The setting is New Mexico in 1952, where John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are working as ranch hands. To the North lie the proving grounds of Alamogordo; to the South, the twin cities of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. Their life is made up of trail drives and horse auctions and stories told by campfire light. It is a life that is about to change forever, and John Grady and Billy both know it.
The catalyst for that change appears in the form of a beautiful, ill-starred Mexican prostitute. When John Grady falls in love, Billy agrees--against his better judgment--to help him rescue the girl from her suavely brutal pimp. The ensuing events resonate with the violence and inevitability of classic tragedy. Hauntingly beautiful, filled with sorrow, humor and awe, Cities of the Plain is a genuine American epic.
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Late that night lying in his bunk in the dark he heard the kitchen door close and heard the screendoor close after it. He lay there. Then he sat and swung his feet to the floor and got his boots and his jeans and pulled them on and put on his hat and walked out. The moon was almost full and it was cold and late and no smoke rose from the kitchen chimney. Mr Johnson was sitting on the back stoop in his duckingcoat smoking a cigarette. He looked up at John Grady and nodded. John Grady sat on the stoop beside him. What are you doin out here without your hat? he said.
I dont know.
You all right?
Yeah. I'm all right. Sometimes you miss bein outside at night. You want a cigarette?
Could you not sleep either?
No sir. I guess not.
How's them new horses?
I think he done all right.
Them was some boogerish colts I seen penned up in the corral.
I think he's goin to sell off some of them.
Horsetradin, the old man said. He shook his head. He smoked.
Did you used to break horses, Mr Johnson?
Some. Mostly just what was required. I was never a twister in any sense of the word. I got hurt once pretty bad. You can get spooked and not know it. Just little things. You dont hardly even know it.
But you like to ride.
I do. Margaret could outride me two to one though. As good a woman with a horse as I ever saw. Way bettern me. Hard thing for a man to admit but it's the truth.
You worked for the Matadors didnt you?
Yep. I did.
How was that?
Hard work. That's how it was.
I guess that aint changed.
Oh it probably has. Some. I was never in love with the cattle business. It's just the only one I ever knew.
Can I ask you somethin? said John Grady.
How old were you when you got married?
I was never married. Never found anybody that'd have me.
He looked at John Grady.
Margaret was my brother's girl. Him and his wife both was carried off in the influenza epidemic in nineteen and eighteen.
I didnt know that.
She never really knowed her parents. She was just a baby. Well, five. Where's your coat at?
I'm all right.
I was in Fort Collins Colorado at the time. They sent for me. I shipped my horses and come back on the train with em. Dont catch cold out here now.
No sir. I wont. I aint cold.
I had ever motivation in the world but I never could find one I thought would suit Margaret.
Wife. One wife. We finally just give it up. Probably a mistake. I dont know. Socorro pretty much raised her. She spoke better spanish than Socorro did. It's just awful hard. It liked to of killed Socorro. She still aint right. I dont expect she ever will be.
We tried ever way in the world to spoil her rotten but it didnt take. I dont know why she turned out the way she did. It's just a miracle I guess you could say. I dont take no credit for it, I'll tell you that.
Look yonder. The old man nodded toward the moon.
You cant see em now. Wait a minute. No. They're gone.
What was it?
Birds flyin across the moon. Geese maybe. I dont know.
I didnt see em. Which way were they headed?
Upcountry. Probably headed for that marsh country on the river up around Belen.
I used to love to ride of a night.
I did too.
You'll see things on the desert at night that you cant understand. Your horse will see things. He'll see things that will spook him of course but then he'll see things that dont spook him but still you know he seen somethin.
What sort of things?
I dont know.
You mean like ghosts or somethin?
No. I dont know what. You just knows he sees em. They're out there.
Not just some class of varmint?
Not somethin that will booger him?
No. It's more like somethin he knows about.
But you dont.
But you dont. Yes.
The old man smoked. He watched the moon. No further birds flew. After a while he said: I aint talkin about spooks. It's more like just the way things are. If you only knew it.
We was up on the Platte River out of Ogallala one night and I was bedded down in my soogan out away from the camp. It was a moonlit night just about like tonight. Cold. Spring of the year. I woke up and I guess I'd heard em in my sleep and it was just this big whisperin sound all over and it was geese just by the thousands headed up the river. They passed for the better part of a hour. They blacked out the moon. I thought the herd would get up off the grounds but they didnt. I got up and walked out and stood watchin em and some of the other young waddies in the outfit they had got up too and we was all standin out there in our longjohns watchin. It was just this whisperin sound. They was up high and it wasnt loud or nothin and I wouldnt of thought about somethin like that a wakin us wore out as we was. I had a nighthorse in my string named Boozer and old Boozer he come to me. I reckon he thought the herd'd get up too but they didnt. And they was a snuffy bunch, too.
Did you ever have a stampede?
Yes. We was drivin to Abilene in eighteen and eighty-five. I wasnt much more than a button. And we had got into it with a rep from one of the outfits and he followed us to where we crossed the Red River at Doane's store into Indian Territory. He knew we'd have a harder time gettin our stock back there and we did but we caught the old boy and it was him for you could still smell the coaloil on him. He come by in the night and set a cat on fire and thowed it onto the herd. I mean slung it. Walter Devereaux was comin in off the middle watch and he heard it and looked back. Said it looked like a comet goin out through there and just a squallin. Lord didnt they come up from there. It took us three days to shape that herd back and whenever we left out of there we was still missin forty some odd head lost or crippled or stole and two horses.
What happened to the boy?
That threw the cat.
Oh. Best I remember he didnt make out too well.
I guess not.
People will do anything.
Yessir. They will.
You live long enough you'll see it.
Yessir. I have.
Mr Johnson didnt answer. He flipped the butt of his cigarette out across the yard in a slow red arc.
Aint nothin to burn out there. I remember when you could have grassfires in this country.
I didnt mean I'd seen everthing, John Grady said.
I know you didnt.
I just meant I'd seen things I'd as soon not of.
I know it. There's hard lessons in this world.
What's the hardest?
I dont know. Maybe it's just that when things are gone they're gone. They aint comin back.
They sat. After a while the old man said: The day after my fiftieth birthday in March of nineteen and seventeen I rode into the old headquarters at the Wilde well and there was six dead wolves hangin on the fence. I rode along the fence and ran my hand along em. I looked at their eyes. A government trapper had brought em in the night before. They'd been killed with poison baits. Strychnine. Whatever. Up in the Sacramentos. A week later he brought in four more. I aint heard a wolf in this country since. I suppose that's a good thing. They can be hell on stock. But I guess I was always what you might call superstitious. I know I damn sure wasnt religious. And it had always seemed to me that somethin can live and die but that the kind of thing that they were was always there. I didnt know you could poison that. I aint heard a wolf howl in thirty odd years. I dont know where you'd go to hear one. There may not be any such a place.
When he walked back through the barn Billy was standing in the doorway.
Has he gone back to bed?
What was he doin up?
He said he couldnt sleep. What were you?
Same thing. You?
Somethin in the air I reckon.
I dont know.
What was he talkin about?
What did he say?
I guess he said cattle could tell the difference between a flight of geese and a cat on fire.
Maybe you dont need to be hangin around him so much.
You might be right.
You all seem to have a lot in common.
He aint crazy, Billy.
Maybe. But I dont know as you'd be the first one I'd come to for an opinion about it.
I'm goin to bed.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Cormac McCarthy's magnificent novel Cities of the Plain and his widely acclaimed Border Trilogy--a modern classic that began with All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, and has been compared with the great works of Faulkner, Melville, and Hemingway. Although Cities of the Plain is the third volume in the Trilogy, it stands alone as a stunning work of literature in its own right. We hope that this guide will provide you with new ways of looking at, and talking about, the many themes and ideas that coalesce so beautifully in this darkly beautiful elegy for the American frontier.
1. For discussion of Cities of the Plain
2. What is the significance of the novel's title? What were the original "cities of the plain," and what do they correspond to within the novel?
3. What role do horses play in the book, and how are they characterized? How are the "souls" of horses seen to differ from those of men?
4. Cities of the Plain is in many respects a novel about the inevitability and tragedy of change. What events and situations has McCarthy used to dramatize that subject? "The war changed everything," says Billy. "I dont think people even know it yet" [p. 78]. What, precisely, has it changed? Which characters adjust to the changes, and which are unwilling or incapable of doing so?
5. What does the statement "beauty and loss are one" [p. 71] mean, and how does the novel illustrate this contention?
6. Of Magdalena, the old blind man says, "My belief is that she is at best a visitor. At best. She does not belong here. Among us" [p. 81]. What does he mean by this statement, and how is his premonition borne out? Can Magdalena's end be seen as inevitable, within the novel's particular world? What other predictions or auguries are offered in the novel? Do they add to the suspense or detract from it?
7. Which characters in the novel function as archetypes, and what do they represent? Do these archetypal characters keep them from being believable personalities?
8. Which of the characters have been affected by the Mexican Revolution, and in what ways has the Revolution changed their lives and helped to form their world? What are their feelings about the Revolution in retrospect?
9. How do you react to the many instances of violence in the novel? Do they seem gratuitous, or integral to the story? Is the graphic description of individual acts of violence included for mere titillation or shock value, or is it necessary in making the reader truly understand and come to terms with the novel's time and setting?
10. In spite of the widespread violence in the Border country, it is also a place in which people are unusually hospitable, at least by modern urban standards. Archer describes his travels through Mexico after the Revolution: "They didnt have no reason to be hospitable to anybody. Least of all a gringo kid. That plateful of beans they set in front of you was hard come by. But I was never turned away. Not a time" [p. 90]. What other examples of unusual hospitality can you find in the book? Is this hospitality connected in some way with the everyday violence that affects these people's lives?
11. In Cities of the Plain Mexico is characterized as female, the United States as male. What is the reason for this dichotomy, and how has McCarthy achieved the effect? In what ways is the southwestern United States qualitatively different from Mexico, just across the border? What does Mac mean when he reflects that, "In Mexico there is no God. Just her [the Virgin]" [p. 116]?
12. Billy says to John Grady, "You know you been actin peculiar since you had that wreck?" [p. 121] Is that true? If so, what happened during the wreck to alter John Grady's behavior or change his thinking?
13. What does the blind man mean when he tells John Grady, "Your love has no friends. You think that it does but it does not. None. Perhaps not even God" [p. 199]? Why does it have no friends? Why is it impossible that John Grady and Magdalena's love should ever succeed? Is John Grady aware of the impossibility, or does his love blind him to reality?
14. Billy says that Mexico is "another world. Everbody I ever knew that ever went back was goin after somethin" [p. 218]. What is John Grady going after? To what extent is he aware of his needs and his motivations? Eduardo says that John Grady is seeking death. Is he right? Why would John Grady choose death over life? Why is Billy different, opting for life, however diminished?
15. Who is the mysterious stranger that Billy, in old age, meets on the highway? What is the significance of the long story he tells, and what relation does it bear to Billy's life?
16. "In everything that he'd ever thought about the world and about his life in it he'd been wrong" [p. 265], Billy reflects as an old man. Which of his opinions were proved wrong? How does the world differ from the one he had thought he knew, and in what ways is old Billy different from young Billy?
17. Who is the real hero of this story: John Grady or Billy? Does the author play with conventional notions of what makes a hero? How do these young men fit into the chivalric tradition, and which earlier literary heroes do each of them resemble? For discussion of The Border Trilogy
18. The Border Trilogy is in many ways a work about the inevitability and tragedy of change. What events in the novels, both personal and historical, dramatize this theme? What has changed or is in the process of changing? Which characters adjust to these changes, and which are unable or unwilling to do so?
19. All three of the novels in the Border Trilogy are extremely violent. At a time when graphic and gratuitous descriptions of mayhem are standard in much popular fiction for purposes of mere shock and titillation, has McCarthy succeeded in restoring to violence its ancient qualities of pity and terror? How has he managed this?
20. There are many different Border crossings in the trilogy, and each crossing is in itself something in the nature of a quest. What, in each case, are the travelers seeking? Do they attain their goal? What do all the crossings have in common?
21. In what ways do John Grady Cole and Boyd Parham resemble one another? How is Billy different from both of them? Does he ever fully understand them? What ways does he find of dealing with them?
22. Who is the real hero of the trilogy, John Grady or Billy? Does the author play with conventional ideas of what makes a hero? How do these young men fit into the chivalric tradition, and which earlier literary heroes do each of them resemble?
23. The cowboys or vaqueros abide by an age-old moral code. Is this moral code viable in the new world in which they find themselves? Is it merely anachronistic, or are its values still alive and essential? What moral code exists in the modern world, and how does it correspond to the older one?
24. The culture on both sides of the Border as described in this trilogy is essentially a masculine one, some would say a macho one. Does this fact alienate you from the world described, or is the machismo an important, even a vital and necessary, part of a noble ethos?
25. How does the Border Trilogy exploit, and play against, the classic myth of the American West? What is its place within the tradition of the Western, alongside prototypes like The Virginian? Does it uphold, or subvert, the traditional values of the genre?
26. Who in the trilogy can be seen as archetypes, rather than as fully-fleshed characters? Which characters succeed both as personalities and as archetypes? Why has the author chosen to rely so heavily on archetypal figures to tell his story?
27. How has the history of the Border region, from the Alamo to the Mexican Revolution to the nuclear tests at Alamogordo, affected the lives of the Border Trilogy's characters and helped to form their world? How do historical events and tragedies continue to resonate in the narrative's present?
28. What well-known myths, legends and fairy tales can you discern within the Border Trilogy? Does the fact that it is a very "literary" piece of work distance you from it, or does it serve to draw you in more completely? Suggestions for further reading Paul Bowles, Collected Stories, The Sheltering Sky; William Burroughs, The Place of Dead Roads; Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces; Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, Nostromo, Victory; William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, The Reivers; Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier; Jim Harrison, Legends of the Fall; Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea; James Jones, From Here to Eternity; Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead; Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove; Susan Minot, Evening; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Foretopman; B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Owen Wister, The Virginian. And for background material on McCarthy, see Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, edited by Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce.