THE CROSSING By Cormac McCarthy Alfred A. Knopf 426 pp., $23. THE STONEMASON: A PLAY IN FIVE ACTS By Cormac McCarthy Ecco Press 133 pp., $19.95.
WHEN Cormac McCarthy launched his Border Trilogy two years ago with the novel ``All the Pretty Horses,'' he attained the popularity that his scattered following had always insisted he deserved.
Long saddled with the off-putting reputation of being a ``writer's writer,'' McCarthy suddenly found himself with an award-winning bestseller and an audience eager for the next installment of his three-part meditation on the decline of the Western Frontier.
With ``The Crossing,'' McCarthy has now painted the middle panel of his triptych, and it's a masterpiece. Set, like its predecessor, in the vast wasteland formed where the northern Mexican desert meets the American Southwest - ``The Crossing'' takes the reader on a twisting ride across a landscape that seems both morbidly realistic and dreamily mythic. And unlike ``All the Pretty Horses,'' which some McCarthy readers found slight, ``The Crossing'' has the bleak majesty of McCarthy's best work.
The author has managed to blow metaphysical breath into what might have been another coming-of-age novel. ``The Crossing'' elevates (but does not overburden) its young protagonist, Billy Parham, a 16-year-old living in New Mexico in the 1930s. Billy will undergo a series of journeys, repeated ``crossings'' into a land where everything and everyone he encounters drive him toward a new sense of the obligations life has placed upon him.
The first section of the book, which functions as a sort of overture encapsulating the novel's themes, takes Billy south in the company of the she-wolf he has trapped. On this initial foray Billy discovers both his own strong sense of identification with the captured wolf and the unwillingness of the world to accommodate his and the beast's wild energy. When he returns home he discovers that tragedy has struck; he and his younger brother Boyd have been abandoned to the indifferent supervision of the wilderness.
This beginning, though remarkable in itself, is only a germinal episode out of which McCarthy's grander tale emerges. When the brothers ride back into Mexico, the book becomes almost imperceptibly loftier in its tone. As Billy and Boyd's efforts to win back their family's stolen horses turn increasingly vexed and dramatic, they find themselves becoming heroes to the impoverished citizens of the world into which they've wandered.
This population - the campesinos, vaqueros, Indians, and vagabonds who cross and re-cross the brothers' path - come to seem collectively like another character in the book. The peasantry of northern Mexico, with its folkways, Gothic Catholicism, and revolutionary fervor, take on the stature of spirit helpers and adversarial demons in a medieval romance.
Many of these secondary characters are exquisitely drawn: a nihilistic old wolf-trapper handing down the secrets of savagery and death, a blind revolutionary who sees darkness as a metaphor for God, a band of gypsies hauling an airplane out of the mountains.
If this is in one sense a novel of community - specifically the fellowship of the road - it is also a tale of how our separate destinies can draw us apart. Boyd, quiet and unreflective, is content to answer the callings of love and anger. Billy, estranged even from himself, moves less deliberately, mulling over the clues and snatches of allegories tossed up in his path.
Those clues are passed to the reader by another major character: the novel's narrative voice. The omniscient consciousness that hangs over the narrative is as much the book's protagonist as Billy and his comrades. Old-fashioned, even archaic, the story unfolds in an insistent polyglot rushing of words that the reader will continue to hear long after the book is set aside.
McCarthy clearly believes that life is open ended and fragmentary, but he also believes that the unresolved mysteries that wash over his characters have some cryptic value. Billy Parham's suffering and grief, though immense, are not without purpose: ``The Crossing,'' meditates compassionately on the short and violent lives of its characters and over the enigmatic and inevitable passing of life itself.
Readers wanting a double-dose of McCarthy should take a look at ``The Stonemason,'' a newly-published drama that adds a new dimension to McCarthy's work and is surprisingly subdued and homebound by McCarthy's rambunctious standards.
The play centers on three generations of black masons in Louisville, Kentucky. Told by the grandson of the family, ``The Stonemason'' is a touching contemplation of the ethical value of craftsmanship and the dignity of work. It also shows, perhaps more strongly than any of McCarthy's writings to date, a deeply Christian sensibility, with Biblical nuances rippling across and through it. Taken with ``The Crossing,'' it opens another room in McCarthy's expanding mansion.