCarthy’s 1994 novel The Crossing.
  2. I used the word rereading above, although this felt like a first read—fresh, raw, often far more painful than I would have thought.
  3. The Crossing is a coming-of-age novel, the story of New Mexican Billy Parham whose life is wracked with adventure and beauty and pain.
  4. I probably read The Crossing for the first time some time around 2009 or 2010, when I was consuming all of McCarthy like a disgusting tick chasing a high from sucking down his prose. My recollection of that period is loving most of everything, but not really loving the so-called Border Trilogy.
  5. Maybe then, a younger, angrier man, I thought The Border Trilogy was too flowery, or too sentimental, or downright hokey at times.
  6. I reread All the Pretty Horses late last year as a chaser to The Passenger.
  7. All the Pretty Horses was much, much better than I had remembered it being, but it is not nearly as strong as The Crossing.
  8. Both All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing seem to revision elements of their antecedent, McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian.
  9. Namely, these first two books of The Border Trilogy seem to reimagine the erstwhile viewpoint character of Blood Meridian, the kid, first in John Grady Cole and then in Billy Parham.
  10. Like the kid (or The Kid), these orphaned/self-orphaned protagonists seem to at times inhabit a kind of superhuman ability to fight, to wrangle, to survive.
  11. (The boy in The Road might turn into one of these young men.)
  12. What had most stuck with me in my first reading of The Crossing was its initial episode, wherein Billy saves a pregnant she-wolf from a trap, helps nurse her back to health, and then elects to take her back “home” to the mountains of Northwest Mexico.
  13. In fact, I remembered the entirety of The Crossing as this initial episode with the wolf.
  14. This episode is, however, just one episode—a heavy quarter of the book.
  15. In my memory of the novel, other plots, like the adventures of Billy and his brother Boyd, are spiked into the devastating ballast of the she-wolf section.
  16. Somehow more of a superhero than Billy, Boyd is—a folk hero mythologized in corridos and other legends.
  17. But like I said, the she-wolf narrative is only part of the book (and a great part at that—the section could stand alone as the perfect introduction to McCarthy).
  18. The Crossing is far baggier than I had recalled. Unlike All the Pretty Horses, which is somewhat straightforward, McCarthy will turn over dozens of pages at a time to the denizens of the road Billy encounters.
  19. The gypsy commander, late in the novel, whose crew hauls a dead airplane from the jungle.
  20. The ex-priest who languishes in the ruins of a church, concocting a personal theodicy to no avail.
  21. The revolutionary whose eyeballs are sucked from their sockets by a German sadist.
  22. The tale of the revolutionary whose eyeballs are sucked from their sockets by a German sadist, whose kind wife offers Billy a meal of hard-boiled eggs before the tale unfolds, is one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read.
  23. More hardcore than anything in Blood Meridian.
  24. Or The Road.
  25. The initial gruesome passage: “He was a very large man with enormous hands and he reached and seized the young captive’s head in both these hands and bent as if to kiss him. But it was no kiss. He seized him by the face and it may well have looked to others that he bent to kiss him on each cheek perhaps in the military manner of the French but what he did instead with a great caving of his cheeks was to suck each in turn the man’s eyes from his head and spit them out again and leave them dangling by their cords wet and strange and wobbling on his cheeks.”
  26. —and the kicker—
  27. “They tried to put his eyes back into their sockets with a spoon but none could manage it and the eyes dried on his cheeks like grapes and the world grew dim and colorless and then it vanished forever.”
  28. Sorry!
  29. The Crossing is full of evil gross awful moments like this.
  30. The bandito who stabs the horse Niño.
  31. And scatters a dead brother’s bones.
  32. The cadre of zoosadists who run a dogfighting ring.
  33. The would-be rapist road agents (brave Boyd and Billy prevail).
  34. But The Crossing is full of beauty–
  35. –as when McCarthy’s prose-camera hovers around the she-wolf–
  36. –or gets into the minutiae of storytelling itself–
  37. (The Crossing seems to me the most direct example of McCarthy’s postmodernism.)
  38. –or another entry in McCarthy’s reckoning with heterodox witnessing
  39. –a lot of beauty here, beauty that doesn’t gloss over the ugliness, but reverberates all the stronger for it.
  40. A simile: “Downriver the nacre bowl of the moon sat swaged into the reefs of cloud like a candled skull.”
  41. Or: “The river where it lay behind the trees looked like poured metal.”
  42. (These similes are from late late late in the novel; I didn’t dogear the pages of the first-edition of the novel I found a few years ago, but I should’ve.)
  43. But more than these moments of reflection and storytelling, these metaphors and similes, The Crossing is about hospitality.
  44. For all the evils that befall Billy and brother Boyd, there seem to be tenfold blessings.
  45. Like Homer’s tale of an unhoused wanderer, The Crossing might be understood as a series of hostings.
  46. Again and again, strangers take Billy in—feed him, give him respite, clothe him.
  47. Care for his brother, shot through the chest.
  48. Share what they have, even if what they have is just words, stories.
  49. But more than anything else, a human concern.
  50. Fifty seems like enough (too many) points in a riff, so—

The Crossing is one of McCarthy’s best novels, up there with Suttree and Blood Meridian, and possibly The Passenger. It might seem baggy, but its fatty prose is generous. I’m amazed that it did not have as much of an impact on me a decade and a half ago as it did in the first month of 2023, but I’m glad I went back to it and met its myriad messages when I needed them.

Very highly recommended. If you’re interested in McCarthy but don’t know where to start, The Crossing might be a great place.

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