If you haven’t read McCarthy before this, hold tight for a terrific ride. Literally. All the Pretty Horses is a novel about riding out on horseback one adolescent morning, away from the breakup of the family and ranch, and heading for the open spaces where a young man can love horses and tend cattle in peace. Whoa, you say – a cowboy novel? Yes, but set not in the 1850s but the 1950s.
You begin to see, even before the young hero has crossed from west Texas into Mexico, that the book’s larger landscape is the grand old American genre, the novel of exploration and discovery. Part of the trick is in the rhythm of the book’s larger patterns. Long introspective passages often take place in the saddle, your disbelief lulled by the ride. Scenes of action and dialogue tend to be short and bare and crisp.
The rest of the trick, the trick of convincing, comes from McCarthy’s setting these narrative skills onto the clear, simple lines of an adventure story. John Grady Cole rides off, runs away into the high plateau with his friend Rawlins. They’re joined, to their dislike, by Blevins, a pathetic dolt who only brings trouble. Losing him, the other two end up working on a vast north Mexican hacienda, where John Grady’s horse skill endears him to the powerful rancher. This same skill and his young healthy body also endear him to the rancher’s beloved daughter. The resulting affair and subsequent paternal revenge make up the outlines of the plot. Two basic ironies help shade it in.
There is first the irony of date. This is the 1950s, so while there are wide open spaces, the land is owned, fenced, crossed by roads. The boy is caught by telephone; a truck hauls him off to prison. The free range is the adolescent dream from which the action of the novel starts to wake him. Second is the irony of place, the political irony. Down this side of the Rio Grande, the all-American boys become just wetbacks, illegal aliens. Cheap labour, useful as long as they know their place. But you wouldn’t, if you were the grand Don Hector, want one of these riff-raff gringos to marry your daughter. Against the social rigidity of the Hidalgo code, John Grady Cole, a natural Jacksonian Democrat (of the old Andrew, not young Michael, mode), begins a literally painful and sometimes comic lesson in class-consciousness.
If, on the other hand, you have read McCarthy before, you ‘ll see why this novel has been his first great popular success. It hasn’t the unflagging descriptive genius of Suttree (1979) or the significance as political parable of Blood Meridian (1985). But nor does it have Suttree’s nearly indiscernible plot, or the dizzying deadpan shifts from horror to hilarity of Blood Meridian. It’s simply more accessible .
It’s not perfect. The book jacket quotes Jim Harrison praising it for, among other things, ‘touching on matters that are never allowed access to serious (literary) novels’. Well, yes, if that means daring to rush into the near void of serious novels with a cowboy or ranch setting. But on the matter of innocent first love, maybe there’s a virtue in fearing to tread . Here it’s not as weak as the mawkishly sentimental affair that Suttree has with the mussel gatherer; in this book the affair with the perfectly beautiful Alejandra is seen through John Grady’s naive eyes. But Alejandra is still little more than Barbie in mantilla. McCarthy needs to play away from this weakness. That said, McCarthy is a great writer.
You say whoa, you don’t like ‘great’ thrown around in that easy gringo way. All right, McCarthy is not a great writer. Suttree is a great novel. Blood Meridian is a great novel. McCarthy wrote them. All the Pretty Horses is a wonderfully fine novel, and McCarthy wrote that, too. Get up on your horse and go get it.