Book Review – All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses manages to capture a great deal of emotion with a simplistic and straightforward approach to the narrative. A clear and compassionate love for horses as well as capturing the ambiance of a time and place unique to history gone by, this novel is more than just Black Beauty for adults.

John Grady Cole and his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, at the tender ages of sixteen and seventeen respectively, decide to run away to Mexico. With only their horses and a few supplies, the boys ride off for the border but quickly discover that they were being followed by a young boy on a horse that he clearly stole. Unable to reason with the younger boy calling himself Jimmy Blevins and unable to bring themselves to abandon him to his own stupidity, John Grady and Rawlins’ fates become inextricably entangled with his.

McCarthy’s writing style conveys emotion without using overly sentimental language, without using much in the way of emotional descriptors at all, actually. It’s a style that reminds me of Hemingway in its execution. The dialogue at first seems halted and stiff but the reader quickly adapts to McCarthy’s approach and the unpunctuated conversations become clearer.

The first twenty or thirty pages are the toughest to get through with little information to help sort out characters and plot the reader is as confused and overwhelmed as John Grady and Rawlins before they finally strike out for Mexico. The calm they find in their saddles is mirrored in the reader getting a chance to digest the information and figure out the situation.

One aspect that McCarthy works well to incorporate is the language barrier that the characters face in Mexico. The, at times, confusing dialogue is further complicated when Spanish and English converge, but there is enough contextual evidence to help along those readers, like myself, who at least took Spanish in high school. If you took French, it’s easy enough to look a few of the words and phrases up online.

What surprised me about the language barrier was the way McCarthy captured the broken English of a non-native speaker (I’m too out of practice to attest to the authenticity of the Spanish itself). Their grammar is wrong in all the right places and the characters’ accents roll right off the page. Even the English speakers have holes in their grammar. It’s very conversational in the language though confusing in its presentation.

With a wonderful balance between nostalgic landscapes and action scenes straight out of an old western, the novel is ultimately a romance and though there is a girl, she comes in a close second to the titular horses. The horse related terminology almost counts as a third language for the novel. But these linguistic details only show the true depth of McCarthy’s work. The writing of this novel overshadows a well constructed but simple and clichéd plot. The novel is the first in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy but feels like the other two books might have been an afterthought. I find the ambiguity more comfortable if All the Pretty Horses is a stand-alone novel, but I may have to read the rest of the trilogy to be sure.

 

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