"The Crossing" is a novel much like the land it describes. Set in New Mexico and northern Mexico in the early 1940s, Cormac McCarthy's story has a vast and bleak majesty.

It portrays the American West with a clarity sharp enough to cut the reader's eye. This sequel to the award-winning "All the Pretty Horses" is the second part of McCarthy's "Border Trilogy"; and while that first book is a tough act to follow, "The Crossing" is up to the task.The story begins in New Mexico, where young Billy Parham and his father are searching for a wolf that has been feeding on their cattle. The only wolf-trapper in the area has departed for climes unknown, so they make do with the traps found in his abandoned house and with advice from one of his dying contemporaries, Don Arnulfo: "The wolf is a being of great order and it knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there."

In describing the search for the wolf, McCarthy is at his best, using a spare and rhythmic language. "The traps leapt mightily. The iron clang of the jaws slamming shut echoed in the cold. You could see nothing of their movement. Now the jaws were open. Now they were closed." Billy captures the wolf and, for reasons not entirely clear to himself, sets out to free it in the wilds of Mexico. There, Arnulfo's words take on a greater resonance, a resonance that one hears throughout the book.

A much-changed Billy returns from his travels only to find that death has touched his home as well. Here, the novel - up to this point a complete and beautifully constructed novella - starts anew. Billy finds his brother Boyd and together they head into Mexico to reclaim their patrimony. They meet with mixed success, and the journey ages both of them far beyond their years. Boyd is described as "14 going on some age that never was," and this could be said of all the denizens of McCarthy's harsh world.

Billy returns to America alone, but he eventually sets out for Mexico again, this time to find his brother. In the hands of a lesser author, Billy's third border crossing would seem repetitive, but McCarthy skillfully uses this repetition to add to the force of a central theme: Each time Billy enters Mexico it is out of a strong urge to impose order on his life, but each time, death interferes.

McCarthy's protagonist embodies so much of what we find laudable in a person, yet, in the end, his efforts to shape his life come to naught. As one man says to Billy, "If people knew the story of their lives, how many would then elect to live them?" Death is forever inscrutable, and the only surety seems to be the wreckage it leaves in its wake.

This is a moving book and one that will stand as a definitive portrait of the American West.