Cormac McCarthy

Cities of the Plain

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Cities of the Plain Summary

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Preceded by All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, American author Cormac McCarthy’s novel Cities of the Plain (1998) is the third installment of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. Set in 1952 near the U.S.-Mexico border, Cities of the Plain tells the story of two ranchers struggling to survive in an industry that’s slowly dying. The book’s title references the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which are described in the Old Testament as “cities of the plain.”

The story unites the characters of John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, the respective protagonists of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. Together, they work on a ranch outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, near the border crossing at El Paso, Texas and Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. They share a great deal of expertise between them; John Grady is an unparalleled horse trainer, while Billy is an expert at tracking. While they have a good working relationship with the ranch’s owner, Mac McGovern, John Grady and Billy fear their employment may soon come to an end. In the wake of severe droughts and an overall decline across the industry, the ranchers anticipate that the Department of Defense will soon acquire their land by invoking eminent domain so the land can be used for military training exercises. This would be devastating to John Grady and Billy, both of whom feel truly at home on the open range, despite the ever-increasing difficulties of this lifestyle.

One day, John Grady and Billy cross the border into Juarez to visit a brothel. There, John Grady falls in love instantly with Magdalena, a young prostitute who suffers from epilepsy. Though they do not sleep together that day, John Grady cannot stop thinking about her. Meanwhile, Billy considers leaving Mac’s employ to work on a rival ranch owned by his good friend Troy’s brother, Elton.

When John Grady returns to the brothel to find Magdalena, she is nowhere to be found. He spends all day searching Juarez for Magdalena until he finally comes across her in the town’s most expensive brothel, the White Lake. The brothel is so expensive that it costs John Grady almost all the money he has just to sleep with Magdalena.

Over the course of several more visits, Magdalena finds that she loves John Grady in return. Eventually, they make plans to marry. Unfortunately, there is a second suitor in pursuit of Magdalena’s affections: Eduardo, Magdalena’s pimp and the chief operator of the White Lake. After sending Billy to ask Eduardo how much a person would have to pay to “buy” Magdalena, John Grady learns there is virtually no amount of money that would convince Eduardo to part with her. Resolved nonetheless to marry her, John Grady begins to plot some other way to free her from Eduardo, against Billy’s protestations and his own better judgment.

John Grady begins work on renovating an old abandoned cabin in New Mexico, preparing it as a home for Magdalena and himself after they are married. Meanwhile, in order to secure immigration papers for Magdalena, John Grady must bribe a number of officials. To pay for the bribes, he sells his favorite horse. While these preparations are made, the narrative takes a number of detours to follow John Grady’s and Billy’s adventures on the range. One of these adventures involves efforts to track and kill some wild dogs preying on their boss’s cattle. During the course of this hunt, John Grady discovers a litter of newborn wild puppies, one of which he takes home with him.

The day finally arrives when Magdalena is to escape the brothel. The plan is for Magdalena to meet John Grady at a relatively remote area on the banks of the Rio Grande. Tragically, she never makes it to the crossing. After learning of Magdalena’s imminent plans to escape, Eduardo instructs his hired muscle, Tiburcio, to slash her throat. When Magdalena fails to arrive at the crossing, John Grady tracks her body down at a morgue in Juarez. Vowing revenge, John Grady grabs his knife from the ranch and returns to the White Lake to confront Eduardo. The two engage in a brutal and bloody knife fight that leaves Eduardo dead and John Grady mortally wounded. He spends the night in horrible pain until the next morning, when Billy arrives just in time to comfort his friend before he dies.

In a short epilogue, the book details what happens to Billy over the following decades. He spends many years drifting from ranch to ranch, barely surviving on the wages he ekes out from increasingly rare ranching gigs. After a long spell without work, an old and penniless Billy lies down beneath a highway underpass, expecting to die soon. He even encounters Death itself, in the form of a strange man who makes mysterious utterances. But in the end, Billy survives the encounter and finds refuge with a kind family that takes him into their home.

According to the New York Times, Cities of the Plain “sustains the momentum [of the Border Trilogy], and once again provides a terrific read.”