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Traveling Through Time and Space

Blast San Francisco Bureau

All spring I entertained various fantasies about summer travel. Japan. Thailand. Uganda. That's one of the main advantages of being a teacher, 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 of travel -- I read a couple of novels. Much cheaper than getting on a real 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," the second novel in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). Never heard of it? How about "All the Pretty Horses"? That's the first 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 the border and gets in more trouble than he ever imagined existed.

Although it's not obvious until pretty far along in the story, the time is 1940, 1941. Billy is 16 or 17 years old and lives with his parents and 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 from Mexico. Having engaged in a battle of wits with the wolf for weeks, Billy finds he can't shoot her like he's supposed to. Instead, he gets a rope around her neck and a heavy piece of tree limb tied into her mouth and heads off on horseback to Mexico to return her to her home. Afraid that his parents will stop him if they know what he's up to, he doesn't tell them where he's going.

So far, despite the obvious potential for a bestiality subplot, we've got a Walt Disney story going here. Boy befriends noble wolf and risks all to make her happy. But they aren't in Mexico long before the tale becomes more like Dante's "Inferno." Some mean Mexicans confiscate the wolf to feature in their Saturday night dog fights. Billy doesn't take this lying down, but the subsequent events so devastate him that he spends the next weeks or months riding aimlessly through the mountains of northern Mexico.

Eventually a long talk with a renegade priest in a deserted village gets Billy to ride back across the border to home, where he encounters more unimaginable evil, also perpetuated by Mexicans. The rest of the novel describes two more journeys to Mexico, one with his younger brother and one by himself, both of which continue Billy's descent into hell. When we leave him at the end of the novel he's been wandering around on his horse for years, encountering sadness as intense as anything going on in the various battlefields of World War II, which Billy's heart murmur has kept 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 case, although the contrast of Mexican and North American culture is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel, along with McCarthy's (melo)dramatic writing. Billy encounters kind and wise Mexicans as well as evil ones, and, all in all, Mexican culture comes off much richer than its Yankee neighbor. Conversations among North Americans barely transcend the grunt stage, while Mexicans discourse sagely on a wide range of topics.

Truth becomes a central theme in the comparison of cultures. For Americans, truth is an absolute, a simple fact that can be known if one searches hard enough. A piece of paper says a horse belongs to a man, so 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 of paper somewhere else that says something entirely different. Right now the horse belongs to whoever has the most buddies to back up his claim. Maybe tomorrow it will belong to someone else. One should not depend too heavily on logic; one should not desire too much order in life.

While the Mexican characters seemed much more interesting people than the North Americans, I found myself, visiting from north of the border along with Billy, feeling that the North Americans were generally right. How 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 is way out in front of most everyone else in the world. But Billy is the one 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 success, but we don't handle disappointment very well.

Coincidentally, the other novel I picked up off the bargain table in the bookstore is set only a few years later and a few hundred miles north of "The Crossing." Robert Olen Butler's "Countrymen of Bones" (originally 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 long enough to fall in love. Unfortunately for them, the target of each of their affections is the same woman.

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 physicist working 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 at Darrell's burial site. Seems the bomb-makers have set up their test tower 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. The 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 time the non-American party doesn't have the benefit of speech. Darrell has to 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 work for personal relationships. He ascribes this faulty judgment to issues about control and fearing the lack thereof. The birth of the atom bomb gives him good material for a dramatic resolution of the plot, but the guy who gets the girl doesn't seem to succeed by transcending his power 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 in worse shape than Billy, who is crying on the highway a few miles south. And the Mexicans would know that the guy who did get the girl was just luckier that day.