Sunday, January 10, 2016

All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

Staff review by Chris Saliba

All the Pretty Horses is the first in Cormac McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” of novels. McCarthy is a big name in American literature, his work lauded by maverick literary critic Harold Bloom. His 1985 novel, Blood Meridian, is considered his best.

Set in 1949, the main character, John Grady Cole, is a 16-year-old who has long lived on his grandfather’s ranch in Texas. When his grandfather dies he decides to travel south to Mexico in search of work. He persuades his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, to come with him. They both travel by horse. Along the way they meet a character named Jimmy Blevins. Blevins looks like he’s about 13 years of age, but says he’s older. He seems like a bit of a wild card, being in charge of a horse with a pedigree that no 13-year-old could afford, making John Grady and Rawlins suspicious. He also has a pistol that he claims great expertise in using. Despite misgivings, they allow him to travel with them.

John Grady and Rawlins eventually find work in Mexico and are doing fairly well, but Blevins has managed to get himself into a considerable amount of trouble. When the Mexican authorities hold John Grady and Rawlins in part responsible for Blevins' actions, they are incarcerated and experience some very rough treatment. The two must try and get out of prison, even though the authorities are clearly corrupt.

This is a brooding novel full of mood and atmospherics. McCarthy pays a lot of attention to the subtle body language used between characters - strange looks in the eyes, ominous silences, barely audible gasps. In fact, in many ways the novel reads like a really suspenseful cowboy movie, even a pastiche. Choosing the cowboy genre obviously makes it difficult to write something strikingly original. That’s probably a bit unfair to say. McCarthy’s novel is undoubtedly a considerable achievement. It’s a fully realised world, with believable characters and dialogue that really captures the speech of ordinary people. Its overwhelmingly ominous mood, full of dust and grit, clings as you read. The novel is also a great aesthetic pleasure. Its prose, while terse and stripped back, keeps you turning the pages with bated breath.

All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy. Published by Picador. ISBN: 9780330510936  RRP: $19.99

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