Book Review – The Border Trilogy: ‘All the Pretty Horses’ by Cormac McCarthy

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What better way of beginning my first post with a review of a modern American classic?

Since watching the highly acclaimed 2007 film adaptation of ‘No Country For Old Men’ earlier this year, I have been eager to discover and experience the work of Cormac McCarthy. Now, you may find my usage of the latter verb somewhat unusual – at worst the more easily offended of you may even consider it to be a gross malapropism – but if you’re already wondering why I have opted for experience rather than say, sample or the more orthodox read (I know, I’m such a maverick) then fear not!

All jesting and linguistic tomfoolery aside; as I shall explain for those of you who do not know, Cormac McCarthy is without doubt a writer that you cannot help but experience, such is his ability to immerse his reader into the desolate and barren environments he both creates and curates. He is notorious for his dark and often bleak stylisation of America’s old (and new) southwest and his writing is infamous for its measured, unpretentious form – not least for its non-conformity. Yet still, as a chronicler of his time he is unrivaled in his tenacity and committed to exploring (what Bruce Springsteen terms) the difference between ‘American dream and American reality’.

It’s to be expected then, that his vast knowledge of American history, society and geography infuses itself in his work (no mean feat for a native of Rhode Island). This is perhaps no more evident than the first instalment of the Border Trilogy, ‘All the Pretty Horses’.

Set between the arid Texan border and the badlands of Northeastern Mexico, the narrative centres upon sixteen year old John Grady Cole, a budding cowboy who effectively loses his home after his Grandfather’s death. Faced with the prospect of having to abandon his way of life as a rancher, Grady opts to defy his mother (who seeks sell the family home for her own ends) and leave Texas along with his cousin and closest companion, Lacey Rawlins. After setting off in search of work in nearby Mexico, the pair encounter Jimmy Blevins, a young boy who arouses suspicion in Rawlins on account of his uncharacteristically large bay horse and unlikely age (apparently sixteen but much nearer thirteen). Their meeting with Blevins proves to be fatefully potent and sets into place events – some for better, some for worse – which changes the course of the narrative and their lives irrevocably.

When Blevins’ horse is stolen, a ‘cat and mouse’ like pursuit ensues and Cole and Rawlins head further south after becoming separated from Blevins. Arriving in the fertile oasis region of Coahuila, the pair find work at a local ranch and Cole soon falls in love with the ranch owner’s daughter, Alejandra; beginning an affair. However, despite developing a strong rapport with the owner of the ranch and earning the respect of its workers, the pair are arrested by the authorities under suspicion of aiding the absent Blevins – who has since killed a man whilst attempting to retrieve his horse.

Blevins is eventually executed and the cousins become imprisoned in a notoriously dangerous prison. After narrowly surviving an attack by someone hired to kill him, Cole (along with Rawlins) is eventually released through the intervention of Alejandra’s aunt. Yet at the cost of his freedom, Cole is forbidden from continuing his relationship with Alejandra who leaves for France after promising to do so on the condition that he be freed.

After a brief yet passionate rendezvous, Alejandra decides to honour her promise to her Aunt and the pair part ways never to see each other again. On his way back to the Texas, Cole kidnaps the captain who executed Blevins and forces him to recover the stolen horse. After fleeing across country returns to Texas and attempts to find the owner of Blevins’ horse and eventually reunites with Rawlins. Upon discovering that both his father and the family nursemaid – his only remaining family – have died, he decides to leave yet again and rides off alone, into the unknown.

Stylistically, McCarthy’s prose is minimalist and not in the least bit florid. Much in the vein of Hemingway, his particular preference for polysyndetic syntax (the use of several conjunctions in close succession) accommodates his unrestricted narrative style. Rather unconventionally, he is also partial to prophetic narratorial monologues that often encompass the eschatological portension of each particular event that transpires:

He picked out the smallest doe among them and shot her. Blevin’s horse rose howling where he’d tied it and the deer in the bajada leapt away and vanished in the dusk and the little doe lay kicking.

When he reached her, she lay in her blood in the grass and he knelt with the rifle and put his hand on her neck and she looked at him and her eyes were warm and wet and there was no fear in them and then she died. He sat watching her for a long time…He thought about Alejandra and he remembered her the first time he ever saw her passing along the cienaga road in the evening with the horse still wet from her riding it in the lake and he remembered birds and the cattle standing in the grass and the horses on the mesa. The sky was dark and a cold wind ran through the bajada and in the dying light a cold blue cast had turned the doe’s eyes to but one thing more of things she lay among in that darkening landscape. Grass and Blood. Blood and Stone. Stone and the dark medallions that the first flat drops of rain caused upon them.

He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he’d first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he’s presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and felt a loneliness he’d not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. 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.

While it may not always be instantly apparent – McCarthy’s work exists and speaks, and operates on the basis that a greater, infinite meaning lies behind every thought, every feeling and every process known to man. Such a philosophy is magically real, and this provides an interesting contrast to the sobering and often morbidly ultra-real tone for which he is renowned.

Yet despite his omniscient style, McCarthy also remains ardent and uncompromising in his belief that knowledge comes only with experience or rather loss (the termination of Cole’s love affair, and his future companion from book two of the trilogy, The Crossing, Billy Parham’s even greater personal losses both attest to this). Like many who have the traversed the endless miles of country before him, Cole’s fateful transition from youth to young manhood has come at a great cost. The realisation of his unshakeable will and new found resilience – plaudits of the Western masculine ideal – provides him with little or no consolation. Instead, the pastoral idealism that led him on his path has affixed the cold, unremitting metallic weight of adulthood to his chest and not pride or fulfilment, and the ‘dark medallions’ of his adolescent ventures expose a sadness and sense of loss that only the world around him can relate.

Thus, whilst essential for survival in the perilous environments he finds himself in, Cole ultimately pays the price for his rugged masculine individuality.  Whether it is predetermined or not, he soon learns that he is inextricably bound to his fate, and this belief, or resignation (as those who are familiar with the trilogy know only too well) proves to have extreme ramifications for him in the years to come. In this sense, the novel is perhaps McCarthy’s most enduring existential statement.

And whilst its deeper significance may be lost on John Grady Cole, his retort to the Captain’s feeble chastisement towards the end of the novel could not be more true:

You make bad troubles for you self.

I got troubles you never even heard of.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Border Trilogy: ‘All the Pretty Horses’ by Cormac McCarthy

    • Thank you so much Anne! I really appreciate you taking the time to read this when there are plenty of other bloggers out there who are worth your attention. Coming from someone of your stature, you couldn’t have written a more encouraging comment! (in case you haven’t seen it, I think you might want to have a look at my ‘blogness on the edge of town’ page 😉

      I really needed that. Needless to say, I’ll be forever grateful for your inspiration 🙂

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