All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
In 2007, I heard Billy Bob Thornton speak at South by Southwest. He talked about his disappointment with the movie he’d directed, All the Pretty Horses, which the studio had forced him to edit down from 2 hours 45 minutes to just 2 hours. He complained that it was a foolish idea, that a novel so grand and sprawling required a film that was able to sprawl. I’d never seen the movie, but I picked up the book. It was my introduction to Cormac McCarthy, who over the years has become one of my favorite authors.
All the Pretty Horses is the first of McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” (along with The Crossing and Cities of the Plain). It’s about a young man, John Grady Cole, who in 1949 sets off with his buddy, Lacey Rawlins, into Mexico with the hope of finding some semblance of the old way of living, before fences subdivided the land. They meet a squirrely little guy named Jimmy Blevins, a mysterious 14-year-old with a huge horse, a huge gun and an uncanny sharpshooter’s aim. They find danger and disillusionment and are forced into situations none of them is up for. Young men in over their heads, one might say. On horses.
I wanted to re-read All the Pretty Horses before starting The Crossing, but this time I decided to listen to it as an audiobook. McCarthy’s prose is well suited for audiobooks. It’s often described as lyrical, has even been called Biblical (particularly in Blood Meridian, but throughout his career). It has a rhythm that, with a good narrator, adds another dimension to the story when read aloud. The style of Frank Muller, the narrator, is perfectly suited for McCarthy’s style. Utilitarian action mixes with grand descriptions of the Texas and Mexico landscapes. Pensive moments turn to violence in an instant. Heard aloud, McCarthy’s sometimes curious constructions and capacious vocabulary recede and the cadence of the prose becomes more prominent.
They rode all day and the day following through the hill country to the west. As they rode they cut strips of the smoked and half-dried deer meat and chewed on it and their hands were black and greasy and they wiped them on the withers of the horses and passed the canteen of water back and forth between them and admired the country.
There were storms to the south and masses of clouds that moved slowly along the horizon with their long dark tendrils trailing in the rain.
The passage above mimics the rhythm of two men riding across the open land, then pausing briefly to observe the weather rolling in. One hears that shift in movement clearly when read aloud. In fact, the whole book reads like men on horseback riding and riding and riding then stopping for a moment, then riding again. “They rode on another half mile and then left the road and cut back toward the cedars and dismounted and tied their horses and sat on the ground.”
Few can describe the open spaces as McCarthy. And the brutality of his violence his visceral. But I was struck by how simple most of his writing is. A description like “They walked dove and quail up out of the grass along the ridges,” is poetic, but the poetry comes from the economy of the sentence.
Of course, there is also the heavy language McCarthy is famous for, such as when one of his characters says, “Nothing can be proven except that it be made to bleed. Virgins. Bulls. Men. Ultimately God himself.” That’s the kind of language that has earned him comparisons to Melville.
Another character, articulating what is essentially the theme of the novel, says, “It was good that God kept the truths of the life from the young as they were starting out, or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”
This kind of language feels heavy-handed, though, when he writes about the protagonist falling in love. McCarthy seems out of his comfort zone, and the style comes off as melodrama: “He looked into those blue eyes like some man seeking a vision of the increate future of the universe.” It’s language that is better suited for describing war or men with ruinous intention than romance.
The other thing that struck me the second time through the book was how funny it is. I listened several times to a scene of Rawlins and Blevins arguing back and forth over the latter’s shooting prowess. Blevins manages to goad Rawlins to throw his billfold into the air, then promptly shoots a hole through it, to which Rawlins says nothing. Just puts it back in his pocket and mounts his horse. The dynamic between the characters in this scene is masterful, with most of the meaning lying in what is not said, the comedy accentuated by the underlying tension of the moment.
And then there is a scene, late in the book, where John Grady Cole is invited to have dinner with a reverend, who is also a radio show host, and the reverend’s wife. It is a scene with some poignancy, because John Grady Cole is now a changed man, trying to learn more about one of the characters who has been killed, trying to find some understanding of everything that has happened to him. And as they sit, we get this:
The reverend waited for her to be seated and then he bowed his head and blessed the food and the table and the people sitting at it. He went on at some length and blessed everything up to the country and then he blessed some other countries as well and he spoke about war and famine and the missions and other problems in the world with particular reference to Russia and the Jews and cannibalism and he asked it all in Christ’s name, Amen, and raised up and reached for the cornbread.
Next for me are the two remaining McCarthy books I haven’t read—The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, followed by his new one, The Passenger, due in October.