Traveling Through Time and Space
By PETE HAMMER
Blast San Francisco Bureau
All spring I entertained various fantasies about summer travel.
Thailand. Uganda. That's one of the main advantages of being a
after all. Ten weeks of summer vacation. Dream job.
By June, however, reality struck. Teachers don't earn shit for money,
remember? A good summer is when I don't have to work summer school to
make the mortgage payment. So I resorted to the old fashioned method
travel -- I read a couple of novels. Much cheaper than getting on a
airplane. And you get to travel in time as well as space.
My first trip was to the U.S.-Mexico border area via "The Crossing,"
second novel in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy (Alfred A. Knopf,
Never heard of it? How about "All the Pretty Horses"? That's the
volume. It got a lot of press when it came out a few years ago. "The
Crossing" is a similar tale of a young U.S. cowboy who rides south of
border and gets in more trouble than he ever imagined existed.
Although it's not obvious until pretty far along in the story, the
is 1940, 1941. Billy is 16 or 17 years old and lives with his parents
younger brother on a cattle ranch in southern New Mexico. The first
section of the novel is a beautiful story of how Billy traps a female
wolf who's been dining off the family's cattle after wandering up
Mexico. Having engaged in a battle of wits with the wolf for weeks,
finds he can't shoot her like he's supposed to. Instead, he gets a
around her neck and a heavy piece of tree limb tied into her mouth
heads off on horseback to Mexico to return her to her home. Afraid
his parents will stop him if they know what he's up to, he doesn't
them where he's going.
So far, despite the obvious potential for a bestiality subplot, we've
a Walt Disney story going here. Boy befriends noble wolf and risks all
make her happy. But they aren't in Mexico long before the tale
more like Dante's "Inferno." Some mean Mexicans confiscate the wolf
feature in their Saturday night dog fights. Billy doesn't take this
down, but the subsequent events so devastate him that he spends the
weeks or months riding aimlessly through the mountains of northern
Eventually a long talk with a renegade priest in a deserted village
Billy to ride back across the border to home, where he encounters
unimaginable evil, also perpetuated by Mexicans. The rest of the
describes two more journeys to Mexico, one with his younger brother
one by himself, both of which continue Billy's descent into hell. When
leave him at the end of the novel he's been wandering around on his
for years, encountering sadness as intense as anything going on in
various battlefields of World War II, which Billy's heart murmur has
him from joining.
This plot summary suggests the book may be racist toward Mexicans,
characterizing Mexico as the source of great evil. That's not the
although the contrast of Mexican and North American culture is one of
most compelling aspects of the novel, along with McCarthy's
(melo)dramatic writing. Billy encounters kind and wise Mexicans as
as evil ones, and, all in all, Mexican culture comes off much richer
its Yankee neighbor. Conversations among North Americans barely
the grunt stage, while Mexicans discourse sagely on a wide range of
Truth becomes a central theme in the comparison of cultures. For
Americans, truth is an absolute, a simple fact that can be known if
searches hard enough. A piece of paper says a horse belongs to a man,
the man takes the horse. For Mexicans, truth is infinitely flexible.
Where did that piece of paper come from? Surely there's a newer piece
paper somewhere else that says something entirely different. Right
the horse belongs to whoever has the most buddies to back up his
Maybe tomorrow it will belong to someone else. One should not depend
heavily on logic; one should not desire too much order in life.
While the Mexican characters seemed much more interesting people than
North Americans, I found myself, visiting from north of the border
with Billy, feeling that the North Americans were generally right.
can anyone accomplish anything if the truth is unknown? Isn't
our more practical take on life why we're leading the world into the
digital age instead of someone else?
Certainly, if material achievement is the standard, the United States
way out in front of most everyone else in the world. But Billy is the
lying crumpled up alone on an empty stretch of highway, emotionally
devastated, struggling to overcome to pain of his existence, when the
novel's last sunrise dawns. Our culture has generated a lot of
but we don't handle disappointment very well.
Coincidentally, the other novel I picked up off the bargain table in
bookstore is set only a few years later and a few hundred miles north
"The Crossing." Robert Olen Butler's "Countrymen of Bones"
published in 1983, I read the 1994 Henry Holt edition) tells how two
work-obsessed scientists try to pull their hearts out of their minds
enough to fall in love. Unfortunately for them, the target of each of
their affections is the same
Darrell is an archeaologist uncovering an errant Native American
burial in the New
Mexico desert. (Errant because the deceased appear to be southeast
Native Americans somehow misplaced in the southwest.) Lloyd is a
on the atom bomb project at Los Alamos. Anna is an Army clerk who
gets assigned to Lloyd's team but who also ends up working some days
Darrell's burial site. Seems the bomb-makers have set up their test
a few hundred yards from Darrell's dead Native Americans, and they
want him to
finish up and get out of there. It's not hard to see what's coming.
Spanish conquistadors got the Native Americans the first time around,
and the atom
bomb is going to obliterate even their bones.
Thus we are set up for another cultural comparison, although this
the non-American party doesn't have the benefit of speech. Darrell has
figure out what the Native Americans were thinking about, especially
when he finds
more than the usual retainers buried with the chief.
What Butler seems to be thinking about is how some men substitute
for personal relationships. He ascribes this faulty judgment to
about control and fearing the lack thereof. The birth of the atom
gives him good material for a dramatic resolution of the plot, but
guy who gets the girl doesn't seem to succeed by transcending his
hang-up. The girl just liked him better, and it's not like she had a
whole lot of good choices. The guy who doesn't get the girl ends up
worse shape than Billy, who is crying on the highway a few miles
And the Mexicans would know that the guy who did get the girl was
luckier that day.