What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Knife-Fight / Tire-Change: The Elegiac Impulse in Cormac McCarthy's "Cities of the Plain"

The most memorable scene in Cormac McCarthy’s great Cities of the Plain is, without a doubt, the blood-soaked knife fight between Eduardo and John Grady Cole. Joyce Carol Oates describes it as “a brilliantly choreographed knife-fight sequence … stylized and ritualistic as a Japanese Noh play” (“In Rough Country 1: Cormac McCarthy,” In Rough Country, 2010). If you choose to understand Cities of the Plain solely in terms of its violence, you’ll likely focus on the knife fight. But if you’re more inclined, as I am, to interpret McCarthy’s novel as an elegy for a vanishing way of life, you may want to consider some of the book’s less dramatic passages.

One such scene is the tire-change: Billy and Troy are in a pick-up, driving through the desert night, heading back to the ranch. They meet “a truckload of Mexicans pulled off onto the grass. They stood almost into the road waving their hats.” Billy drives past them. But then he stops. Against Troy’s objections (“You’re fixin to get us in a jackpot here we won’t get home till daylight”), Billy puts the truck in reverse and backs down the highway to the Mexicans’ location. The Mexicans’ truck has a flat tire. Billy speaks to the Mexicans in Spanish. They need a jack. Billy loans them one from the back of his truck. The Mexicans jack up the front end of their truck. “They had two spares and neither of them would hold air. They spelled each other at the antique tirepump. Finally they raised up and looked at Billy.” Billy gets his tire tools, patch kit, and flashlight from his truck. He removes the inner tube from one of the spares, patches it, puts it back inside the spare, and laboriously pumps it up. When it’s fully inflated, the Mexicans install it on the truck.

My rough summary of the tire-change makes it seem mundane and ordinary – hardly worth bothering with, you’d think. Most writers probably wouldn’t even mention such a routine matter. If they did mention it, they’d likely just sketch it, in a line or two, and quickly move on. But McCarthy lingers over the scene, lavishing more than a thousand exact, luminous words on its description, detailing everything from the inner tube (“The innertube that he snaked out of the tire’s inner cavity was made of red rubber and there was a whole plague of patches upon it”) to the wrench (“made from a socket welded onto a length of heavy pipe”). The precision and vividness of his imagery are amazing! Consider this extraordinary passage, for example:

Billy took the stub of chalk from the patchkit and circled the leaks in the tube and they unscrewed the valvestem from the valve and sat on the tubes and then walked it down till it was dead flat. Then they sat in the road with the white line running past their elbows and the gaudy desert night overhead, the myriad constellations moving upon the blackness subtly as sealife, and they worked with the dull red shape of rubber in their laps, squatting like tailors or menders of nets. They scuffed the rubber with the little tin grater stamped into the lid of the kit and they laid on the patches and fired them with a match one by one till all were fused and all were done. When they had the tube pumped up again they sat in the road in the quiet desert and listened.

That image of the men sitting in the road “with the white line running past their elbows and the gaudy desert night overhead, the myriad constellations moving upon the blackness subtly as sealife” is very fine.

Why does McCarthy concentrate the full force of his immense descriptive power on something as tedious as a tire-change? My theory is that McCarthy deeply admires the craftsmanship of Billy’s work. He wants us to appreciate it, too, because he sees it as an aspect of a way of life that’s rapidly disappearing. That’s why he describes it so precisely, in such scrupulous detail. He sees cowboys like John Grady Cole and Billy Parham as craftsmen and, as such, endangered species that modernization is rapidly wiping out. Note, in the above quotation, McCarthy’s reference to two other types of craftsmen, namely, tailors and menders of nets (“they worked with the dull red shape of rubber in their laps, squatting like tailors or menders of nets”). And note the careful detail of another work-related scene that McCarthy describes later in the novel:

He waited until the calf had bucked itself into a clear space among the creosote and then he put the horse forward at a gallop. He paid the slack rope over the horse’s head and overtook the calf on its off side. The calf went trotting. The rope ran from its neck along the ground on the near side and trailed in a curve behind its legs and ran forward up the off side following the horse. John Grady checked his dally and then stood in one stirrup and cleared his other leg of the trailing rope. When the rope snapped taut it jerked the calf’s head backward and snatched its hind legs from under it. The calf turned endwise in the air and slammed to the ground in a cloud of dust and lay there.

This is skillful, specialized ranch work that’s been closely observed and precisely rendered. The writing enacts the craftsmanship of the work it describes.

My “craftsman” interpretation is one way of considering the tire-change scene, but not the only one. The New Yorker’s brief review of Cities of the Plain suggests another approach. The anonymous reviewer writes:

This tragic last volume of the Border Trilogy sees the American West enter the modern world, as the cowboy John Grady looks down from a rock bluff at the city lights “strewn across the desert floor like a tiara laid out upon a jeweller’s blackcloth.”

McCarthy’s language carries a brooding, evolutionary sense of time and labor – in his hands the changing of a tire on an old truck becomes a mythic deed.

The weight of history rests on the shoulders of John Grady, too, and he’s doomed to learn that “when things are gone they’re gone. They ain’t comin back.”
[“Briefly Noted,” The New Yorker, August 10, 1998]

This is an excellent description of Cities of the Plain, distilling the book’s elegiac theme into three swift paragraphs. But I’m perplexed by that second paragraph. In what way is the tire-change mythic? James Wood, in his stimulating “Red Planet” (The New Yorker, July 5, 2005), a review of McCarthy’s work, says that “McCarthy’s novels are deeply engaged with founding American myths, in particular those of regeneration through violence, Southern pastoral, the figure of the sacred hunter, and the frontiersman’s conquest of the endless Western spaces.” None of these myths appear to apply to the tire-changing scene. In my opinion, when McCarthy wrote the scene, he was not mythologizing. He was memorializing an instance of Billy’s craft of experience in action. Joyce Carol Oates, in her “In Rough Country 1: Cormac McCarthy,” says that the Border novels (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain) are “elegies to a vanishing, or vanished frontier world.” I submit that the tire-change scene is best understood as an aspect of that elegiac impulse.

Credit: The above portrait of Cormac McCarthy is by David Levine.

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