I just finished Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy last night. It took me a while to get used to his style, which most of the time is unusually barren, all bones and no flesh. Things and actions are named in the most general way possible, rather than properly described. Short sentences, hardly any subclauses, lots of "ands", all verbs and nouns, mostly short ones (with Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin roots), very few adjectives, no adverbs, as if the world consisted only of things and actions and not also of colours and sounds and smells. The whole rich texture of the world is absent. Here's a typical sentence: "He took off his hat and passed his shirtsleeve across his forehead and waved her forward and put his hat back on and reined the horse off the road and through the sedge and turned so that he could watch her pass." The frequent dialogues are equally bland:
"What are you doing? he said.
Why don't you come back inside.
I'm all right.
They've offered us to spend the night.
What do you aim to do?
I'm all right."
Those characters don't explain anything, they don't seem to think much, or feel much, at least we don't get to know their thoughts and feelings and motivations because they don't talk about them, and neither does the narrator. Yet every 100 pages or so we get a philosophical discussion between the main characters and people they chance upon on the road that reveals some deeper concerns. Discussions about fate and free choice, about living and dying, about purpose and chance. All the characters seem to be driven by events that they cannot control, but they somehow manage to hold on to their dignity by being strangely stubborn in their pursuit of certain goals that to the rest of the world make little sense and that usually don't do them any good. Violent death is always close, an integral part of life and no big surprise.
"What did you do?
You aint got a cigarette have you?
No. What did you do?
Didnt think you did.
What did you do?
Lord what wouldnt I give for a chew of tobacco.
What did you do?
I walked up behind him and snatched it out of his belt. That's what I done.
And shot him.
He come at me.
Come at you.
So you shot him.
What choice did I have?
What choice, said John Grady."
People make their choices, and they don't. They are agents, and their actions are also unavoidable. Their history makes them what they are, and what they are shapes their history. But the choices they do make are still important. Their very stubbornness in the pursuit of their aims allows them to hold on to their humanity and to give some meaning to a life that is to be lived in a world devoid of meaning. Thus Billy, the hero of the "The Crossing" starts out hunting wolves that kill cattle, and when he finally catches one in a trap, a pregnant she-wolf, he does not kill her, but tries to bring her to Mexico, intending to set her free once he gets there. Why exactly he does that, is not explained. We can only guess at his reasons. He finally gets to Mexico, but the wolf is taken away from him and, tied to a stake, made to fight against dogs that were bred to kill and to which she must sooner or later succumb. He tries to rescue her, but fails, and is driven away. Yet despite the danger to his life he gets his rifle and once again goes back to the place where the dog fights are being held. He walks in and shoots the wolf: "No one paid him any mind. He made his way through the crowd and when he reached the estacada the wolf was alone in the pit and she was a sorry thing to see. She'd returned to the stake and crouched by it but her head lay in the dirt and her tongue lolled in the dirt and her fur was matted with dirt and blood and the yellow eyes looked at nothing at all. She had been fighting for almost two hours and she had fought in casts of two the better part of all the dogs brought to the feria. (...) He stepped over the parapet and walked toward the wolf and levered a shell into the chamber of the rifle and halted ten feet from her and raised the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the bloodied head and fired."
The wolf dies, and the crowd turns on him, but he manages to leave unharmed after giving his rifle to the man who was supposed to get the wolf's hide. He takes the wolf and rides with her to a place where he can bury her. And McCarthy's description of this burial is worth all the barren prose that the reader has to wade through to get to this point, suddenly bringing to the open the wonder and beauty that lies hidden beneath the bleakness and brutality of life: "He squatted over the wolf and touched her fur. He touched the cold and perfect teeth. The eye turned to the fire gave back no light and he closed it with his thumb and sat by her and put his hand upon her bloodied forehead and closed his own eyes that he could see her running in the mountains, running in the starlight where the grass was wet and the sun's coming as yet had not undone the rich matrix of creatures passed in the night before her. Deer and hare and dove and groundvole all richly empaneled on the air for her delight, all nations of the posssible world ordained by God of which she was one among and not separate from. Where she ran the cries of the coyotes clapped shut as if a door had closed upon them and all was fear and marvel. He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it."