Looking back: Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing

The Crossing (1994) is Cormac McCarthy's finest achievement, but read less often than his other blockbusters. It is the middle novel within The Border Trilogy, which also comprises All The Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain. The following is an appraisal of one of the greatest novels of modern times. By Shane Creevy.

Cormac McCarthy rarely appears for interviews. Reflections on his own work remain somewhat mysterious. Therefore when he does surface for a public appearance, his words are often examined with rigorous scrutiny by McCarthy scholars. There has been no more instructive advice by the reclusive American than the following: "The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written".

David Holloway has suggested that McCarthy's work is a form of 'late modernism'. Modernism, according to Irving Howe, "sees doubt as a form of health". McCarthy's doubt, registered in his regard for subjectivity and questioning of objective truth, places him within this movement. McCarthy encounters the fundamental modern problem of whether it is possible to know the world through language. His answer is a resounding Yes, á la Penelope Bloom, in his reverence for storytelling through narrative.

McCarthy expects his readers to respect and understand stories of the past. This is not myopic conservatism but a willingness to engage in dialogue with antecedents. Whether fictional, historical, true, or false, stories ultimately give existence meaning in The Border Trilogy, particularly for the protagonist of The Crossing, Billy Parham, whose "own journeying began to take upon itself the shape of a tale".

Everywhere he goes Billy encounters people who wish to tell him stories. Very often the reality of these histories may be doubted. For instance, in the story of the blind man, Billy is told he lost his eyesight thus:

"The German then did something very strange. He smiled and licked the man's spittle from about his mouth. He was a very large man with enormous hands and he reached and seized the young captive's head in both these hands and bent as if to kiss him. But it was no kiss. He seized him by the face and it may well have looked to others that he bent to kiss him on each cheek perhaps in the military manner of the French but what he did instead with a great caving of his cheeks was to suck each in turn the man's eyes from his head and spit them out again and leave them dangling by their cords wet and strange and wobbling on his cheeks."

The reader is implicated here in questions of faith. Surely Billy suspends belief in this inflated portion of the story. It is quite unbelievable that one's eyes could be sucked from one's sockets in such a bizarre fashion. Billy (and the reader) may well doubt the veracity of this claim but, in any case, it is impossible for Billy (or the reader) to reject this history. This crucial issue – of belief in narrative – is a central concern of The Crossing.

Another important encounter takes place when Billy and his brother Boyd stumble upon a gypsy's camp and watch the performance of a travelling opera company. The next day the cowboys pass by the same company who are stuck on the road. Billy, spellbound by the actress, initiates a conversation with her about the world of fiction. He learns the secret truth: that "in this world the mask is what is true."

This scene underscores the self-reflexivity of the trilogy and posits the centrality of narrative to everyday life. Upon seeing the primadonna bathe naked by a lake, Billy "saw that the world which had always been before him everywhere had been veiled from his sight". Billy becomes entranced by the actress, not the woman. Even though she is adorned with no costume, she remains fictional for him. He still sees her as 'the primadonna'. Indeed, the reader never learns her actual name or any other way of speaking about her. The dichotomy between the truth of the real world against the fiction of the actor's world becomes inverted. Billy considers the mask of theatre superior to the woman's naked truth. This is a sexual awakening for Billy, although he first sees the primadonna as a "lascivious silhouette"; it is only a shadow that he sees initially. Subsequently he sees her as a character in an opera and becomes further enamoured. When he sees the real person bathing naked his vision is almost spiritual; certainly it is not based in fact. The hair under her belly is "an indelicacy". He perceives this minor 'imperfection' as rude, coarse, unrefined. He chooses to ignore this, focusing instead on the water covering her long flowing hair, her breasts and her white skin.

Billy has been seduced by the actress as actress, not the real woman with hair in surprising places. Conversely, the real world becomes a fiction. Even the faces of the young boys watching the opera are "like rows of theatrical masks". Billy chooses to believe the fiction, just as all readers must temporarily suspend belief.

Billy thinks his life has been changed by this awakening. In "the new sunrise", the first thing he sees after the naked primadonna is the shadows of workers. He has been blinded to the reality of the workers themselves. Instead they are "like figures in some agrarian drama". The intertwining of truth and fiction is reinforced in Billy's conversation with the primadonna who displays impressive knowledge of the world but none whatsoever of the play in which she acts. This continues when the actor who plays the villain of the opera becomes the villain of the travelling company, drunkenly killing a mule. The boundary between art and reality becomes blurred. Both fiction and truth produce a form of narrative.

Ultimately this is the opinion of the priest whom Billy meets. His remark that "all is telling" marks the significance of narrative in The Border Trilogy. For the priest, "this world... which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them".

Belief, which is necessarily subjective, is crucial in one's appreciation of the three dominant narratives: religion, history and fiction. Despite the individual failures of these three, McCarthy seems to be arguing, belief in narrative vindicates them. This supplants history in its traditional superiority over fiction. History supposedly conveys an objective truth to which fiction can never aspire. McCarthy is undermining this thesis in his equal respect here for both history and fiction, and, it must be noted also, religion: the priest who believes in God, the reader who believes his story, the historian who believes history; all these believers are connected by their decision to trust a narrative. All these believers are represented in The Crossing.

As the blind man tells Billy, "there can be no mistaking these things for the real. At best they are only tracings of where the real has been. Perhaps they are not even that. Perhaps they are no more than obstacles to be negotiated in the ultimate sightlessness of the world". The 'ultimate sightlessness' affects all those who believe. The believer may be blinded to the veracity of his narrative – history or fiction or religion – but nevertheless he experiences that narrative through language. Language structures reality because language is the intermediary between the world and our experience of the world. Perhaps a higher truth is found through communication than the truth claims emanating from history and religion. The Crossing elevates storytelling beyond the objective truth of history or the mythic status of religion.

For the priest, the only constant in human affairs is the story. Something similar is also the case for the blind man who finds through telling his story that "Ultimately what I came to see was more lasting. More true." It does not matter whether we are blinded in sight or in disbelief because the ultimate truth of the world may only reveal itself through language and narrative. The fact that the priest and the blind man tell such compelling stories vindicates their point. McCarthy is actively positing the strength of fiction which lies in its ability to communicate timeless truths that lie resident in human hearts. As the priest tells Billy, "all tales are one. Rightly heard all tales are one".