Brightening Western Star

CORMAC MCCARTHY'S FANS DIVIDE into two camps. The first and much smaller group fell for McCarthy years ago, when he was writing Southern Gothic novels distinguished by creepy plots full of necrophilia and incest, told in prose so rich it could rot your teeth. The second set of customers came along with the publication in 1992 of ""All the Pretty Horses.'' That novel, full of cowboys and horses, had its hair-raising moments, but it is nowhere near as nerve-racking as the rest of McCarthy's work. Ironically, this anomalous work made McCarthy a literary star. Launched by an enthusiastic promotion campaign by his new publisher, Knopf, ""All the Pretty Horses'' sold 180,000 copies in hardcover and 300,000 in paperback. The movie rights went to Mike Nichols for a six-figure advance. Winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, the novel was the first installment of what McCarthy calls ""The Border Trilogy.'' Now comes the second volume, The Crossing (426 pages. Knopf. $23), with a first printing of 200,000 copies, an enormous initial print run -- perhaps the largest ever -- of a purely literary book. Plainly Knopf hopes to lure all of McCarthy's new fans back for second helpings. If they come, they're in for a big surprise.

Superficially, ""The Crossing'' is a rewrite of ""All the Pretty Horses.'' The period is still mid-20th century, although the second book takes place a few years before the first (and none of the first book's characters reappears). Again, two teenagers on horseback travel from the American Southwest into Mexico. There they pursue violent and vivid adventure. And there the comparisons stop. Where the first book was -- by McCarthy's standards -- an almost bucolic romance, a hymn to the pluck of youth and the allure of the Western landscape, the second remorselessly chronicles a boy's journey from youth to bitter experience.

McCarthy's hero, Billy Parham, makes three forays into Mexico. His first is an ill-fated attempt to return a wolf to her mountain home. When he goes back to his family's ranch in New Mexico he finds that thieves have murdered his parents and stolen their horses. Accompanied by his younger brother, Boyd, he goes back to Mexico to retrieve the herd. On his third journey he goes looking for Boyd, who has run off with a Mexican girl. Hardheaded and determined, Billy proves a gritty hero, but the tough lesson of ""The Crossing'' is that gumption, though admirable, is not sufficient to carry the day. At every step of his journeying, Billy loses something he loves -- horses, kin, even his way of life. In the end, ""he seemed to himself a person with no prior life. As if he had died in some way years ago and was ever after some other being who had no history, who had no ponderable life to come.'' Where ""All the Pretty Horses'' was about the making of a man, ""The Crossing'' chronicles the making of a ghost.

McCarthy's longtime fans will feel more at home in ""The Crossing'' (just as they must have felt discomfited in the almost sunny confines of ""All the Pretty Horses''). McCarthy once again cleaves to his vision of the world as a place where evil is as common as dirt while goodness is only an ideal, something to be sought after. But onto this iron core, McCarthy welds the tenderness, the affection for his characters that he seemed to discover for the first time in ""All the Pretty Horses.'' So, while this is not a happy story, it is an always emotionally satisfying tale. And beautifully wrought: the first long chapter alone, describing Billy's adventures with the wolf, could stand as a novella worthy of comparison with Faulkner's ""The Bear'' and Katherine Anne Porter's ""Noon Wine.''

Though he is a master prose stylist -- he speaks of a tarantula's ""measured octave tread'' and a villain's eyes ""like lead slag poured into borings to seal away something virulent or predacious'' -- McCarthy is best appreciated for his utter unpredictability. Concurrently with the appearance of ""The Crossing,'' for example, Ecco Press is publishing McCarthy's only play, ""The Stonemason,'' which centers on, of all things, the domestic troubles of a middle-class black family in Louisville, Ky., in the '70s.

A writer of such vaulting ambition is bound to stumble now and then. McCarthy's predilection for opaque philosophizing periodically stops the narrative cold, and his ear for dialogue, fine as it is, is not flawless. More than once the Parham boys sound like Hoss and Little Joe chewing the fat on the Ponderosa. But these are piddling misdemeanors. McCarthy has proved beyond a doubt that he can take a hackneyed genre, the cowboy novel, and elevate it to the level of literature. No writer now working elicits greater pleasure in his readers or prompts keener anticipation for what he'll do next.