All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

A very good book, if a bit stylized. But it works.

This is the first of a trilogy and it tells the story of John Grady Cole, a very young man – late teenager, really – living near the Texas/Mexico border in the 1940s.

Like other books by McCarthy, it has a fair bit of violence, but it is not excessive. The language is spare and deliberately sonorous and portentous. He begins a sentence simply and then develops a momentum, words crashing, thrashing, surging upwards towards the unknowable sky, invoking the amoral and rampant longings of the human soul, which contains the world and is in the world. That is an attempt at parody, which I hope helps you get the point.

There are clear themes: the arrival of modern technology in what is still, in the 1940s, a rural society governed by ancient customs. There are some lovely moments, such as the meeting of two men working on a car engine by the main character as he returns, dressed and indeed living as a cowboy must have done 50 years earlier, on horseback. And his arrival in a diner, where a radio is playing. After all that has happened, in a world still dominated by horses, guns and poverty, the incongruity, if not anachronism,  is striking.

Redness is a theme. One of the horses is called ‘Redbo’ and there are frequent references to red skies and, of horses and other animals, ‘red eyes’. The subtitle of Blood Meridian, a weirder and more violent but stylistically similar book, is ’the evening redness in the West’.

What does all this redness symoblize? I think it is a repeated reminder of larger forces, of the ineffable and the power of nature.

Some of the dialogue is in Spanish, with no translation. This is well-balanced, demanding the reader who speaks no Spanish (like me) to understand and interpret from context and common sense. This is what everyone does when they have to and it creates a sense of uncertainty and foreboding, as the author intended.

Finally, there is a close similarity to Hemingway’s style. Is it derivative? Not really, though some sentences could come from a parody of Hemingway. But Mr McCarthy has created a way of writing about the Western United States and the people that live there that is novel, exciting to read and which brings to mind the mysteries of existence. Not bad; not bad at all.


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