August 30, 2016 by bradcharlesbeals
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Years ago, I picked up a copy of The Crossing at the East Lansing Public Library’s used book sale. I’m not sure what made reach for it. I’d never heard of the author. Something about all those skulls, maybe. It sat unread for two years on one my bookshelves, and then, out of boredom, I reached for it again. This time I finished it in a few days and over the next year or so read nothing but Cormac McCarthy. I mean, what was the point? There’s no better writer in the English language.
The following is a longer excerpt than the usual first page. When you get to the end, you’ll understand why I couldn’t stop anywhere else.
WHEN THEY CAME SOUTH out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they’d named Hidalgo was itself little older than the child. In the country they’d quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a crossfence. He carried Boyd before him in the bow of the saddle and named to him features of the landscape and birds and animals in both spanish and english. In the new house they slept in the room off the kitchen and he would lie awake at night and listen to his brother’s breathing in the dark and he would whisper half aloud to him as he slept his plans for them and the life they would have.
On a winter’s night in that first year he woke to hear wolves in the low hills to the west of the house and he knew that they would be coming out onto the plain in the new snow to run the antelope in the moonlight. He pulled his breeches off the footboard of the bed and got his shirt and his blanketlined duckingcoat and got his boots from under the bed and went out to the kitchen and dressed in the dark by the faint warmth of the stove and held the boots to the windowlight to pair them left and right and pulled them on and rose and went to the kitchen door and stepped out and closed the door behind him.
When he passed the barn the horses whimpered softly to him in the cold. The snow creaked under his boots and his breath smoked in the bluish light. An hour later he was crouched in the snow in the dry creekbed where he knew the wolves had been using by their tracks in the sand of the washes, by their tracks in the snow.
They were already out on the plain and when he crossed the gravel fan where the creek ran south into the valley he could see where they’d crossed before him. He went forward on knees and elbows with his hands pulled back into his sleeves to keep them out of the snow and when he reached the last of the small dark juniper trees where the broad valley ran under the Animas Peaks he crouched quietly to steady his breath and then raised himself slowly and looked out.
They were running on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world entire. They moved down the valley and turned and moved far out on the plain until they were the smallest of figures in that dim whiteness and then they disappeared.
He was very cold. He waited. It was very still. He could see by his breath how the wind lay and he watched his breath appear and vanish and appear and vanish constantly before him in the cold and he waited a long time. Then he saw them coming. Loping and twisting. Dancing. Tunneling their noses in the snow. Loping and running and rising by twos in a standing dance and running on again. There were seven of them and they passed within twenty feet of where he lay. He could see their almond eyes in the moonlight. He could hear their breath. He could feel the presence of their knowing that was electric in the air. They bunched and nuzzled and licked one another. Then they stopped. They stood with their ears cocked. Some with one forefoot raised to their chest. They were looking at him. He did not breathe. They did not breathe. They stood. Then they turned and quietly trotted on. When he got back to the house Boyd was awake but he didnt tell him where he’d been nor what he’d seen. He never told anybody.
I’ll be honest here. I don’t know what it is exactly that makes this passage work so well. I can only point out the things I see and then wonder at their overall effect.
There’s that long sentence in the second paragraph. English teachers flip out at this kind of thing. It’s a single clause. One subject with eleven verbs joined by twelve ands. What in the world? So the structure is odd, but what’s the purpose of a sentence like that? Here’s a guess: It’s a long transition. He’s in the safety of his memories, his family, his bedroom. And then he dresses to remove himself from all of that, to go to where he knows the wolves are. That long sentence is like the wavy effect in old movies and TV shows when a character is slipping into a dream. This is a coming-of-age story, so moving from safety to danger fits, and this little vignette, as it turns out, is a type for the whole story. So that’s my guess. Transition.
He uses varied sentences to build tension. There are short sentences: “He was very cold. He waited. It was very still…” followed by long ones: “He could see by his breath how the wind lay and he watched his breath appear and vanish and appear and vanish constantly before him in the cold and he waited a long time.” This kind of rhythm keeps the reader just off balance but leaning forward and into the writing.
He uses repetition to build tension. In the last paragraph, he has the wolves dancing and then dance, loping and loping, running and running. But it’s more than just repeating a word or phrase. He’s returning and repeating obliquely, recursively, the way a musical motif is repeated in a variation. Repeated but not the same. The effect — as in that passage of the wolves dancing through the snow — is not a linear repetition but one of a drama spiraling upward to a climax.
He withholds the climax to build tension. The loping, dancing wolves move away, and there’s a let down for the reader while Boyd waits in the cold. And then the wolves are back and there’s that moment of recognition between them and him, and when they leave again it’s a different kind of leaving. It has a sense of resolution to it.
So that’s what I see. A long transition. A lot of tension. And I’m sure more than that lies beyond my ability to see it.
I have a love/hate relationship with McCarthy. Depending on my outlook, reading him can make me want to drop everything and start writing another book right now. But on a different day, a cloudy one maybe, it humbles me and makes me sigh and say “what’s the point?”