My rating: 4 of 5 stars
All the Pretty Horses is apparently to Cormac McCarthy’s corpus what The Crying of Lot 49 is to Thomas Pynchon’s or The Ghost Writer to Philip Roth’s: it is the appealing vestibule to an oeuvre of appalling heights and depths, a prolegomenon to any future metaphysics.
McCarthy’s bestselling 1992 novel is a romantic latter-day Western about a 16-year-old boy named John Grady Cole. It is 1949 in West Texas, and the Western dream is dying, not only because of all the oilmen buying up the land: Cole’s ranch, which has been in the family since the 1870s, is about to be sold due to the death of his maternal grandfather, the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, the mortal illness of his veteran father, and his urbane actress mother’s dissatisfaction with country living.
A preternaturally gifted horseman, Cole faces the prospect of a world that has no use for the only man he knows how to become. So, like a line of superfluous men in novels before him—I owe this application of that term from Russian fiction to a student—Cole lights out for the territory, riding to Mexico with his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, and a younger boy named Blevins they pick up along the way.
At first—in the second of the novel’s four divisions—they find in Mexico a promising terra nullius wherein to act out their obviously movie- and pulp-derived cowboy dreams. But then they are, due to Cole’s horses-taming prowess, recruited to work at La Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción (Estate of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception), a large ranch in Coahuila owned by a man named Rocha. While taming the wild horses they drive down from the Mexican mountains, Cole finds time to fall in love with the rancher’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra. Warned away from the girl by her regal great aunt, la dueña Alfonsa, Cole again pursues his romantic dream—this time an erotic one.
When the lovers are discovered, Alejandra’s father allows Cole and Rawlins to be arrested for a scrape they had earlier gotten into with Blevins. The novel’s third part is a scarifying account of their time in the prison at Saltillo, replete with tense interrogations, brutal beatings, remorseless shootings, and—climactically—the most intense knife-fight I’ve ever encountered in fiction.
Eventually, Rawlins and Cole are bailed out by Alfonsa, and, in the novel’s concluding section, Cole returns to the hacienda to ask for Alejandra. He finds instead la dueña, and she delivers to him an extraordinary long speech, Dostoevskean in its political and spiritual amplitude: she narrates her youthful disillusionment by the murder of her lover by the people, though he was a leader in the Mexican Revolution, an event that taught her to distrust all vague yearnings and any optimism for Mexico or mankind.
Her speech should disabuse Cole forever of his romantic dreams about the land to which he has ridden in quest of a simpler life, but he still rides out in search of Alejandra and then for revenge on the men who’d imprisoned him before returning to the United States in time for the funeral of his surrogate mother, la abuela, a Mexican worker at his family’s ranch who had raised him in the absence of his father (at war) and his mother (on stage). The novel concludes with another escape on horseback—this time that of a man, not a boy, initiated into the sorrows of the world.
While my outline suggests something of the novel’s appeal—its suspense and adventure, its erotic raptures and fight-scene thrills, as well as its archetypal structure as a Western, a Bildungsroman, and a picaresque—McCarthy still introduces some of the same complications that trouble so difficult and repellent a work as Blood Meridian. Consider the opening paragraph:
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.
Like many great opening paragraphs, it contains the book in miniature. As a novel about a boy trying to live up to an ego-ideal handed down to him not only by his rancher forefathers but also by dime novels and popular films, All the Pretty Horses persistently probes the distinction between a thing and its image, whether flame or cowboy. Most of the precise description is external, miming the emotional reticence of the protagonist and evoking the artform most responsible for the Western myth (cinema), but the paragraph ends with a disarming and moving stammer of free indirect discourse that dramatizes Cole’s painful encounter with destructive realities. Finally, the leaning lilies in the “waisted” glass introduce us to McCarthy’s rather Gothic pantheism, the sense his novels give that everything is alive, and thus deadly or killable, an original metaphysic that challenges the human-centered heroism of both Western and Bildungsroman.
Despite the complications, the novel does expect us to take Cole’s heroism seriously, and for three reasons. First is his almost superheroic way with horses, on which the whole plot hinges; second is the epic quality of McCarthy’s descriptions of his action, sincerely raising the novel into legend:
They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.
Third is Cole’s morality, a basically Christian commitment to doing right no matter the circumstance, as here in a dialogue with Rawlins about whether or not they should rescue Blevins:
What if it was you?
It aint me.
What if it was?
I wouldnt leave you and you wouldnt leave me. That aint no argument.
You realize the fix he’s in?
Yeah. I realize it. It’s the one he’s put hisself in.
Note how Rawlins makes pragmatic and even Darwinian claims—he argues that you shouldn’t help people to whom you have no personal commitment, and that moreover you shouldn’t help people who have gotten themselves into trouble through their own inadequacy—while Cole simply hews to the Golden Rule: love others as yourself.
Nevertheless, Cole’s epic and Christian heroism will be tested in the novel by the trials of love and death he encounters in Mexico; Gail Moore Morrison argues in an influential essay, “All the Pretty Horses: John Grady Cole’s Expulsion from Paradise” (found in Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, revised edition, eds. Edwin T. Arnold and Dianne C. Luce, 1999):
For this novel is fundamentally a Bildungsroman, a coming of age story in the great tradition of Hawthorne, Twain, Melville, and James, that archetypal American genre in which a youthful protagonist turns his back on civilization and heads out—into the forest, down the river, across the sea, or, as in John Grady’s case, through desert and mountain on horseback—into the wilderness where innocence experiences the evil of the universe and risks defeat by it. This invitation tale is also imbued with the uniquely American variation on the theme of the fall from innocence into experience so aptly explored by James in particular, but also by Hawthorne and Twain, in which the American naif with his straightforward, unsophisticated notions of right and wrong, his code of honor and his simplistic conception of good and evil, is challenged by the moral relativism of an older, more complex civilization to deepen that vision.
This archetypal arrangement irritates some critics, not unreasonably. They see the novel’s clear lineaments of morality and typology of place as merely replicating stereotypes. For example, Daniel Cooper Alarcón claims in his essay “All the Pretty Mexicos: Cormac McCarthy’s Mexican Representations” (found in Cormac McCarthy: New Directions, ed. James D. Lilley, 2002), that the novel simply presents us with an old tradition wherein Mexico is a land of violent contrasts, a hell-heaven or Infernal Paradise:
A preliminary assessment of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses in terms of action, characterization, and structure easily allows that novel to be located within the Infernal Paradise tradition. As in the works of his predecessors, McCarthy’s Mexico functions as a symbolic backdrop, juxtaposing the paradise of the hacienda with the hell of the prison at Saltillo. The Mexican characters, although fleshed out most more than in most novels of the tradition, are also fairly standard. […] Thus, a cursory reading of this popular and highly acclaimed novel offers little evidence that would allow us to position it outside of the Infernal Paradise tradition.
Both of these readings fail to account for the novel’s actual nuances though. It is the archetypal critic who sees the hacienda, where Cole makes love to Alejandra, as a paradise, and it is the political critic who accepts that interpretation but faults it as a racist trope. When we turn back to the actual novel, though, we find that ironies abound: this ranch consecrated to the purity of the Immaculate Conception is a locus of sex, whether among humans or horses. Moreover, it is a place less of lovemaking than of breeding: both Rocha and Cole are trying to breed a better horse, even as Alfonsa wants to keep the family bloodlines pure by preventing Cole from marrying Alejandra. The paradisal rhetoric itself is a bit too purple to be sincere, even granting the need for some Romeo and Juliet lyricism at that point in the narrative:
She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in a darkened wood. That burned cold. Like the moon that burned cold. Her black hair floating on the water about her, falling and floating on the water. She put her other arm about his shoulder and looked toward the moon in the west do not speak to her do not call and then she turned her face up to him. Sweeter for the larceny of time and flesh, sweeter for the betrayal. Nesting cranes that stood singlefooted among the cane on the south shore had pulled their slender beaks from their wingpits to watch. Me quieres? she said. Yes, he said. He said her name. God yes, he said.
John Grady Cole’s own position as horsebreaker—his first job on the ranch—is represented as a positively dystopic one from the perspective of the horses themselves, who regard him as a colonizing god:
By midmorning eight of the horses stood tied and the other eight were wilder than deer, scattering along the fence and bunching and running in a rising sea of dust as the day warmed, coming to reckon slowly with the remorselessness of this rendering of their fluid and collective selves into that condition of separate and helpless paralysis which seemed to be among them like a creeping plague. The entire complement of vaqueros had come from the bunkhouse to watch and by noon all sixteen of the mestenos were standing about in the potrero sidehobbled to their own hackamores and faced about in every direction and all communion among them broken. They looked like animals trussed up by children for fun and they stood waiting for they knew not what with the voice of the breaker still running in their brains like the voice of some god come to inhabit them.
His own speech to one prize horse casts him as precisely the master of sex and lineage and women that Rocha, who has him expelled, will prove to be:
He’d ride sometimes clear to the upper end of the laguna before the horse would even stop trembling and he spoke constantly to it in Spanish in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law. Soy comandante de las yeguas, he would say, yo y yo solo. Sin la caridad de estas manos no tengas nada. Ni comida ni agua ni hijos. Soy yo que traigo las yeguas de las montanas, las yeguas jovenes, las yeguas salvajes y ardientes.
In the Spanish dialogue, Cole as lawgiver proclaims himself commander of the mares, and threatens the horse that if he does not obey, Cole will not give him food, water, or children. He treats the horses the way Alejandra’s father and great aunt will treat him. Nature and culture—which are not distinct in McCarthy—are alike places of violence, oppression, and exploitation. We are not far from Blood Meridian here, nor are we in this remarkable if incidental passage wherein nature as demented gardener (indicated by the word “espaliered”) crucifies birds on cacti:
Bye and bye they passed a stand of roadside cholla against which small birds had been driven by the storm and there impaled. Gray nameless birds espaliered in attitudes of stillborn flight or hanging loosely in their feathers. Some of them were still alive and they twisted on their spines as the horses passed and raised their heads and cried out but the horsemen rode on.
Criticism is always schematic, whether it derives from archetypal thinkers or political ones; we need such schemata to help us think about life and literature, but novels, which thrive both on a recreation of intractable realities and on an irony that shows all perspectives to be partial and relative, are rarely as reducible to such criticism as they seem on the “cursory reading” Alarcón proposes yet never gets beyond.
Rocha expresses to Cole his skepticism toward rational political solutions, in contrast to the revolutionary generation that preceded his own (this conversation happens over pool, as an earlier conversation between Cole and Alfonsa happened over chess, each game a sublimated war):
People of my generation are more cautious. I think we dont believe that people can be improved in their character by reason. That seems a very french idea.
He chalked, he moved. He bent and shot and then stood surveying the new lay of the table.
Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.
He looked at John Grady and smiled and looked at the table.
That of course is the Spanish idea. You see. The idea of Quixote.
Obviating any neat distinction between a Latin and an Anglo-American culture, McCarthy gives us the cowboy as Quixote—who is more in tune with the “Spanish idea” than the knight-errant, the “gentle knight,” John Grady Cole? A concern with racial or national difference should not prevent the observation of identities and affinities on other grounds: McCarthy is not only enough of a postmodern novelist to be always aware that nature and culture are interpenetrated, but he is also a Catholic novelist—sometimes a despairing one, sometimes a believing, it seems to me—thus sympathetic to “Spanish ideas” that might look excessively pessimistic or decadent to the Protestant eye (and even at that, Melville and Twain were themselves consciously writing in a Cervantine tradition).
In the same volume where Alarcón’s essay appears, Timothy P. Caron writes an article recounting his use of All the Pretty Horses in a multicultural literature class and comes to a conclusion that emphasizes the novel’s brooding but hopeful cosmopolitanism of spirit, signaled not least by its frequent recourse to untranslated Spanish dialogue:
How much of that map [carried by Cole into Mexico], and ours, has to be filled in with historical and cultural knowledge? Isn’t that what the dueña is trying to tell Cole as she explains to him why she will never allow Alejandra to marry him by telling him about the Mexican Revolution? Last, what limits and chauvinisms would an “American” novel with so much Spanish in it force us to confront and, we hope, move beyond?
Alfonsa tells Cole what she learned in the Revolution, with its assassination of her idealistic lover: all beautiful ideals will ultimately be defeated.
In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.
The last sentence can be read as an injunction, a road out of despair: the world lies waiting for those who take action despite their disillusionment, a sane Quixote. Is this Cole by the novel’s end? His ending would seem to be despair:
He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its 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.
Yet he is still on horseback, still on the road, when we leave him. The next two parts of a trilogy, and the rest of McCarthy’s oeuvre, is waiting. All the Pretty Horses, in the meantime, is a compromising novel about compromise, in contrast to its extremist predecessor, Blood Meridian; yet it is, in its mastery of description and incident and its tortured equanimity of attitude, equally worth reading.
If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!