Thursday, 3 August 2017

Book Report Part 7: "All the Pretty Horses" by Cormac McCarthy

In March, I gave myself a year to read 25 literary novels I reckoned a keen reader approaching his 65th birthday really should have under his belt. Having got through fifteen of the novels on my list (which you can find here) by early June, I decided to cut myself some summer slack and slow down. I've read a lot these last two months - but only three of the books on my list, and comparatively short ones at that. They're all by modern(ish) American authors, none of whose books I've previously read. The first was All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, who also wrote No Country for Old Men, which the Coen Brothers turned into one of the best films of recent years. I almost chose the latter, but, as I've watched the film several times, that felt like a bit of a cheat. My wife had read All the Pretty Horses for a book group, and had raved about it - so that's the one I chose. Glad I did. It is a stunning masterpiece - one the greatest novels I've ever read...

First, the plot. In 1949, a 16-year old Texan boy discovers that the run-down family ranch he was expecting to inherit and to run for the rest of his life is to be sold. He gets on his horse and, with a friend alongside him, heads for Mexico, where they hope to find work as cowboys. On the way, they're joined by an aggressive youngster (about 13) on a beautiful white horse. Adventures ensue: a love affair, death, prison, a stabbing, gunfights, a kidnapping, running from the law etc. If that sounds a bit "Huckleberry Finn", it really isn't: there's nary a laugh in all of its 300 pages. Our young hero, John Grady Cole, is impossibly grown-up and self-reliant - the ultimate (young) man who does what he's gotta do, while living by his own (or the Old West's) chivalric code. But that's fine, because Cole is an almost mythic figure - the terse, wary, self-contained, utterly decent, and endlessly dependable hero of Western legend - in a deeply romantic novel, who McCarthy somehow makes human and believable.

McCarthy's writing style and his basic themes are unashamedly Hemingwayesque, and he teeters on the verge of parody in some passages (mind you, no more than Hemingway himself did). But I recently read For Whom the Bell Tolls, and (whisper it softly) All the Pretty Horses is better written.  Early on, on the eve of his departure for Mexico, Cole bids farewell to a girl:
He stood back and touched the brim of his hat and turned and went up the street. He didn't look back but he could see her in the windows of the Federal Building across the street standing there and she was still standing there when he reached the corner and stepped out of the glass forever. 
Lovely image. Farewells are evidently one of McCormack's many strengths: "He turned the horse and looked at him standing in the doorlight and he raised his hand and the judge raised a hand back and he rode out down the street from pool to pool of lamplight until he had vanished in the dark." It may not mean that much out of context, but, dammit, that sentence brought a tear to my eye.

McCarthy's poetic prose is most evocative when he's describing landscape. Here, near the end of the book, Cole has just crossed the border back into Texas, leading the horses belonging to his erstwhile companions (one of whom has already returned home, while the other... well, you'll have to read the book):
He rode on, the two horses following, riding doves up out of the pools of standing water and the sun descending out of the dark discoloured overcast to the west where its redness ran down the narrow band of sky above the the mountains like blood falling through the water and the desert fresh from the rain turning gold in the evening light and then deepening to dark, a slow inkening over the bajada and the rising hills and the stone length of the cordilleras darkening far to the south in Mexico. The floodplain he crossed was walled about with fallen traprock and in the twilight the little desert foxes had come out to sit along the walls silent and regal as icons watching the night come and the doves called from the acacia and then night fell dark as Egypt and there was just the stillness and the silence and the sound of horses breathing and the sound of their hooves clopping in the dark. He pointed his horse at the polestar and rode on and they rode the round moon up out of the east and coyotes yammered and answered back all across the plain to the south from which they'd come. 
I have a tendency to skip descriptions of landscapes in novels, especially if there's a lot of them. But not in this one.  And I can't recall any other novel that has made me so yearningly nostalgic for a landscape I've never seen, or which made me question whether the modern world isn't, after all, a bit of a mistake. Or which made me want to get on a horse and just...ride (like that's going to happen). Or that portrayed the bond between men and horses so convincingly, so touchingly alive.

If there's a better writer than Cormac McCarthy out there right now, I'd be surprised. I am so looking forward to reading more of his books - when I've got to the end of my list.


  1. I don't read modern novels, but the film "The Road" [2009] with Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall and your review might tempt me to try Cormac McCarthy. In my humble opinion, "No Country for Old Men" was a very great American film.

    1. I don't think you'll be disappointed, SDG - McCarthy really is that good.

  2. As you like literary Westerns , Scott, may I recommend Larry McMurtry's novel "Anything For Billy".