I Read Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Border Trilogy’.

steve cuocci
11 min readFeb 12, 2023

Reading this trilogy has been something of an act of endurance. There is little joy to be found, plenty hardships, and myriad characters with strong jaws, cold hearts, and few means. Each of these books shares something at its core and while I don’t struggle to find it while exploring the trilogy, I do have a hard time defining it. The biggest theme I find here is desolation and the need to complete one’s journey, regardless of the obstacles and the people (sometimes one in the same) that prevent you from finding that Final Place. Even if the place isn’t a location.

God has a presence here, but gives little sympathy or relief, if those are the kinds of things they offer or have ever offered. Prayers are often lifted, myths are often bandied from one to the next, though despite the rumors of their existence, there is never a manifesting of its hand. On myths as well, the country and land of Mexico often feels like it is revered with a simultaneous malice and wonder, as if stepping over the border engulfs you in the timeless history of a land ruled by the frontiered lawlessness, the anarchy and chaos of a realm ruled by none and populated by spirits long deceased but ever watchful, ever vengeful. Things seem to be governed by a different set of supreme laws, ones which its inhabitants discover in meters, measuring vengeance and prosperity by seconds and with little grace.

In these books, we revisit the theme of things coming that are bigger than us, greater than us, and absolutely unstoppable. This is something that shows up again in No Country For Old Men, a theme that feels like it’s one that reveals itself to people who age with a constant sense of observation, a sense of what lies before them in compare to what they have passed. In the Epilogue of the third book, we really dig deeper into the scale, the scope of all things as they come before us, as they come unto us, and we find there is little by way of redeemer. We find the sum of all of our actions becomes forfeit to the larger fate at hand, that all eventualities sustain beyond the ways in which we try to overcome. The ways that we are is often muted by the eventualities we eventually must face.

All the Pretty Horses

Rarely do I read books twice. There are just so many books out there, not only on my TBD list, but also physically on my shelves, that it’s hard to justify coming back to a book and spending the time it takes to get through a book and using it to reexperience something I’ve already done. Cormac McCarthy is an author I’ve done this with twice, once with The Road which I read back to back and then again with this book, All the Pretty Horses (I believe the only other novels I’ve read twice are Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit). In ways, thinking back to it, this book reminds me a lot of Kerouac’s On the Road. While I was reading it, I don’t think it felt that way to me, but the more I think back to it, the more I have the same sense of fresh experience, of coming-of-age and of being ill-prepared for the world ahead of us, but attempting to devour it anyway. In so many ways, this is a journey that shows its characters wading knee deep into the unknown, trying to find a version of themselves which they know exists but are unsure how to define. In Kerouac’s road story, there is fun, excitement and free-wheeling mania, utter joys that cannot be contained in a single heart, a fairy tale bewilderment that sees its protagonists swallowing the enchanting air in drowning gulps, unable to breathe for all the lust, all the love, all the adventure and all the youth. Instead, as is the standard with McCarthy, we see the boys here (Grady, Rawlins and even Blevins) get turned against and then into a darkness which they cannot turn away from. They bear witness to a frontier and a reality so desolate, sparse and expansive that they learn, along with us, that there is little they can do to escape its gaze. They must meet it, always, with the acceptance that their destiny’s undertow will always be stronger than the gait and range of their will.

This book does a lot for setting the tone of McCarthy’s west, and especially its romantic, mystic and violent vision of what lies beyond the border, of what McCarthy’s Mexico is comprised of.

The youths in this book seem to face more than I could ever imagine withstanding at their age, and the violence they witmess and engage in is something that will change you as you step through the prism. We are introduced to a trio of boys who are standing at the foot of a world which is primed to dim them in its shadow. When we come out the other side, one has given their life, one has taken a life, and one seems to have thrown in the towel, willing to accept whatever dull wit the earth and its timeline has in store for them.

There is a romance to be found in this book, one that sets the tone for one of its main characters and illustrates a major comprisal of his heart and the way in which he chooses to frame the world. There’s a naivety he shows, a hopelessness in his romanticism that feels somewhat out of place this word, but also one that speaks deeply of the way he chooses to engage with it, and also explores so much of the depth of what McCarthy’s vision of romance can withstand. Despite the darkness, despite the bleak and narrow view of all that can demean us, there is still a beating heart within it all, a grip on a lifeline that can be used to follow in the blackest of night.

Of all three individual books, I would say this is the one which I would recommend the highest. I think this works well as a good introduction to Cormac McCarthy’s style and in certain ways expects the least of the reader. The writing style is indicative of a master, without any doubt, and I think its story holds the most water of all three stories. You won’t need to know it’s part of a trilogy to feel satisfied by the end of it, and I think all of the characters you meet, those that exist through the entire vein of it, and also those that only stand out on the promontories, will be highly memorable.

The Crossing

This book, following Billy Parham, feels like one where McCarthy wanted to try to reconnect with the epic of The Journey From Home, one where we come of age and become something bigger on the other side of where we began. But in …Horses, we see clear pacing and identity being gained by the lessons that lie before us. But here, failure becomes a commonplace event. I think we learn a little bit more about what it means to bite off more than we can chew and what the results of that can be.

What stands with me most in this story is the first big conquest, something that feels a little bit like trying to lasso a tornado. Billy Parham tries to trap a wolf, something he eventually succeeds in and then the story of him trying to set this wolf free back in Mexico. Returning to this deadly and unforgiving place, we learn lessons that are as bleak and as foul as ever. As this juncture of the book ramps up, then peaks, and abruptly ends, these are some of the most emotionally connected I’ve felt to a conflict in this entire trilogy. It all feels way more helpless, way more desperate, and way more impactful than many of the events that play out. I think this campaign feels like it illustrates just how raw and hostile these places are. How final our consequences can feel. It also shows how stark the world can be. How silent it can be in response to one’s prayers. How little it shows remorse (or contempt, for that matter) towards one’s desires.

A bigger chunk of the book details what happens after the experiences with the wolf, once Billy comes back home and discovers that his family has been murdered, survived by his younger brother Boyd. Here, the story turns to a journey of trying to reclaim the horses that they’d lost in the invasion at their homestead. Through this portion, we learn more about Bily’s experience in the world and a bit more of the way he has hardened during his first crossing into the other land. Even though he knows so little, the way he imparts wisdom to his younger brother feels stoic and seasoned, which I think reflects a little bit upon how much of an impact his first experience had on him. Boyd (his brother) is quiet and a bit rocked from watching the murder of his parents but is even still accepting and tolerant of the new trail that the brothers are on. When they rescue a new companion, Boyd’s fortitude is mustered as he takes a stronger role in her protection. In his dialog, he also still remains as steadfast and ornery as ever when he is up against the odds of some major ranchers who are in possession of the stolen horses. In desperation, we see the main characters at the end of their ropes, but still maintain a forward trajectory, something that feels doomed from the start, but they remain resistant to defeat.

Billy’s crossing ends alone, which is another theme that seems to pervade the trilogy. We find that although companions are gained and family links in and out of the sojourns, the internal dialogs and the intentions of all characters remain mostly set in some solitary tunnel meant only for the protagonists themselves. Great strides are made to showcase just how alone we are in the world, no matter how surrounded we are by those who gravitate toward us. In the final passages of the book, there is an interaction with a dog that feels so indicative of the weight which Billy carries, but which also screams imagery of trust, hope, and belief.

This book is not necessarily one I would recommend unless you’re invested in the trilogy or interested in McCarthy’s style. Despite being part of a trilogy, this book does not require you to read the book previous in the series. It stands alone as a story about Mexico and its bordering states and while the themes tend to blend together, you can start here just as easily as in All the Pretty Horses and get the same experience. I would say that this one feels a little less populated by villainy but is almost twice as bleak. I think, too, the book is longer than the other two but feels a little less natural, as many of the conversations can feel a little bit more like soliloquies from nameless bystanders, stories told by people that Parham stumbles across than they do natural expositions.

Cities of the Plain

This book acts as something of a Super Smash Bros. of the Border-verse, combining the characters of Billy Parham and John Grady and the pasts that you have become well acquainted with. Once more there is no storyline that trails its way across the three novels, only the same march of time across these two characters' lives, only the changing landscape of the United States and its state of affairs and the impervious nature of Mexico and its stalwart ability to remain unchanged, unfazed and ancient in all its avenues.

Here, we are reintroduced to Grady’s inherent talent of speaking with and understanding horses, his ability to soothe them and observe them through the interspecies obstacles and discover ways to break them, to engage with them on a more natural level than other cowboys on the ranches he works within. There is a way that he believes in the way he speaks the truth to them, something about the way he tames them that initiates a deeper trust in him. The way it’s described makes one feel familiar with it, even though you may not be able to pinpoint a person or an instance where someone has been able to commune with animals, there is something that feels like a mystic communication at hand, where an animal absorbs the language more than from others. This, and the naive and romantic energy of John Grady Cole is the biggest of all themes throughout this book. One of the main plot points here is how he has fallen in love with a prostitute south of the border and is ready to give up all that he owns, all that he loves, all that he’s built, in order to marry her and live the rest of his life with her. This is something that feels like a revisitation of the first book.

Parham plays a bit of a lesser role in this book, though his presence is one that feels robust throughout. He feels a little bit lighter, a little bit less tied to any particular course. He keeps Grady light and he keeps him honest. We see him a little bit more as a sidekick character, one who throws a little bit more commentary into the mix along with the other ranch hands.

This entry feels a little bit less engulfed in the occulted and ancient land of Mexico and shines a bit more light on the personalities and peoples that exist outside of it, though always standing in its shadow, each of them with stories to tell of their trials there, none willing to share the details from their time within it. Louder than the unique stories is the deep change and affectation that each of these companions wears daily. Some of the descriptive silences tell all that needs to be told.

The plot here feels a bit more brief, a bit more direct. And even in their obtuse and peripheral affairs, the characters seem more like old-timers, more weathered in their direction. And while Billy’s been more worn out by the world, while he feels a bit more tired and a bit more contented to while away his days as long as the ranch will have him, his buddy John Grady lets his bleeding and yearning romantic heart drag him into consequence in the end. This is the core of the story, and throughout the entire trilogy, probably the most passionate and dedicated discourse we’ll see in its 1000+ pages. While it doesn’t take up a ton of real estate in the narrative on the page directly, all things are moving in that direction and toward the inevitable climax.

I think of the three of the books, I would say this is the only one that requires a reading of the other two that came before it, and also the one that feels the most unnecessary of the three. It was great to have the story of these two characters carry on into a conclusion, but I think in the true nature of McCarthy, I did love that each of the books prior left things as open as we wanted them to be, and wasn’t necessarily vague, but instead could be considered indefinite and horizonless. I think if you’ve read both of the other books in the trilogy, I’d say it might be worth seeing it through, though certainly there should be no rush. No cliffhangers or open-ended trails hang around at the end of any of these individual books.

The writing on each of these is exemplary of an absolute master of the language, a clear reason why he is one of, if not my absolute favorite writer. Despite some of my commentary halting the recommendation on checking these books out, if you can fall in love with the written word, and aren’t hesitant to read about a time and a place that feels like the waning days of “the west”, I would one hundred percent give these a look. There are passages in here that give me wretched pause, things that simultaneously make me never want to write again, but also inspire me to work on the craft endlessly. Endlessly happy to have gone on this journey with these characters.