A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Introducing Vulpes Libris’ Write For Us competition winner ….. Dylan Plung!
Many people are already familiar with Cormac McCarthy’s work even if they aren’t aware of it. There have been some popular movies adapted from his novels: The Road and No Country for Old Men being the most notable. These are big, action-packed, blockbuster movies, so you wouldn’t expect the books they were adapted from to be so profound and difficult and, well, hauntingly beautiful. (Just a note: there’s a really awful movie version of All the Pretty Horses out there starring Matt Damon. Don’t watch it. Read the book.) If you want an easier introduction to McCarthy I would suggest, perhaps, The Road, but reading All the Pretty Horses was an experience that I won’t soon forget. Let me explain before I get to summarizing the book’s plot.
McCarthy’s writing is, in general, polarizing. If you’ve read any of his work you probably already love him or hate him. He’s been called a writer’s writer, and his style has been compared to both Faulkner and the Bible. Indeed, the words ‘uninvitingly difficult’ and ‘gruelling’ come to mind. For one, McCarthy doesn’t use much punctuation in any of his work. At all. ‘Minimalist’ is a term reviewers often throw around, but I think that would imply that the reader is going to get more syntactical help than McCarthy is inclined to offer. You’re lucky if you can spot a single colon or semicolon in an entire book. Forget em dashes. He doesn’t even use quotation marks to indicate dialogue (à la James Joyce, perhaps). Moreover, he is said to have taught himself Spanish in order to write All the Pretty Horses, and there’s a lot of it in this book. Untranslated. That’s right. Huge chunks of untranslated Spanish dialogue (also with next to no punctuation). And if that’s not enough, McCarthy’s subject matter, too, can be restrictive: the cowboys and Indians motif can be off-putting to some. Personally, I was never a cowboys-and-Indians-kind-of-kid growing up, nor am I a huge fan of Westerns to begin with, but I didn’t let that stop me. Don’t let it stop you. Don’t let any of this stop you.
Bear with me. In spite of what it sounds like you really should read this book.
Reading a good book is often compared to dreaming, but often the dreams, the books, seem to vanish in my mind after I finish them. I assume this is the same for most readers in general. I read compulsively, but that doesn’t mean that everything I read sticks with me. Not in any meaningful sense, at least. I read. I finish a book. I put it down and pick up the next one. All the Pretty Horses can be difficult and annoying at times (I’ll admit to rereading some of the passages several times, and it can be hard to tell who is talking at points) but it’s one of those stories that stays with you—a dream so vivid that it doesn’t just vanish. The characters, too, seem to be caught in their own disturbing, hallucinatory world. And, like a clear, powerful dream, the book has taken a grip on my subconscious and refused to let go ever since I first read it.
All the Pretty Horses is set in 1949 in southern Texas and follows the lives of John Grady Cole and his childhood friend Lacey Rawlins. When John Grady’s grandfather dies and their property is sold off, he and Rawlins head south to Mexico to find work. To be cowboys. It’s everything you’d expect in a book set in that time and place: there’s fighting and drinking and romance. And yes, there are a lot of horses. And yes, some of them are very pretty. John Grady and Rawlins travel through a terrifyingly beautiful dreamscape and come out on the other side transformed.
That’s it, really.
All the Pretty Horses is, at its heart, a simple story: two young men go south to Mexico in search of some change in their lives. The details and landscapes McCarthy paints are often simple and striking. The dialogue is generally sparse. And yet, wrapped inside those striking details, that sparse dialogue, that simple story, McCarthy is asking some big questions and making some big points.
At the beginning of the story John Grady sees his grandfather’s body displayed at a funeral.
He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.
It was dark outside and cold and no wind. In the distance a calf bawled. He stood with his hat in his hand. You never combed your hair that way in your life, he said.
That first line of dialogue in the book (You never combed your hair that way in your life) is at the heart of things, here. John Grady is reacting to how strange his dead grandfather looked, how changed he is. All the Pretty Horses is about change and reacting to change. It’s about a dying way of life and what it means to be true to yourself in the face of something new.
And my God, there are so many moments of jaw-dropping gorgeousness inside. I’ve noted and earmarked and highlighted so many passages that it’s genuinely difficult for me to choose. The lack of punctuation might be distasteful to some people, but there is an undeniable power and beauty in McCarthy’s writing. Go ahead. Try and deny it. Try it. Here’s one example:
They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousands worlds for the choosing.
I’ll be honest: I don’t understand Spanish. Maybe you’re like me. That’s okay. It won’t stop you from reading this, and, I hope, loving it as I have loved it. By the midway point of All the Pretty Horses I couldn’t put the book down. The story is intoxicating, the world strange and mythical and horrible and beautiful all at once. You may not understand all of it and you might find his style, at times, irksome, but that shouldn’t stop you. There are huge swathes of poetry that I don’t understand either—both T S Eliot’s complicated allusions and e e cummings’ stylistic oddities come to mind—and yet I love to read it. I find power in poetry. I find meaning. And yet that process, that magic, is hard to explain or define. Cormac McCarthy is much the same way. You have to approach his writing as you approach good poetry: not reading to understand everything, but, rather, to feel something, to experience something beautiful and fleeting, to see a glimpse of something that matters reflected in your own experiences.
Also, you can highlight the Spanish and your Kindle will translate it for you.