God. Is that not just beautiful?
All The Pretty Horses is a departure from the Cormac McCarthy I’m used to. Having read Blood Meridian, Child of God and The Road, arguably three of his darkest works (excluding Outer Dark, which I am yet to read), I was surprised at how passionately I read this book, far more a tale of romance and growing up then the violence and depravity I’ve more commonly associated with him.
All The Pretty Horses tells us the story of John Grady Cole, a sixteen year old ranch hand who decides to leave his home of San Antonio, Texas, after the ranch he was brought up on is sold due to the death of his grandfather. Along with his friend Lacey Rawlins, they cross the border into Mexico with aspirations to become cowboys.
. . .he repeated what his father had once told him, that scared money can’t win and a worried man can’t love.
Along the way they meet Jimmy Blevins, a younger boy who claims he is older, riding an immaculate horse that John Grady and Rawlins know isn’t his, despite the young boys’ assertions to the contrary. Initially dubious of Blevins’ intentions, together they continue to travel into Mexico, until one night a storm terrifies Blevin’s and he loses his horse and his clothes and his distinctive Colt pistol.
You afraid of lightnin? said John Grady.
I’ll be struck sure as the world…
It runs in the family, said Blevins. My grandaddy was killed in a minebucket in West Virginia it run down in the hole a hunnerd and eighty feet to get him it couldnt even wait for him to get to the top.
Blevins’ takes his horse back by force, leading to the three being chased into the mountains by the locals and eventually the Mexican Rangers. Blevins splits from John Grady and Rawlins and leads the pursuers away. Grady and Rawlins travel further south and eventually discover a great ranch within the Bolsón de Cuatro Ciénegas where they are employed as ranch hands.
While initially their lives seem idyllic, trouble soon catches them. Upon noticing Grady’s intentions on Alejandra, her great aunt has the two boys arrested and taken into custody by Mexican Rangers (who had previously been sighted near the haicenda, searching for the Americans) and thrown into a dismal and corrupted Mexican prison, alongside the beaten and near crippled Blevins.
Blevins shot and killed a man in retrieving his horse and Colt, and en route to a larger prison Grady and Rawlins can only watch helplessly as he is taken away and executed. While incararated, the two are beaten and savagely attacked by the other inmates until they are released on account of Alejandra’s aunt-with whom Alejandra struck a deal to free the boys with the condition that Alejandra can never see John Grady again.
They do meet again – Grady persuades her to meet him in Zacatecas, for only one night. She refuses Grady’s marriage proposal with regret, stating she must keep her promise to her family, and leaves heartbroken. Grady, devastated, makes his way back to Texas, but not before returning to the corrupt Mexican captain who killed Blevins, taking him prisoner as he retrieves the horses of Rawlins and Blevins and his own.
It’s an enthralling story that allows itself to slow down and absorb the details, the nuances, the emotions of the characters, and dialogue is for the most part short and succinct. Yet McCarthy can still make it effortlessly clear what these characters are thinking and feeling.
He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.
John Grady Cole helps in this respect. The 16 year old protagonist is ruthlessly relatable. His calmness and sense and knowledge of the world he loves, and how it changes through loss and sorrow and heartbreak, is so engrossing. The rash decisions in the final act, a reaction to the cruelty and unfair nature of life, leading to a redemptive conversation with a judge after a trial for ownership of Blevins’ horse, is just perfect.
I guess what I wanted to say first of all was that it kindly bothered me in the court what you said. It was like I was in the right about everything and I dont feel that way.
What way do you feel?
He sat looking at his hat. He sat for a long time. Finally he looked up. I dont feel justified, he said.
The judge watched him. Son, he said, you strike me as somebody that maybe tends to be a little hard on theirselves. I think from what you told me you done real well to get out of there with a whole hide Maybe the best thing to do might be just to go on and put it behind you. My daddy used to tell me not to chew on something that was eatin you.
At sixteen John Grady Cole has fallen in love, become heartbroken, been arrested, watched a young man die, thrown into jail, been stabbed and nearly killed, killed a man in self defence. A loss of innocence, he crosses back across the US-Mexican border a man.
He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led to nowhere at all. He felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave.
There will be people who won’t like this book, nor McCarthy’s polysyndetonic style. I’ve read criticism aimed at McCarthy for his over-the-top, verbose description, and slow moving plots. But it is a style that McCarthy does so well. I am utterly infatuated with his prose, and where others may see tedious, drawn-out inconsequential actions, I hang on every word.
All The Pretty Horses is a great American novel. The romanticism present is a change to the rest of his bibliography but it is still vintage McCarthy, writing so effortlessly on love and loss and what it means to truly grow up.
Note: I haven’t been too happy with how I’ve dealt with quotes in my posts recently. You may have noticed the opening quote; I like the idea of using a standout quote as a graphic to start a post. I also think using blockquotes (see below) is better than my previous method of simply emboldening the quotes to separate them from my main text. Any feedback or advice would be greatly appreciated.
It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I dont believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God-who knows all that can be known-seems powerless to change.