All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
It’s about manliness, friendship, loyalty, honour and integrity, and it just doesn’t get much better than that!
All the Pretty Horses is the story of John Grady Cole, the last of a long line of west Texas ranchers. Upon his grandfather’s death and his parents’ divorce, the sixteen-year-old Cole finds himself landless, penniless, and possessed of skills that mean nothing in a country transformed by highways and a world war, where cowboys are as doomed and marginal as the Indians they once displaced. With his friend Lacey Rawlins, John Grady sets off for Mexico. They have no idea what they will find there: on their map, the area south of the Rio Grande is blank. They have between them two horses, a rifle, and their bedrolls. The year is 1949.
In the months that follow the two boys–who are soon joined by a third, the unlucky Jimmy Blevins–will journey backward in time while simultaneously going forward into a precocious and saddened manhood. They will find their way to a place where a horse is still a thing of value and breaking one is considered a worthy feat, a place where love can still burn like a cold fire. But in Mexico love also has the power to destroy a reputation, and one can encounter obstacles of medieval severity. Stealing a horse–even one that is by all rights his own–can get a man killed. Or subject him to ordeals that amount to nothing less than the death of his former self.
Winner of: National Book Award for Fiction (1992), National Book Critics’ Circle Award (1992),
Motion Picture (2000): Miramax Films; Director: Billy Bob Thornton; Starring : Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, Lucas Black, Penelope Cruz.
Review by Gerry Burnie
When discussing Cormac McCarthy’s writings, such as his All the Pretty Horses [Vintage, 1992], the discussion invariably turns to his unorthodox use of English grammar, i.e.
He dismounted and unrolled his plunder and opened the box of shells and put half of them in his pocket and checked the pistol that it was loaded all six cylinders and closed the cylinder gate and put the pistol into his belt and rolled his gear back up and retied the roll behind the saddle and mounted the horse again and rode into the town.( 257)
Nonetheless, when reading it in context one cannot imagine it written any other way. In fact, it struck me as being almost blank verse, and quintessentially suited for the vastness of the great Texas and Mexican landscapes. Indeed the setting of a story dealing with the very spirit of The West calls for it. There is a naturalness about it, unhindered by stops and starts or artificial boundaries. It is therefore free to grow as if it were evolving in the here and now. Yet there is purposefulness to its growth, for each new idea or thought builds on the last with the same organic freedom—like a living vine.
McCarthy also uses a number of Spanish words and phrases (untranslated), and many reviewers have criticized this choice for leaving the reader(s) in the dark. However I think that it was a very intentional choice, and very much part of the relationship of the reader to the story. In other words we are tagging along with John Grady, and unless we speak Spanish we would otherwise be in the dark to know what they were talking about. It is another touch of realism that in its subtlty never interferes with the gist of the story.
For me, however, the most impressive aspect of this read isthe credibility of the characters. In the story John Grady Cole is 16 years old in 1949, which means he was born in 1933; however, according to the code he lives by he could just as easily have been born in the 1800s; when a man’s word was his bond. For example, John Grady (and Rawlins) are joined by 13-year-old Jimmy Blevins who tags along uninvited, he’s a pain and he screws them in big and little ways. JGC and Rawlins are provided plenty of opportunities to move on without him, to leave him to the fate he deserves. But John Grady sticks his neck out for Blevins especially when he deserves the opposite. That, to me, is the true spirit of the West.
Lacey Rawlins is quite distinct from JGC, but just as credible, and—in my opinion—absolutely delightful! In many ways the two of them remind me of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn ‘gone West’. The interaction between them is primarily presented in dialogue form, but with such authenticity that one never doubts for a moment they are who they are supposed to be. i.e.
John Grady and Rawlins are talking about being born:
Rawlins lay watching the stars. After a while he said: I could still be born. I might look different or something. If God wanted me to be born Id be born.
And if he didn’t you wouldn’t.
You’re makin my goddamn head hurt.
II know it. I’m makin my own.
They lay watching the stars.
So what do you think [about running away to Mexico]? He said.
I don’t know, said Rawlins.
I could understand if you was from Alabama you’d have ever reason in the world to run off to Texas. But if you’re already in Texas. I don’t know. You got a lot more reason for leavin’ than me.
What the hell reason you got for stayin’? You think somebody’s goin to die and leave you something?
That’s good. Cause they aint.
If, from this, you can picture two teenage boys lying under the stars and talking seriously about life, then you get my meaning about credibility. An evocation of another, simpler time, and lush with memories for some of us.
Finally, some criticism has been raised about the Alejandra /JGC relationship for not being romantic enough. Not from my point of view. In my opinion this story is not about boy-meets-girl; rather it is about manliness, friendship, loyalty, honour and integrity, and it just doesn’t get much better than that.
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