As the National Book Award longlist is being announced today, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight one of my favorite past winners: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I have still read only two other books by McCarthy: The Road and No Country for Old Men. I have started and stopped Blood Meridian, considered by many to be his masterpiece and one of the great American novels, because I haven’t found a way to get over the violence in that book. I read from Harold Bloom that he had the same problem, but that it is one of his favorites. However, from what I’ve read, though I enjoyed The Road immensely, I think my favorite must be this one.
Here is the first beautiful paragraph, a great place to start the review, I think:
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm was pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed mustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.
Introduced above is sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole and his dead maternal grandfather, the last of the Grady line, which is also “dimly” introduced. With this death, John is basically dispossessed of the ranch because his mother has left to join a theater and his father has nothing to do with the place. Not really knowing where to go or what to do, he takes off with his best friend Lacey Rawlins to cross from Texas to Mexico.
Thus, All the Pretty Horses becomes one of the great “wanderer” books, where the character and the plot goes from place to place, from person to person, deepening on a philosophical level all the while. On the way to Mexico, John and Rawlins meet with Jimmy Blevins, a fourteen-year-old sharpshooter, who speaks like a man, but we know better. Strangely, that is one of the most profound parts of the book for me: these three children have believable conversations about life and death and love. Somehow what they say sounds more reliable and genuine than what I read in other books from more mature characters.
Some of this depth is definitely due to McCarthy’s prose. I’m not usually a fan of long running sentences because it usually feels like the writer is calling attention to himself rather than to the character. But when it’s done with skill it is powerful, deepening the texture of the story. The following passage illuminates the contrasting style and texture in two consecutive paragraphs.
That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers our of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their mains and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.
In the morning two guards came and opened the door and handcuffed Rawlins and led him away. John Grady stood and asked where they were taking him but they didnt answer. Rawlins didnt even look back.
Along the way around the novel, John Grady Cole falls in love with the daughter of a rich Mexican rancher. Where some authors would perhaps center the novel around this event, McCarthy presents it as an important event that resonates with John through the rest of the book but that doesn’t become McCarthy’s focus as well. However, the encounters are excellently construed and resonate with the reader as well. Here’s another chance to show off a bit of McCarthy’s interesting prose. Once again, I can only say that the stylistic tricks don’t feel like tricks to me but rather serve to give the book texture that is rare today, though many try:
She paused midway to look back. Standing there trembling in the water and not from the cold for there was none. Do not speak to her. Do not call. When she reached him he held out his hand and she took it. She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in a darkened wood. That burned cold. Like the moon that burned cold. Her black hair floating on the water about her, falling and floating on the water. She put her other arm about his shoulder and looked toward the moon in the west do not speak to her do not call and then she turned her face up to him.
One of the many fascinating aspects of the book that I want to mention is that the story takes place in 1949, which hardly seems possible given the setting and the violence which tempted me to place the story much earlier in, say, the 1860s. However, from what I’ve heard, the setting and events is not anachronistic, making this book quite a learning experience for me, bringing the old American West with its violence and life much closer to home. That said, one shouldn’t shy away from this book because it is a Western. It is a great piece of literature that just happens to take place in a setting similar to any American Western. The true pearls in the text are how McCarthy uses this setting to ruminate on deeper, universal themes.
On another note, this book is the first of the “Border Trilogy” and you can see in the first paragraph of this review that I haven’t read the other two, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Nor do I have a strong desire to read them just yet. To me All the Pretty Horses was complete. Sure, I’m interested to know where the young man goes next, but for now I’m enjoying the idea that his wanderings continue. It’s hard to imagine it getting better.
You may have gleaned from the pull-quotes above that this is not the type of book that would have impressed this year’s judges for the Booker Prize. After all, I had to read the first paragraph several times before I knew what was going on, and even then I still had no idea who “he” was for quite a while. McCarthy doesn’t use much punctuation, instead relying on his experience as a master revisionist to help him get sentences to the point where they don’t need punctuation to be understandable. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. That doesn’t mean it’s accessible to those who are just looking to breeze through a book. But the work pays off, as it always does with the best pieces of literature. We see that a master craftsman carefully weighed his or her options when deciding how to piece together a book in such a way to affect a thoughtful reader. And believe it or not, because the prose is still so natural, when one gets into the story it flows smoothly.
Here’s hoping that the National Book Award can find and honor such a book again this year.