Title: All the Pretty Horses
Series: Border Trilogy, #1
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Release date: June 29, 1993
Genres: Fiction; western
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole has grown up on his grandfather’s ranch in San Angelo, West Texas. His connection to the land—and to its horses—runs deep in his blood; his family has raised and ridden horses for decades.
But the customs of the land are changing, even as the land itself remains the same. It is 1949, and the days of the ranging cowboy are drawing to a close. After the death of John Grady’s grandfather, the family ranch is to be sold, and John Grady will be forced from the ranch.
John Grady is too old to become anything other than a cowboy and too young to give up his dreams. He chooses to ride for the next wild frontier: Mexico. His decision is reckless and spontaneous in a way that level-headed and practical John Grady is normally not. As the book comments,
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.
He persuades his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, to accompany him. In their travels on horseback, they encounter a young, blustering boy, Jimmy Blevins, who seems a great deal more trouble than he is worth.
In the Bolsón de Cuatro Ciénegas, they find work as hands at a large ranch. The owner immediately glimpses John Grady’s talent with horses and promotes him to breeder. Everything is going well for him until John Grady falls in love with the ranch owner’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra.
Blevins impetuously decides to return to a village they had passed through and becomes embroiled in a crime with consequences he could not have imagined. The consequences reach to his unwitting companions as well; the Mexican authorities begin hunting Rawlins and John Grady under the assumption that they had helped Blevins. At first, the ranch owner protects both boys, but when he finds out about John Grady’s relationship with Alejandra, he turns them over to the police.
Rawlins and John Grady are imprisoned in a violently lawless Mexican penitentiary. The only way to escape will be through the boys’ tenuous connections to Alejandra’s family; but their freedom will come at a cost.
The first of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses captures the magnificence and poetry of a now-disappeared American frontier.
The prose itself imparts the characters’ emotions even as their speech is spare; the sheer amount of attention, the carefully recorded detail, placed on the boys’ surroundings shows the love both of them have for the horses and the land. John Grady relates to horses as well as (and probably better than) any other creature:
What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardent-hearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.
Without punctuation such as quotation marks, the dialogue and the descriptions blend together like the earth and sky at the farthest horizon. The book is slow-moving at times, but that only serves to make you feel like you are trotting along with the characters for the many miles they cover. The reader can’t help but be drawn into John Grady’s world and to feel a fraction of his sense of belonging in and to a majestic land.
Much like Mark Twain, McCarthy captures the easy, effortless dialect of a fading class of people. The cowboys refuse to be confined to convention and modern norms, and their speech reflects their nonconformity. Their dialogue is rife with run-on sentences and spelling that reflect spoken words, making it truly believable and captivating:
She looked up at him and her face was pale and austere in the uplight and her eyes lost in their darkly shadowed hollows save only for the glint of them and he could see her throat move in the light and he saw in her face and in her figure something he’d not seen before and the name of that thing was sorrow.
This book has received great critical acclaim, including the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I can see why. There are countless beautiful and moving passages I could quote, but the following in particular had a great effect on me:
[A]ll courage was a form of constancy. [I]t is always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals come easily.
Though I can’t recommend this book to everyone—the slow, steady pace that pervades much of the beginning will be a turn-off to readers looking for plenty of action—I would recommend it to readers of genres spanning literary fiction and westerns, as well as to anyone looking for a good, solid read.
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