I am not necessarily a follower of Cormac McCarthy’s work, nor am I even a fan, per se. I didn’t love his recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, and didn’t find that the prose of No Country For Old drew me in. I am willing, however, to give both another try after reading his All the Pretty Horses (1992), a novel that USA Today once called “surely one of the great American novels.”
While this is probably a bit of hyperbole, the novel is, without a doubt, truly American through and through, which is ironic considering it takes place largely in Mexico. I say it is a thoroughly American novel because it is, first and foremost, about place, about land, about territory and man’s place in it. Writers from other countries have certainly focused on the theme as well, but no country breeds people so uniquely and fully interested in the idea of land – and the acquisition of it. After all, we are a country bred by immigrants, people who first came here in search of fresh land.
The novel traces young John Grady Cole as he escapes his small town, post-war existence in Texas, hoping to find adventure, and a future, in Mexico. He finds both, in more ways than one. Along with two companions and their beloved horses, Cole faces nature’s harshest tests, outlaw renegades, deceitful lawmen, a beautiful woman, and a loneliness found only in the solitude of desolate, rugged places.
Like many American novels that focus on the often dialectical relationship between man and nature, Horses features a rhythmic, tense, finely wrought sort of prose; a bold lyricism, a dark, mysterious thematic core. It is a unique, meaningful, utterly artistic, and beautifully crafted take on long beloved and well worn American archetypes. It may not be one of the great American novels ever, but All the Pretty Horses is one of the better novels in recent decades.
3 THINGS I LIKED:
1. The Pace
McCarthy is, if nothing else, a master at pace. His prose here is so finely tuned and carefully crafted that it acts as a truly satisfying objective correlative (if I can borrow the phrase again…) to the dangerous but beautiful landscapes in which the story takes place. The writing is stark but creative, descriptive but focused, weighty but romantic. McCarthy draws you into the story with his beguiling descriptions, but keeps you interested by revealing, at the perfect moments, something new and meaningful about the characters. The action sequences – of which there are the perfect amount – are deliciously crafted. But he has no trouble slipping seamlessly into the most romantic, sensual of moments. I mean both words – romantic and sensual – in multiple ways. This is certainly a romantic, sensual book for it puts strains, demands, on each of the senses, and thus on the imagination since this is a novel. That is the mark, I think, of truly fine fiction writing. The author demands a great deal of the imagination by recreating sensory experiences that interact with the action of the story itself.
2. The Descriptions
Whether he is describing the landscape, the action, or the characters, McCarthy is detail oriented without, as I inferred above, losing focusing. Each cactus described, each mesa or mountain or lake, each horse or dog or house or barn, is described within the necessary confines of the tale. This is surely a “show don’t tell” novel. These things, and actions, he is describing are the heartbeat, the meaning of the story. They reveal the conflict more meaningfully, perhaps, than the action itself.
3. The secondary characters:
John Grady Cole is a fantastic lead character: brave, cunning, adventurous, charming, and persistent, and featuring a brooding melancholy side, he is everything for which the traditional western tale asks in a lead. But some of the secondary characters are equally as fully imagined. For one, young Blevins, who believes he is doomed to die by lightening strike. At times, he’s utterly frustrating, at others he’s as lovable as a young puppy. He’s a character straight from the canon of Flannery O’Connor.
Cole’s best friend, Rawlins, is another. Less sure of himself than Cole, and more of a hot head, he makes for the perfect side kick. But, like Cole, he too dreams of a better future. Rawlins is a bruised, battered character. He’s damaged goods without the resourcefulness that belongs to Cole. And when he is faced with the decision of how much he’s willing to give up to realize his dreams, he makes a much different choice than his buddy.
The female lead, Alejandra, speaks little and is mostly seen from the point of view of Cole, but she remains a fascinating character for her sense of loyalty, history, and family. She is not some typical run-away who seeks out the troubled bad boy, nor is she a pretentious snob. No, she’s a much deeper character. And, despite how little she actually appears in the novel as a flesh and blood character, she is one of its most interesting inventions.
A Quote to Whet Your Whistle:
“He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he’d first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he’d presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and he felt a loneliness he’d not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.”