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Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses

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 (1992).  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 gleened from the pulled 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 puncuation, 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.

12 thoughts on “Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses

  1. WORDWYTCH says:

    I had the same problem with “Blood Meridian” and its violence but struggled through it anyway, no worse for the wear. It was my first McCarthy book and since then I have finished the Border Trilogy and The Road. These are definitely less violent, more sparsley written. The forlorn message of the Road was depressing but worth the read.

  2. Stewart says:

    I tried this about a year or so ago and couldn’t get beyond the opening pages. Granted, it was my first experience of McCarthy and I just couldn’t get into it at all, even after repeated readings.

    Then The Road came along, and I devoured that, enthralled throughout, if disappointed by the conclusion. Enjoy so much, though, that, during a relaunch of his back catalogue, I bought the lot with the intention of starting to read through them soon, in the same way that I’m sporadically promising myself to work through, in chronological order, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Jim Crace, Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, and whoever else I feel like.

  3. I’ve read No Country for Old Men, happily before the movie could influence my images of it, and it is spectacularly well written and stylistically extremely sophisticated.

    He manages a rare trick of managing to jar the reader in places without jarring them out of the novel, but like Blood Meridian NCfoOM was a horrifically violent novel. Also, it was again a Western albeit one not set in the Old West.

    For me he’s a fascinating writer, I already planned to pick up All the Pretty Horses and this review further inclines me to do so.

  4. Isabel says:

    Another book that’s going to be added to my TBR pile.

  5. Max and Isabel, I think your time will be rewarded with this book. Stewart, maybe you’ll try it again? It did take me a few trips through the first chapter to get what was going on, too, but soon it flows well. Wordwytch, I’m going to give Blood Meridian another go soon. It’s been sitting there nagging me for some time.

  6. Stewart says:

    Stewart, maybe you’ll try it again?

    Oh, certainly. But it won’t be until I’ve got The Orchard Keeper through Suttree out of the way first.

  7. WORDWYTCH says:

    I think Suttree will be my next once I catch my breath with something uplifting. “A Girl Named Zippy” I think.

  8. WORDWYTCH says:

    Hillcoat’s ‘Road’ faces release problems
    Friday, October 17 2008, 00:50 BST
    By Simon Reynolds, Digital Spy Entertainment Reporter

    John Hillcoat’s drama The Road has had its release date changed after a receiving a negative reaction at a recent test screening.

    Originally penciled in for a November 26 wide release, the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been pushed back to December and could potentially be moved to 2009, says The Hollywood Reporter.

    A film fan in attendance at a focus group screening of The Road told Chud that the movie was a “complete mess”.

    They said: “It was just a complete mess… the film never pretends to be interested in its opaque story, replacing what I assume would be literary details with bleak, miserablist moments edited together randomly, none feeling like they emerged from the same film.

    “It might just be unadaptable, because after the first twenty minutes the rest of the film is a crushing bore of a foregone conclusion.”

    The Weinstein Company drama focuses on an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) making their way across a post-apocalyptic landscape.

    The Reader, another Weinstein Company drama, has also faced problems in post-production. The film was put on a rushed release schedule by Harvey Weinstein, prompting producer Scott Rudin to exit the project.

  9. I have to say, Wordwytch, I didn’t have much faith in this film from the get-go. When I read it the first time I thought the Coen Brothers could adapt it well, and then they went ahead and did No Country for Old Men. With their visual style, they have the ability to mimic the laconic style and provide incredible depth. They could match the control McCarthy exercises. Most – and it looks like this is the situation here – mistakenly overdo the atmosphere, going for spectacle rather than feel. Hmmm, should be interesting to see if it comes together in the end!

    On a related note, I never watched Billy Bob’s adaptation of this book. Don’t plan on it either.

  10. KevinfromCanada says:

    While I thoroughly enjoyed this book when I read it, I’ll admit — as a Western North American resident — I thought it was over-praised at the time. There is no doubt that McCarthy is good but I do think both Stegner and Guy Vanderhaghe do a better job with similiar themes.

    I was interested enough to read both The Crossing and Cities of the Plain and can only report that, in my opinion, the trilogy goes downhill from the opening book.

  11. I have heard similar things about the trilogy being anti-climactic if not an outright disappointment after All the Pretty Horses, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be avoiding it for a long time, if I ever get to it. On the other note, I’ve read some Stegner, but can’t recall if I’ve ever even heard of Guy Vanderhaghe. I’ll be checking on that one!

  12. KevinfromCanada says:

    Guy is a Canadian author who lives in Saskatoon. His two best books are The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing. The first is set around the Cypress Hills massacre, with a subplot concerning 1920s Hollywood — it is probably my favorite. The second is set earlier and does concern another Western Canadian massacre. Both feature English central characters (sort of early remittance men) — both are very well done. His writing is not up to Stegner, his plots are more dramatic.

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