Book Review: All the Pretty Horses

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on the first book in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, 1992’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’. 

Let’s get this out of the way right here: I am a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy’s work. I think his prose is poetry, Blood Meridian is my all-time favorite book and I named my blog after a line in that novel. I have made it a goal to read all of his works within the next few years  (check out my review of Child of God here). This will be a partisan review.

All the Pretty Horses, the first book in McCarthy’s 90s ‘Border Trilogy’, is lighter fare for Cormac, and more easily digested than his other, more starkly violent work. Before we go any further this needs to be said: All the Pretty Horses is a horrendous title. It sounds like it’ll be a romance novel, it is soft, really has nothing to do with the ensuing story, is not reflective of Cormac’s writing or style whatsoever and feels like an editor tacked it on to help book sales. Other than that though, pretty solid title.

All the Pretty Horses is a more traditional, linear story than Cormac is used to telling–we have a clear hero (a teenager named John Grady) leaving behind an empty existence in his small Texas town with his best friend Rawlins with nothing but some food and their horses to try out life in Mexico. John Grady is a traditional hero, who is moral to a fault, loyal to his friends and principles, a leader with an incredible skill — Rawlins calls him the ‘best he’s ever seen’ with horses and the reader grows to believe he is a horse whisperer of sorts even among the cowboys of the plain.  He is a man without a country and it is through his eyes that we experience this adventure.

Along the way, the boys meet a disturbed and interesting fellow traveler, live a nomadic lifestyle, and find work on a ranch. John Grady falls in love with the ranch owner’s daughter, gets thrown into prison. As per McCarthy, there is violence, loss and darkness throughout their road, but not quite as penetrating as his typical offerings. As a result, this turns into an enjoyable, if underwhelming, novel.

It’s like a great underground band releasing a pop song more palatable for the masses–maybe your mother could get through this one where she couldn’t Blood Meridian. As a McCarthy fan, you enjoy it and recognize it as good, but it doesn’t have the powerful effect and lasting impact on you that works like The Road or even Child of God have–it feels, somehow, safe.

That said–this is still Cormac McCarthy. There is his trademark minimal punctuation (no quotation marks) and it the Cormac syntax and style. There is a lot of Spanish being spoken in the novel–none of it translated for ease of the reader. You are expected to keep up on your own, and it is to Cormac’s credit that he stays true to himself here.

It also has moments of absolutely stunning prose, which is his ace in the hole and consistently impresses. You are reading a master of his craft. Sometimes, during long descriptive passages, I found myself reading out loud just to hear the gorgeous written language of Cormac spoken. Check out the writing in this section, after John Grady wakes up in a prison hospital bed after a violent encounter with another inmate:

“He slept and when he woke he’d dreamt of the dead standing about in their bones and the dark sockets of their eyes that were indeed without speculation bottomed in the void wherein lay a terrible intelligence common to all but of which none would speak. When he woke he knew that men had died in that room.”

I mean, goddamn! That darkness, and the sheer masculine poetry of Cormac’s words (God that sounds pretentious) are unrivaled by almost any other American writer and is the reason even a ‘safe’ Cormac book like this one is head and shoulders above most other books.

Rating: ****

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