May 22, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Throughout much of his career, Cormac McCarthy has been the kind of novelist lionized for his genius by graduate writing programs, but little known to the reading public. All that changed with the 1992 publication of All the Pretty Horses, the first volume of McCarthy’s ”Border Trilogy.”

Spare and almost allegorical in its storytelling, All the Pretty Horses combined intensely lyrical prose with the laconic wit of its cowboy protagonists. The result was a kind of Huckleberry Finn on horseback: the tragicomic journey of three wisecracking Texas teenagers into the Mexican outback, fleeing the encroachments of paved roads and barbed wire in search of adventure and romance. The novel won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and became an instant classic. (It’s also set to be filmed, with Matt Damon in the leading role.) Darker in tone, its sequel, The Crossing, sent two young brothers on a quest that plunged them into the bloody maelstrom of Mexican politics. With Cities of the Plain, McCarthy brings the series to a triumphant conclusion.

The time is 1952, the place a cattle ranch in New Mexico. Chastened but not defeated by their youthful misadventures, John Grady Cole of All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham of The Crossing have become blood brothers of a sort, clinging stubbornly to a vanishing way of life. With the U.S. Army proposing to turn their employer’s ranch into a military base, the two fantasize about owning a little spread in the mountains, where they might run a few cattle and hunt their own meat. But then John Grady falls in love with a teenage prostitute in a fancy brothel across the Rio Grande. ”There’s a son of a bitch owns her outright that I guarangoddamntee you will kill you graveyard dead if you mess with him,” Billy warns him. ”Son, aint there no girls on this side of the damn river?”

Alas, for John Grady there are not. His stubborn idealism sets in motion a chain of events as raw and emotionally shattering as they are inevitable. Combining McCarthy’s somberly romantic vision and near-mesmerizing style, ”The Border Trilogy” comprises a body of work as compelling as any in recent American fiction. A

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