by Bill Spencer
The Crossing, publicized as the second installment of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, is the initiation story of Billy Parham and his younger brother Boyd (who are 16 and 14 respectively when the novel opens). The novel, set just before and during World War II, is structured around three round-trip crossings that Billy makes from New Mexico into Mexico. Each trip tests Billy as he must try to salvage something once he fails in his original goal. On both his first and last quest he is reduced (or perhaps exalted) to some symbolic futile gesture in his attempt, against all obstacles, to maintain his integrity and to be true to his moral obligations. This novel explores such issues as guilt, the acquisition of wisdom, heroism, and the crucial importance of stories.
The first section of The Crossing is the story of Billy Parham’s learning the ways of wolves as well as the ways of men. Like Ike McCaslin in William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Billy becomes increasingly expert about the wild so that eventually he is able to corner the beast that is the object of his obsessive search. This section also may put readers in mind of Moby Dick, for as the white whale surfaces out of the primal depths, McCarthy’s she-wolf comes up into the United States from the primitiveness of the mountains of Mexico. After many failed attempts, Billy finally traps the pregnant she-wolf, elaborately strings it out, and eventually succeeds in tying its muzzle closed, no easy task. At this point, Billy, seemingly on impulse, decides to leave home without any farewell or explanation in order to return the wolf to Mexico.
Billy’s motives for separating from his family so unceremoniously are not spelled out, though he has experienced some tension in his relationship with his father. He may simply desire more independence and an escape from domesticity. But Billy seemingly gets more than he bargained for when he answers the call of the wild. He must defend the wolf against both dogs and men. He repeatedly refuses to sell the wolf to men who see it only in monetary terms as a commodity, while for Billy the wolf is a mysterious symbol, djinn-like. Billy’s plans and good intentions go awry when Mexican authorities stop him and confiscate the creature in his charge. When Billy is released, he searches until he finds the wolf ignominiously caged in a sideshow and then follows it when it is moved to a circus to be sacrificed in a lengthy bout of wolf-baiting. A tense intervention attempt fails, so Billy decides to finish off the battle-battered wolf with a shot from his rifle, and then he trades his rifle for the rights to the wolf’s carcass.
As the novel’s second section begins, we learn that Billy has buried the wolf in the mountains and has grown leaner and more ragged. He eventually crosses back into New Mexico, finds his home abandoned, and learns that his parents have been murdered, allegedly by two Indians. The killers have also cut the family dog’s throat, though it survived, and stolen the family’s six horses. After Billy goes to see the sheriff and picks up Boyd from a neighbor’s house, the two boys set out for Mexico to recover their horses. After “stealing” back their horse Keno, the Parham brothers encounter a young Mexican girl who is crying. Part II of the novel ends with Boyd’s and Billy’s daring rescue of this girl from two men who apparently intended to rape her.
Part III chronicles the growing romantic relationship of Boyd and the girl, and it narrates the story of Boyd’s transformation into a hero of the people. The boys suffer fluctuating fortunes in their ongoing attempts to regain their horses until the original quest is doomed by their second hostile confrontation with a one-armed ranch chief. As this jefe tries to deprive Billy and Boyd of three of their horses for the second time during a street altercation, Billy spooks his horse, which tumbles to the ground, breaking the jefe’s back. Soon afterwards, the one-armed man’s compatriots track down and relentlessly shoot at the young Americans, wounding Boyd gravely. Boyd escapes death only through the generous help of some workers on a flatbed truck, who begin to create and spread a heroic legend about him. After Boyd regains his health, he and his sweetheart leave together without telling Billy, which echoes Billy’s earlier desertion of the family. At this point, the focus of Billy’s quest is no longer the horses but his brother, whom he cannot find even after weeks of searching.
Part IV begins with Billy’s crossing back into the United States, where his three attempts to enlist in the army at the time of WW II are unsuccessful because he has a heart defect. After drifting through various ranch jobs for about three years, Billy undertakes a third journey into Mexico, this time seeking his brother. He finds only Boyd’s bones, which he decides should be returned to his homeland. Billy suffers a new low point in his existence when four robbers stop him, dump and desecrate Boyd’s remains, and stab his horse Niño for no good reason. Struck with frustration and confronted with the tragedy and absurdity of his situation, Billy weeps. Nevertheless, he completes his gesture of faithfulness to his brother when he gathers up the bones, crosses into New Mexico, and re-buries them there, thus paralleling the earlier burial of the wolf. The novel ends with Billy weeping once again after he has abusively chased away a pathetic, crippled dog that had “howled again and again in its heart’s despair.”
The Border Trilogy, which began with All the Pretty Horses, concludes with Cities of the Plain.
The preceding précis is Copyright © 1996 by Bill Spencer.