The life of teenager Billy Parham during the 1930s and across the Southwest of the U.S. and Mexico entrances readers of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing with a number of embedded stories along the way.

In one narrative-within-a-narrative late in section three, Billy hears a retelling of the philosophical pronouncements of a sepulturero (gravedigger, undertaker):

He said that while one would like to say that God will punish those who do such things [blinding a man in a horrible act] and that people often speak in just this way it was his experience that God could not be spoken for and that men with wicked histories often enjoyed lives of comfort and that they died in peace and were buried with honor. He said that it was a mistake to expect too much of justice in the world. He said that the notion that evil is seldom rewarded was greatly overspoken for if there were no advantage to it then men would shun it and how could virtue then be attached to its repudiation?

This second volume in the Border Trilogy, like the first volume (All the Pretty Horses), meanders often back to foundational questions about justice. The undertaker’s beliefs excerpted above end with a question that the novel leaves at the feet of readers, although other characters comment on it as well

As South Carolina has wrestled with this exact same issue in the form of a flag once flying atop the state capitol and then on state grounds as a bitter compromise, we must admit the undertaker is not cynical at all, but telling Truth.

Buildings, monuments, and statues honor our “men with wicked histories,” and as long as they do, we cannot claim any real interest in justice.