Knopf, 1992, 302 pages
Cormac McCarthy is a quiet, unassuming presence in American fiction today, but like the slow, measured voices of many of his characters, he speaks with an authority and conviction that demands an audience. All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy's sixth novel, is a cowboy odyssey for modern times. Set in the late 1940s, it features the travels and toils of a 16-year-old East Texan named John Grady Cole, caught in the agonizing purgatory between adolescence and adulthood.
At the start of the novel, Cole's grandfather has just died, his parents have permanently separated, and the family ranch, upon which he had placed so many boyish hopes, has been sold. Rootless and increasingly restive, Cole leaves Texas, accompanied by his friend Lacey Rawlins, and begins a journey across the vaquero frontier into the badlands of northern Mexico. In spite of its hard realities and spare telling, All the Pretty Horses is a lyrical and richly romantic story, chronicling - along with the erosion of the frontier - the loss of an era.
Cormac McCarthy's prose is like black coffee — you can appreciate when it's well-made, but it doesn't always go down smoothly and you might wish there was something to sweeten it. This is the fifth McCarthy novel I've read. I've loved two, hated one, and been lukewarm about Suttree and now this one.
All the Pretty Horses is a coming-of-age story about a young man of sixteen whose father dies, and his mother decides to sell the ranch he wanted to make his livelihood. With no further attachment to his parents, he rides off to the Mexican badlands. It's the 1940s, and the era of cowboys riding off on horses is coming to an end, but John Grady Cole still manages to get into enough trouble for a Western epic. He and his friend Lacy become unwilling companions of an ill-fated youngster who seems born under a bad moon. They become horse wranglers, Cole falls in love (of course) with a beautiful Senorita who is (of course) the daughter of his rich employer, and this (of course) brings him only trouble. He spend a while with Lacy rotting in a Mexican jail, having to fight for their lives every night, but once he gets out, like any young man in love, he's not going to let a little thing like a rich landowner who can sic the Mexican police on him get in the way of true love. But the girl's formidable grandmother proves to be the most insurmountable obstacle.
As a coming-of-age story and a romance, there is not much original in this tale, just like McCarthy's other novels (especially The Road, the one I hated) have not really involved much in the way of novel plotting. Rather, it's the style of his writing and his storytelling - plain, linear, masculine, sometimes a bit overwrought. All the Pretty Horses was one of the novels attacked in the Atlantic's infamous A Reader's Manifesto, indicting the pretentiousness of American literary prose like this:
While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.
He said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold ... Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and that it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal ... Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses vanish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothing out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing.
Okay, that is some pretty hefty artisanal prosing. At times it could get a bit much, but it really is poetic once you sink into the rhythm of McCarthy's storytelling.
And after too much YA fiction in recent years, I particularly appreciated a sixteen-year-old (!) who was not a freakin' child. John Grady Cole may be young, dumb, and full of cum, but he's also a young man dealing with men's business, the way sixteen-year-olds used to have to do.
That said, this cup of black coffee was a little bit bitter and a little bit stale. The long, long disquisition by the elderly Mexican grand dame about why Cole had to stay away from her granddaughter because of her entire history since childhood and all her scheming to give her granddaughter the life she couldn't have, which turns into a mini lecture on Mexican and Anglo culture and the nature of fate, was just too much. It still boiled down to "Stay away from my granddaughter, gringo!" And paragraphs like those above did sometimes drop like pompous prose-bombs.
I was lukewarm on this book, and not sure if I will read the rest of the Border Trilogy, but I cain't quit McCarthy.
All the Pretty Horses (2000)
Billy Bob Thornton produced this bomb starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz. The reasons it bombed are unclear — Wikipedia blames Harvey Weinstein for cutting Thornton's original 3-hour cut. It's actually a very nice film, but I would have to agree with criticisms like "leaden pace." Like most Hollywood movies, there was more focus on the beautiful actors (Damon and Cruz) than on the plot — in my opinion, the romance was really just a plot device in the novel, not the point of it it. And of course, McCarthy's prose, the main feature (for good or for ill) of his novels, does not translate into film. It's worth seeing, but even though it's a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel , it is not at all the same experience.
Also by Cormac McCarthy: My reviews of Blood Meridian: or The Evening Redness in the West, No Country for Old Men, The Road and Suttree.
My complete list of book reviews.