You would be hard pressed to find a more Mexican novel than this one. Just about all of the action takes place in the state of Coahuila. Twice I found myself interested enough in the setting to refer to my maps to find the towns in the desolate border area McCarthy writes about.
Later, when one of the characters starts to tell the hero, John Grady Cole, about her life with the former Mexican president Francisco Madero, I immediately pulled out my copy of “A History of Mexico” just to see how her story stacked against the historical facts.
I don’t particularly enjoy reading westerns but such is the power of McCarthy’s writing that I was drawn into those small researches simply to enhance my enjoyment of his book.
The action takes place in the 1940’s when the 16 year old Cole and his buddy, Lacey Rawlins, feel they’ve come to the end of their possibilities in Texas and take off on an ill-defined quest across the border into Mexico. They meet up with another runaway, Jimmy Blevins. Blevins is handy with guns, which later gets the trio into serious trouble.
Cole and Rawlins find work on a big hacienda where Cole’s knowledge and feeling for horses makes him a valuable employee. However, trouble starts when he and the daughter of the wealthy hacendado fall in love. He has to pay for that mistake. Also, he is arrested by the police because of his association with Blevins, who has killed a Mexican. Cole and Rawlins spend time in a Mexican jail and are put to a great deal of suffering.
Eventually Cole is released and finds his way back to the hacienda where he is given explanations for some of the bizarre things that have happened to him. Then, having “come of age” he rides back into Texas.
One could read a ton of symbolism into this story, particularly in the passages about horses, and McCarthy’s almost biblical style of writing suggests a striving for deeper significance in what is, on the surface at least, a simple action tale.
The narrative is laden with passages like the following: “He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and it’s beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.” As you can see, it’s not your average Zane Grey.
Actually, there are quite a few passages that stop you in your tracks. My favorite is on page 161, a sentence of some 216 words that doesn’t have a single piece of punctuation in it.
I sound as though I didn’t like “All the Pretty Horses”. Wrong. I loved it. John Grady Cole is a true hero, exhibiting a kind of cowboy code of honor and moral stamina that few people ever exhibit. His determination to see justice done and to find answers to the open questions of his life is truly admirable.
It’s not the easiest novel to get into, but once you catch its rhythm I think you would want to stay with it. Also, be advised that when the characters speak Spanish in this book, they speak Spanish – solamente. If you don’t understand the language you might have a hard time understanding some of the exchanges. If you do, it really enhances the realism of the book. I should add, however, it is possible to find translations of those exchanges. I discovered that there’s a Cormac McCarthy website. (I should’ve known there’d be one. I mean – is this a great time or what?) Anyway, it’s https://www.cormacmcarthy.com/. It’s an interesting place to browse – full of all sorts of collegiate twaddle about the symbolism of the horses and “pre-Oedipal fusion”. McCarthy certainly does have a loyal following. And university literature courses have a lot to answer for.
“All the Pretty Horses” is Volume 1 of what the author calls The Border Trilogy Volume 2, “The Crossing” was published in 1995. I shall read it soon. Volume 3 hasn’t appeared yet.
Not for everybody but powerful stuff for those who do enjoy it.
All the Pretty Horses
by Cormac McCarthy.
Random House. 1993.