Fire and Brimstone: McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain

Here of late, I’ve been thinking about Cormac McCarthy’s novels and, since one of the goals of this blog is to keep me in the habit of writing daily, I’m going to post periodic reviews of literature. Below is a review of the last novel in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.

Cormac McCarthy’s 1999 novel Cities of the Plain is set in the El Paso/Juarez border region and serves as the final novel of his Border Trilogy. The title, a reference to the two contemporary cities, also alludes to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah: two cities whose Judeo-Christian symbolic meaning has overwhelmed any historical reality.

Arie Nissenbaum, in his article “Sodom, Gomorrah and Other Lost Cities of the Plain: A Climactic Perspective,” tells us the “Bible emphasizes the agricultural richness of the Jordan plain prior to the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah and its catastrophic transformation into a wasteland. Thus, stripped of ethical and religious overtones, the scenario is that of a rapid climatic change that converted a densely inhabited and richly watered area into an infertile salt playa.” Likewise, we know from geologist Dr. W.C. Cornell that the area around El Paso, TX/Juarez, Mexico was “Similar to those seen in modern beach systems such as the Texas Gulf near Padre Island. This quiet scene ended abruptly about 1.1 BY ago by an extended period of geologic disruption and violence . . . [that] included pyroclastic ash-flow tuffs (the sort of eruption that destroyed the ancient city of Pompeii in 79 AD) as well as numerous lava flows.

But that’s a story only a geologist could love. It’s far more interesting to move beyond the rocks and ask how those geological changes impact the myth and culture that grows up around the lava and ash. If you haven’t read Genesis 12 through 19 lately, take a few minutes to dig the old King James out of the closet and refresh your memory. It’s a story that seems tailor-made for daytime television: God tells Abram to leave his country and “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). Abram and Sarai pack up the tents, grab the slaves, get Lot on the way out of town, and head for Canaan. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I always picture the Beverly Hillbillies loading up the truck. Lot’s driving, Sarai is sitting in the rocking chair strapped to the truck bed, and Abram’s riding along giving directions. (Hagar must be Ellie Mae I guess?) Among the many possible readings of this story, we must note that sex and reproduction are commodities in this early biblical world. The womb is a tool for nation building. We see this later in Genesis when God promises Abram an heir. It’s not just about leaving the tents and animals to a blood relative: nations require people and unlike God, we can’t just fashion them out of the clay of the earth.

When the Lord visits Abraham (newly named and now circumcised—at 90!), Abe rushes out to fulfill the established rules of hospitality, offering to “wash your feet . . . and bring a little bread” (18:4-5). We don’t want to miss the importance throughout the story regarding the rules of hospitality as they relate to the early biblical story and to the later dictates of Christ in the Bible. When the stranger knocks, Jesus tells us to let him enter. Once he does, his protection is guaranteed. Hence, when the two angels enter Sodom and Lot invites them in to his house, he is offering hospitality. Good thing, too, because the “men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them’” (19:4-5). Lot, mindful of his obligations offers his “two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (19:8). (For a parallel story, by the way, read Judges 19 where we read virtually the same plot.) It’s important to recognize the focus of this story is not the homosexuality, but the city’s disregard for the protection and sanctity of hospitality. Throughout this early story, God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a new nation and we see example after example of how the old nation is divided and unruly. Reproduction and hospitality are political issues here.

So where does McCarthy’s novel enter the picture and how are his cities of the plain (El Paso and Juarez) connected to Sodom and Gomorrah? We must remember that All the Pretty Horses ends with John Grady riding into the sunset, a man without a country. Ordained by no god, he still fashions himself as a man searching to replace a lost world. He is, for all intents and purposes (and with apologies to Jane Kramer), the last cowboy. But he doesn’t want to be. John Grady Cole wants to nest, create a home, and, presumably, start a family that might last. Like Abraham, John Grady sets out to start a new country, to find a place where he can exist and follow his own religion and his own set of morals. He looks in all the wrong places, though. In Cities of the Plain, he locates himself in the right economic strata, but searches for love, and presumably fertility to populate this new country, in a whore house. At its heart, the problem with prostitution is the same as the problem with sodomy: both are sexual acts that don’t reproduce. The immorality or unnaturalness of the act is rooted in the need for reproduction as a tool to build nations, something we see the Genesis story. On a larger scale, this final novel of the Border Trilogy signals the end of two houses: Cole and Parham never reproduce. Abraham gives birth to the nation of Israel, and, eventually, paves the way for Jesus to offer salvation. John Grady Cole, a type of Christ figure according to some critics and readers, fails to offer any salvation.

The Sodom and Gomorrah story isn’t just about the citizens’ desire to sodomize the visiting men. Remember that Lot offers his two daughters to the men to avoid breaking the rules of hospitality. The desire to engage in sex that fails to reproduce creates sterile and empty bonds. In addition to re-reading the bible, we might be well-served if we read T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as we look at McCarthy’s novel. Eliot’s poem ends as we read about

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,

In the poem, the rain is coming. The fisher king has arrived and Eliot gives us the clues to overcome the sterility and emptiness we’ve seen in the modern world. We’ve looked at the carbuncular young man through Tiresias’s eyes and seen the empty sexual encounters. London, Eliot seems to imply, is headed down the path of Sodom and Gomorrah. Characters have sex for the sake of sex. They lose sight of humanity, living in angst and despair. John Grady Cole has found his empty chapel with no windows and he sets out to replace them, creating a home for him and Magdalena. But the venture is doomed from the start. The two cities on the plain, El Paso and Juarez, are so filled with degradation and waste, driven by their inherent disregard for reproductive law, that John Grady’s faith is not rewarded. Lot’s wife is turned to salt. Magdalena is murdered and left on a slab at the morgue. John Grady’s faith is misplaced. His chapel won’t receive the quenching rain: it will revert back to an empty, windowless cabin.

In McCarthy’s world, God doesn’t rain down fire and sulphur, but the land is part of the military industrial complex taking over the southwest. Already dry and desiccated by drought, the military is bombing and buying. Like Magdalena, the land has become a commodity bought and sold by men in the 20th century. The death of the American cowboy wasn’t some cataclysmic event or seismic shift of tectonic plates in McCarthy’s novel; rather, the culture shifts. Like Eliot and the early modernists, McCarthy fashions a world where people are trapped in relationships without love, forced apart by religious ideas reinterpreted into a social reality willing to create its own fire and brimstone. John Grady dies not because he loves, but because he tries to love outside the acceptable cultural norm, a norm deeply rooted in a mythical mis-reading of an ancient text.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Fire and Brimstone: McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain

  1. nicky301 says:

    Very refreshing to read an academic discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah that does not get bogged down in irrelevancies…the cultural backdrop is a crucial and inescapable part of correctly interpreting the intent of God (acting through His authors) in all of Scripture. A well-written and well-reasoned piece, thank you! (Have not read any of McCarthy’s work, my non-biblical reading tends more toward fantasy/sci-fi/horror – I do love me some trashy fiction!)

  2. Interestingly, I can’t see much biblical about the border trilogy. My impression of John Grady and Billy is that they are a bit Quixotic, or more likely medieval knights misplaced in the American 20th century. The parallels between Magdalena and the wolf, for example, are more about fighting for a lost cause no matter what the cost (without any help from God). The code of honor that Cormac’s cowboys live and die by is (IMHO) far more noble than that of the biblical patriarchs’ erratic tribalism. Abraham’s attempt to offer his only son Isaac as a human sacrifice, for instance, would be diagnosed today as paranoid schizophrenia, while Jephthah’s daughter meets the same grisly fate as Iphigenia. As a parallel to Billy Parham, there’s Job or maybe Odysseus.

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