Cities of the Plain, the final volume of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, binds together the separate tales of John Grady Cole from All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham from The Crossing to create a more realistic Billy and a more mythic John Grady. Within the confines of a relatively spare 293 pages, the classic “all-american cowboy” John Grady devotes himself to saving every hurt or wounded creature that crosses his path, a noble and impossible task that leads ultimately to his own destruction. The tragedy of his failed rescue of the epilectic prostitute Magdalena makes a martyr of the near-faultless John Grady, yet McCarthy stubbornly refuses to let the novel backslide into blubbery melodrama. Told in both McCarthy’s signature lyrical style and his dead-on ranchero dialogue, Cities of the Plain ends the trilogy at the height of McCarthy’s storytelling skill.
Like its brilliant predecessors, All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, Cities of the Plain tells a riveting story that is simple in form but presses outward toward the archetypal and the infinite. The novel can surely be read on its own, but those who have read the earlier novels in the trilogy will find a richer reward.
Those two novels tell oddly similar stories. In All the Pretty Horses, John Grady Cole and his companion ride down into Mexico in search of adventure and discover a wider and more mysterious world than they had imagined. In The Crossing, Billy Parham’s wanderings into Mexico are more darkly shaded. If John Grady Cole’s adventures have about them a kind of innocence, Billy Parham’s seem to be about fate and expiation. In both books, in beautiful, powerfully rendered episodes, Cormac McCarthy explores the borderlands of human experience, the oppositions and crossings as lives intersect.
Cities of the Plain was favorably reviewed in The New York Times, though the reviewer criticized McCarthy’s violent prose and arcane language, observing: “One begins to miss the simple evocation of cowboy life that is so stirring in the earlier novels.” A film adaptation, directed by Andrew Dominik and starring James Franco, has been stated to be in development, but as of 2018 these plans appear to have fallen through.