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Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing

Updated on October 28, 2015

The Crossing is the complex, labyrinthine second installment of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. It can be separated into three main sections. The first section deals with the boy Billy Parham and the wolf he traps, trusses, and takes back to Mexico to release. Once in Mexico, the wolf is confiscated from Billy and then made to fight thirty dogs, two by two. Billy ends up having to shoot the animal he’s brought such a long way just to put it out of its misery. The second section occurs after Billy returns north across the border only to find his father murdered and his family’s holding ransacked. Billy finds his little brother Boyd, and they set out back to Mexico to find the ones responsible. They find their horses one or two at a time, get in trouble with a local Jefe, and in an accident break the man’s back after startling his horse. The Jefe’s men come after them, Boyd is shot, the boys are separated, then reunited briefly while Boyd convalesces. Then Boyd runs off with a Mexican girl never to be seen by Billy again, assuming in the process the mantle of a kind of folk hero, the “Geurito”. The third section finds Billy try his hand at various work, try to join the Army, and eventually returns to Mexico to find his brother. He finds his bones in a graveyard, ties them up, and takes them back across the border. Naturally, he faces a number of obstacles along the way. In the end, he sits weeping in the middle of the road, trying to call back a mangy cur he’d moments before shooed away.


The overall themes of intention, cause, and unintended effect are fascinating to consider. Each of the first two times Billy journeys south he brings something living with him, the wolf and his brother Boyd, and both die in Mexico. Billy intended to return the wolf to its wilderness, but brought it to a terrible death. He intended to keep Boyd with him and reclaim their slim patrimony, but Boyd leaves and ultimately dies. The reversal of the original intentions of the protagonist might be best represented by the dichotomy of symbols the wolf at the beginning and the mangy dog at the end of the novel signify (McCarthy 423). Billy has an affinity for the wolf as it represents the wild of his dreams, and he tries to return it to its home and thus keep the dream of the paradisiacal frontier alive in himself. It is Billy’s need for a place where cowboys can exist that leads him to risk his life in returning the wolf, an escapist mentality resulting from his having been raised on principles whose validity were waning. It is his despair for the fenced in, tamed, suburbanized world he sees in his homeland, represented by the mangy dog “…patched up out of parts of dogs by demented vivisectionists.” (McCarthy 423), which essentially sets him off on his journey. Thus his original sentiment is to shoo the dog away. But Billy at the end of the novel has spent time, the reader imagines, pondering the consequences of his actions. The imagined life of the cowboy, which brought him to Mexico, also saw him return carrying his brother’s bones. They carried south the dream of the place, and he carried north its harsh reality alone. Thus, Billy accepts the reality he is from, and calls the mangy dog back.


A similar reversal of intended outcome occurs when the man who must travel to a neighboring village to trade leaves his son at home while he travels alone. Thinking the boy would be safer in the village than on the road, with its well-represented perils depicted throughout the book, the man could not possibly suspect that the terremoto (a severe earthquake) would strike his home town and not the town to which he travels, thus killing his son while he remains unharmed. In his grief he departs again, and after long wonderings, he returns to Mexico and gets a job as a messenger. It is at this time he is described as follows, “He had no faith in the power of men to act wisely in their own behalf. It was his view rather that every act soon eluded the grasp of its propagator to be swept away in a clamorous tide of unforeseen consequence.” (McCarthy 147). Thus believing, he comes to reside in a village within a church, the nave of which rests precariously on the perpetual verge of collapse, no longer trying to battle the design he recognizes as inescapable, no longer trying to gauge the consequences of his actions. But rather waiting for God to let the church fall on him, testing the God he sees as “…much occupied.” (McCarthy 149). Will God prevent the church falling despite his preoccupation, the reader asks? Is God just, or rather, is the system he has created just? The justice found elsewhere in the book is a justice both primitive and basic, the survival of the fittest and reality’s harsh treatment of dreamers.

Billy, in traveling across the border, entered a world he’d fantasized about but never truly experienced. The wildness of it drew him there but this wildness also came with its primitive form of justice, which made Billy pay in blood for the mistakes and presumptions he’d made in traveling there. It is a justice barely related to cause and effect, a natural justice of balance and, ultimately, death. Simply put, that all things die and once our attempts at constraining our natural urges through moral and legal systems are left behind, violence and death regain their place as the primary experiences of life. In this way, McCarthy seems to be saying that our human sentiments of justice and God’s moral laws are nonsense and that, if there is a God, his system is represented by the chaos and killing of the natural world. Our moral assertions are a fragile dream and, like Billy’s dream of the wild, are thin skeins covering the darker, true reality.

The literary criticism of criticisms

The fact is, Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant writer. Period. His chosen vein is very dark: perhaps too dark for many. But in showcasing the violent nature of the universe, McCarthy underlines the beauty and resilience of humanity.

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    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 19 months ago from SW England

      Never heard of this author, so haven't read any of his work. Always interesting to find out about different works.

    • Josiah R Johnston profile image
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      Josiah R Johnston 19 months ago from Asheville, N.C.

      You should definitely check him out: he is a brilliant descriptive writer, though he tends toward dark subject matter.

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