"All The Pretty Horses" is essentially a Western tale set for the most part in Mexico during the middle of the twentieth century. It is the first novel in the "Border Trilogy" that also includes "The Crossing" and "Cities of the Plain". The story follows three teenage cowboys from Texas who move there in pursuit of work on a ranch. They find themselves in a series of sticky situations, which lead to a murder of one of them almost cost the other two their lives. The life in Mexico turns out to be much more brutal than they had anticipated. Nonetheless, they go through all of their travails with a remarkable dose of stoicism and self-possessed composure. This hard-nosed attitude is probably one of the weaker aspects of this novel. It is not plausible for sixteen-year-old boys, even those who grew up as cowboys on a ranch in Texas. It also makes the narrative very dry and almost inhuman. It is hard to relate to individuals who show this little emotion even under the most horrendous circumstances.
Cormac McCarthy is as varied in terms of the genres that he works with as he is with the styles that he employs. Most of his writing uses very stark and stream-of-conscience style of writing, with not much in the way of distinguishing the spoken words of one character from another. When there are only a couple of main characters around (like in "The Road") then this can be a very powerful and gripping narrative style. However, for the more dynamic stories that involve many different characters that change from one scene to another - as is the case in "All The Pretty Horses" - this can lead to a lot of confusion and makes his storylines very hard to follow. McCarthy is indubitably a literary genius, but many of his works (including this one) are not easily appreciated except by those who are willing to invest a lot of effort into reading them.
on 23 August 2010
All the Pretty Horses is a book of power. Following the death of his grandfather and the sudden collapse of his hopes for a traditional ranch life, the young hero John Grady Cole embarks on an ill fated odyssey south of the border, accompanied by his best friend. Disillusioned and mourning in a sense not just for his grandfather, but for a way of life under threat of erosion by more modern values, the young man casts all to the four winds to seek adventure for the hell of it. There is no clear plan. They cross the border on horseback and enter what at times seems like an alien world. There is an almost surreal quality about the narrative, as if the young men are caught up in some shamanic vision quest, an unspoken drive toward manhood. The dialogue is spare and to the point. Cormac McCarthy is a master of detail and makes the very landscape speak for him. At times his prose borders on the poetic, and indeed there is a dionysian quality about the novel, a sense of danger and impending tragedy. It's no surprise that the book was turned into a film, for it is very visual, sharp as a duelling knife and panoramic in its imagery, but ultimately it must be enjoyed for itself. Only the reader can interpret the spirit of it in a way that suits them personally. This is the Old West in modern times, with all the epic sights and sounds, and the author uses them to punctuate the tension - the stomp of a hoof, a wary eye on the horizon, the smell of worn leather.
Enter a young runaway with an unstable nature, a doomed love affair, and the ugly shadow of death, and John Grady's adventure quickly turns sour. Back to the wall, he faces the only choice open to the traditional western hero - to ride away or even the score. John Grady chooses the latter.
At the end of the trail, crossing the border back into Texas, he presents an image of a bygone era to the baffled individuals he initially encounters, an image of tradition, honour and unshakeable attachment to the old world and the land.
This is a novel you read and read again for different insights every time, a story that should stir the restless heart of the wild in all of us.
Two boyhood friends, sixteen years old John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, seventeen, head out from Texas over the border into Mexico in search of a life that is fast disappearing at home, the life of the cowboy. They are soon joined by a wild young boy who calls himself Jimmy; they tolerate Jimmy's company despite their fears that he will bring nothing but trouble.
The story follows their progress through Mexico, and the troubles that inevitable come their way. It is a story of the friendship of the two boys, of their quest for adventure, of John Grady's love of horses, of teenage love that cannot be. It is a story about the West and Mexico. It is a story filled with drama, of loss, retribution and redemption.
Cormac McCarthy's s sparse prose initially seems lacking in emotion, and for a while the characters seem as remote from the reader as they appear to each other, but after a short while one is drawn in by the mood of starkness and we then see the depth of the two boys' friendship, their trust, loyalty and integrity. McCarthy's economy of prose extends to minimal use of punctuation, sentences, often lengthy, are unbroken by commas, and quotation marks are not used for speech. Some of the dialogue is in Spanish, but this does not hinder the understanding, even as a non-linguist I found I could follow the gist of it. I also found it useful to follow their travels with the aid of Google maps!
All the Pretty Horses is a story with a beauty all its own; at times it is harrowing, even disturbing, but always gripping, and one cannot but feel for these two decent boys. It is both a moving and rewarding read.
16 year old John Grady Cole is the last in a long line of Texas ranchers, his mother has abandoned him, his relationship with his father is strained, and his inheritance is gone.
Together with his friend, Lacey Rawlins, he crosses into Mexico on horseback in search of work and adventure. They meet a third boy, the wild and unpredictable Jimmy Blevins, whose actions set on course a series of events, the repercussions of which last until the final stages of this long and complex novel.
All the Pretty Horses is touted as Cormac McCarthy in romantic mood, the blurb on the back calling it "a grand love story", and while the operatic violence of Blood Meridian and the unrelenting nastiness of Child of God are for the most part absent, this is still a harsh novel, dealing in familiar McCarthy themes of loss of innocence revenge and only very loosely touching on romantic love at all. Indeed, the relationship that is suggested pivotal is so insubstantial, and the character of Grady's object of desire so ill defined, that I struggle to remember her name only days after finishing the book. If anything this book is about the bond of love between two friends and the relationship between Rawlins and Grady is for me where the real value lies.
The prose is as sparse as you would expect and he utilises polysyndetonic syntax to a great and often hypnotising effect, but there are passages of extreme beauty, particularly when describing the desert, that make this a more comfortable read than some of his previous books.
I understand that his style of writing is an acquired taste, but if you were going to choose a Cormac McCarthy book as your first I would recommend this to be the one, not because it is his best, because I don't think it is, but it is his most accessible.
"All The Pretty Horses" is a masterpiece, no doubt about it. It's also a tad pretentious, with all those 200-word sentences with a dozen "and"s in each. But that's the way McCarthy writes, and if a great artist chooses to express himself in one style or genre, then you've got to go with him. You can even forgive him for putting so much of the dialogue in Mexican Spanish when you don't speak a word of it. Hell, you'll pick it up.
In short, it's a story of growing up and learning what it means to be a man. If Cody seems a bit too mature for a lad in his late teens, it adds to the dream-like unreality (dare we say magic realism?) of the story, in which two young men in c1950 Texas cross the border in search of the life they have lost in a changing USA.
Is it a classic? Yes it is. Is it an easy read? On the whole, yes. If you care about books, read it.
on 6 April 2011
There have been many bad reviews for this book stating that the editing is awful and the sentences are too long. I bought this anyway as I am huge fan of Cormac McCarthy. The first couple of pages do, in fact, ring true to these negative comments. The sentences are really long and unwieldy and provide an unwelcome clunk to the pace. Though this only persists for the first few pages the novel prose settle down wonderfully after that into classic McCarthy territory. Masterful storytelling and rich descriptions to the extent you feel as if you're actually breathing desert dust is the order of the day here, along with his usual intense character development. The pace vastly improves to provide a real experience, and I look forward to tucking into the Crossing which is the second and next installment of the Border trilogy.
on 28 June 2000
I took a very long time to get this book off the shelf and read it......it was given to me as a present and it never really appealed. Finally with supplies of unread books dwindling I picked it up and I am so glad I did.
This is a brilliant tale of young men stepping out into the world to find their place in it. It is a raw, haunting story told with rich evocative prose and is a very enjoyable read.
As a previous reviewer has mentioned I was a little irritated with the liberal use of Spanish throughout the book, particularly in some pretty gripping and exciting bits... If you don't speak Spanish I would suggest printing out the translation and having it to hand when you read this book.
This book is very highly recommended.
on 7 March 2011
I picked this up years ago just before catching a train home from London at 11pm. I finished it at about 04.30. I didn't want to put it down, took it to bed and allowed myself to continue the journey. It was the first McCarthy book I'd read and I've gone on to devour the lot. More than a decade on, I still recall the perfect pace of the narrative in this novel. Long unbroken paragraphs simply flow with the gentle rhythm akin to riding on horseback. This pace complements the storyline perfectly and made for wonderful reading. It's in my top ten, along with Blood Meridian and The Road.
on 28 August 2009
McCarthy has been both praised and damned for his lyrical, poetic, non-grammatical, punctuation-less, rare-word-studded prose, and this style is very much in evidence here. From the opening sentence to the last page, this style is ever present, becoming almost remorseless in its tone and evocation of time and place. If you've never read one of his works before, it might take you awhile to adjust to it, but once you do, the images it paints in your head will become brilliant and indelible.
The other renowned McCarthy trait, that of celebration of violence, brutality, of a harsh world where only the most determined survive, is present here also, but for this book it seems as if this fades a bit into the background, under the cover of a compelling coming-of-age story of a young sixteen year old horse-loving cowboy John Grady Cole who wanders off to Mexico in search of employment and finds his first love. Along the way we are treated to quite a bit of philosophical ruminations about religion and life's obstacles, problems, and purpose, frequently delivered in very short sentences of dialogue that are almost baldly stated, with little back-up ratiocination to justify their conclusions. It's not until nearly the end that we are treated to a multi-page discourse on these subjects, delivered by the girl's elderly aunt as almost an aside to the main story, but this section is really the heart of the book, and colors and limns all of Cole's actions and fate.
Cole's character is well defined, for all that we never really get inside his head (another McCarthy trait), as his minimal statements and large actions create the picture of just who and what he is. Unlike many of McCarthy's characters, Cole has a strong moral compass quite capable of withstanding the vicissitudes and chance disasters that happen along the way, a compass that shapes Cole as a most atypical McCarthy actual hero. Cole's traveling companion Rawlins and his love Alejandra are not so well defined, are almost stereotypical characters there to support the story and little more, while Blevins, the chance pick-up fellow traveler to Mexico, seems to be the embodiment of McCarthy's opinion about what should (and will) happen to the weak and foolish.
There is a fair amount of un-translated Spanish here. If you don't know the language, this may be a little off-putting, but I found most of the meaning of these passages to be derivable from context or Latin roots, but in few places I had to turn to my Spanish-speaking wife to find out what was being said. But missing some of this will not hurt your overall understanding of what's going on, as these sections rarely have great significance.
This is a gritty, realistic story. There are scenes within this that point out in no uncertain terms just how mean, dirty, brutal, and despicable people can be. Nor is there any Pollyanna ending, merely a continuation of the drive to live, and what's done is the past, unchangeable. But reading this just might form an indelible image in your mind, one that will color all your future impressions of life.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on 19 April 2016
All the Pretty Horses is a rather weak story that is well slathered in a sauce of literary description that is not of the main character's point-of-view; extended exposition via the dialogue of the aunt; and action sequences (especially those that relate to Grady, the Captain and the recovery of the horses and the subsequent escape) that border on the ludicrous. Since the POV, is that of the author, and not that of an ill-educated John Grady, I saw no good reason for the omission of commas, apostrophes and quotation marks. I saw no good reason as to why it was that the first part of the book was so subjectively choppy in terms of time and the introduction of characters and events. A distraction that made me forget the youthful ages of the main characters, until the characters (which they frequently do) tell others, that they are sixteen and seventeen. For a YA reader, All the Pretty Horses is not your dad's YA, YA book :-)
Overall, and, as per the philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (and as a crticism that is not exclusive to Cormac McCarthy): "If a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative."
Based on All the Pretty Horses, which is my first Cormac McCarthy book: If Cormac McCarthy was as good at crafting a solid story, as he is at crafting the titles for stories that are none too solid (that I have yet to read: Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men . . .), he would be a better and much more appreciated writer.
En passant: I now see why it was that Billy Bob Thornton, failed to make much of a movie, out of All the Pretty Horses.