All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
This is a beautifully written story of broken homes, broken hearts and broken bones. It is a coming-of-age tale that vividly depicts the good, the bad and the ugly of rural life in both Texas and Mexico in the 1940’s.
John Grady Cole is a sombre sixteen year old cowboy unable to fulfill his dreams due to his mother’s loathing for her family’s ranch, and country life. John and his good friend, Rawlins, decide to head off in search of untamed land and open spaces with the hope of adventure along the way. The pair scarper one night and point their horses south towards Mexico.
On the way, they pick up a mysterious and perplexing young stray named Jimmy Blevins, who is both irritable and likeable all at once. Circumstances beyond their control cause serious problems for the youthful trio and they are separated in Mexico. Cole (who becomes just John Grady) and Rawlins end up working on a huge ranch whilst Blevins disappears, whereabouts unknown.
It is while employed on the vast Mexican spread that John meets and falls in love with the beautiful seventeen year old Alejandra, rebellious daughter of the ranch owner. What follows is a tender love story, perfectly paced and a real page turner. But yet again, both John Grady and Rawlins find themselves in serious bother not of their own making. They are eventually reacquainted with the pitiful Blevins and what happens to the three boys then is truly monstrous.
I would dearly love to write about every twist and turn of this story, but I don’t want to risk spoiling your enjoyment of such a fine book. Needless to say, it is a great read.
One point I would make is that there is a dire lack of punctuation. Perhaps McCarthy was immersed in Joyce prior to writing. In any event, it is slightly annoying at times as it stymies the flow. Yet maybe that is the point. I noticed that I had to slow down my reading speed due to the lack of apostrophes. This had the effect of cajoling me into paying greater attention to every word.
There are also numerous sentences and some small paragraphs entirely in Spanish. No hablo Espanól, therefore I found it frustrating not being able to understand every word. The general gist of the Spanish can mostly be interpreted from the English before and after. The inclusion of Spanish does add an air of authenticity to the novel and is a brave technique employed by McCarthy. There are no other criticisms that I can attach to this novel.
The Guardian newspaper has labelled All The Pretty Horses as ‘One of the greatest American novels of this or any time’. High praise indeed, and deserved. There are large swathes of text in All the Pretty Horses that are pure poetry. McCarthy’s depictions of cowboy life in that era, and the land which the boys pass through is achingly beautiful. He writes as a man who knows his subject intimately. I can only imagine that he would be a fantastic dinner guest, unless he chews tobacco and likes to spit.
I won’t tell you how it all ends, but will say that this novel was always going to be a winner with me. I’m of a certain generation who grew up watching Westerns, or as we knew them, Cowboy films. Many’s the time I sat entranced by the antics of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. I wanted to be a cowboy but, sadly, the only cowboys in Ireland are to be found in the building industry and the world of politics. Yet I could still dream.
John Grady Cole is the kind of sixteen year old that I wish I could have been but would never have been able to. John is level-headed, focused and courageous enough to follow his heart. At sixteen, I was into punk music and focused only on losing my virginity.
In the John Wayne movie, The Searchers, as well as the Clint Eastwood trio of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, the hero rides (or in the case of The Searchers, steps) off alone into an unknown future. Watching those endings always gave me a deep and bittersweet melancholy that I never fully understood. Perhaps the description above is a kind of answer. All the Pretty Horses is a novel that brought that emotion back to me. For that I both thank and damn Cormac McCarthy in equal measure. Yet I wouldn’t change the fact that I have read this novel any more than I would change that I watched Unforgiven. I think that any book that can reach into a person in this way is a very good book indeed.
I would urge readers to pick up a copy of this masterpiece. It is Volume 1 of the Border Trilogy, so there is no better place to start. I hope you enjoy it at least half as much as I did. And when you do, I ‘d like to hear about it (big smile).
Sult scale rating: 9 out of 10. Damn near perfect.