The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses; The Crossing; Cities of the Plain), by Cormac McCarthy

Summary: Cowboy Homer, Homeric cowboys

The last line of the Iliad is, “Thus they busied themselves with the burial of Hector, tamer of horses.” John Grady Cole is a tamer of horses too. A gifted trainer in love with the cowboying life, something as doomed as Troy by drought and modernity.

We first meet him just after the Second World War when he and his friend Lacey Rawlins leave their homes in the US and cross into Mexico looking for work as cowboys. Their adventures and misadventures on that trip are recounted in All the Pretty Horses. That odyssey echoes another journey undertaken by Billy Parham and his brother before the war, the subject of The Crossing. 

At the beginning of Cities of the Plain Billy and John Grady are friends, working together on a ranch in New Mexico. One night in a whorehouse across the border in Mexico John Grady sees a young girl, sold into slavery there to pay someone else’s gambling debt. Her long black hair reminds the reader, as perhaps it does John Grady, of Alejandra, the girl he fell in love with in All the Pretty Horses

Each novel of the Border Trilogy is a self-contained work, but collectively they chronicle the lives of John Grady and Billy and their dying lifestyles. They are exquisitely rich with the intricacies of ranching life while shot through with the tension and violence of the most accomplished thriller. 

Love, whether for a woman or for a brother, in these books tends to be a source of trouble. Alongside it, honour, courage and integrity are no more a guarantor of justice for Billy and John Grady than they were for Hector before the gates of Troy.

Perhaps the United States is too large and diverse to have a single National Epic like the Iliad for Greece or the Táin for Ireland. But with the Border Trilogy maybe the American South-West has a work of literature that captures the lost essence and ideals of that mythic cowboying community that John Grady and Billy represent.

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