One of my friends sent me a note, saying, "I finished the trilogy almost a week ago and I can't stop thinking about the ending. I would love your take on the epilogue since it is all about the nature of dreams. What'd you think of the conclusion of the Trilogy?"
Here's part of my response:
Like you said, the epilogue to Cities of the Plain is really the epilogue to the entire Border Trilogy. There readers are justified in detecting the central importance of dreams in the three novels. I think Boyd's discussion with the vagabond articulates some of the elements that were present or under the surface during all three stories.
The epilogue is interesting because the reader is not entirely sure what is going on. The story being told, the dreams being dreamt, and the dialogue that is taking place all interconnect at various places. The result is that the lengthy sequence is a web of narrative threads. The dreamer starts recounting a dream that a person in his dream has. And, as Billy acknowledges, "A dream inside a dream might not be a dream" (273). We might even need to consider that Billy, an aged vagabond himself, might be dreaming the conversation he is having with the old man.
Billy is at the end of his life and from this vantage point he attempts to make sense of it. From his perspective, "in everything he'd ever thought about the world and about his life in it he'd been wrong" (266). It is in dreams where "two worlds touch," even though "there are no crossroads" and "decisions do not have some alternative." Billy's life is what it is, and that is one of the reasons he dreams.
The man tells Billy that dreams are "acts driven by a terrible hunger." Dreams are a mechanism that seeks to "meet a need which they can never satisfy." I think this is part of the human drive to make sense of the brutality of life. That seems to be a constant theme in all of McCarthy's work.
Though Billy is convinced that everything in his life has "been wrong," his "gnarled, ropescarred" hands tell a different story. His battered hands that have been through so much are bound by "ropy veins" to "his heart." And in this path "there was map enough for men to read," enough for God to "make a landscape. To make a world" (291). Though Billy thinks he "aint nothing" and doesn't know why a random kind woman would "put up with [him]," she assures him, "I know who you are. And I do know why."
Then, significantly, she bids him sleep. I think the interpersonal communication here is interesting. The epilogue is all about how dreams are the escape, and how dreams are the way one finds peace (by escaping the cruel reality of the world); however, it is the kindness of another human being that ultimately allows Billy to find rest at the end of his life. He can rest (and dream), for someone will see him in the morning.
Perhaps this is where Billy finally gets the redemption that he looked for in vain, as he sat at the end of The Crossing watching the Atomic Bomb blow up, waiting for the sun to rise.
On page one of the Border Trilogy, John Grady Cole looks at his grandfather and thinks, "That was not sleeping," and on the last page of the Trilogy, Billy is encouraged, "You go to sleep now." As Edwin Arnold notes, "The visionary experience that is the Border Trilogy comes between, and it offers us a different way of seeing the world(s), of finding our place therein."
Arnold also makes a helpful summary reflection, commenting that "it may be that all of Cormac McCarthy's writings constitute a prolonged dream. Reading McCarthy's works--any one of them--is an experience not quite real."