McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992. 302 pp.
Reviewed by Michelle Simon.
Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses portrays the end of America’s wild Western era seen through the eyes of a cowboy. The novel follows John Grady Cole as he leaves his childhood home of Texas seeking to forge his own path and to make his fortune in Mexico. Leaving at sixteen, he is on a journey not only to find himself but also to discover how the cowboy way of life is disintegrating. Though clearly of the western genre, All the Pretty Horses is also uncommonly sensitive, containing many thoughtful elements that are strikingly original: imaginative descriptions of landscape, an emphasis on an unusual relationship between father and son, and the portrayal of a cowboy’s sense of identity.
The novel follows a storyline which has been written before: a young boy leaves home on a road to personal discovery. Yet McCarthy brings all new heart into the meaning of a western novel. Run-on sentences and dialogue free from convention distinguish McCarthy’s highly evocative and lyrical style that reveals a deep respect for the Western landscape. Here both a hard and tender picture of the landscapes’ beauty is described. The author writes, “The desert he rode was red and red the dust he raised, the small dust that powdered the legs of the horse he rode, the horse he led. In the evening a wind came up and reddened all the sky before him” (302). The entire book in my discernment is very poetic, even in the things left unsaid.
Particularly between John Grady Cole and his father there is a sense of silence and unspoken connectivity where so much is understood, if not explicitly said. Quiet men, John Grady and his father appear only shortly in the novel together, in the first twenty pages, and yet their relationship remains meaningful throughout the book. His father seems to be dying of lung cancer as he and John take a last long horse ride together. They talk sparingly, admiring the beauty around them and the mere presence of the other, reveling in the moment before its end. The two represent, in a sense, the end of the Old West, with all of its history being forgotten by the world, lost in translation to changing times. McCarthy illustrates this loss and the connectivity between the two men in stating, “the last thing his father said was that the country would never be the same. People don’t feel safe no more, he said. We’re like the Comanches was two hundred years ago. We don’t know what’s going to show up here come daylight” (26). John’s father seems to be the voice of the Old West as he predicts that things are changing for good. John represents the last generation of traditional cowboys, and though he seems to understand that, he fights for the continuity of the life he loves.
Carried through the book is the theme that a cowboy is a man inseparable from land or horse. Being a cowboy is not a job but a life choice, which is the ultimate separation from a more technological minded society. McCarthy stresses the need for continuity to preserve the old ways, even in ways as simple as understanding the legacy of the land. We trust McCarthy’s representation of John Grady as the embodiment of a cowboy in the novel. Therefore, the things he values are those thought to represent the cowboy persona. Those qualities which John centers his life on are principally a respect for the land and for other people; in addition, John has a strong sense of self so that he metaphorically is the “‘color of the blood of the earth, red” in the novel (302). At the end of the novel, John Grady rides into the sunset, seeking some place somewhere familiar in a changing world. John and his horse exit the novel on a journey into the unknown like cowboys from other novels perhaps, but his journey is uniquely heartbreaking as he and his horse embody one being exiting, in silent grief, a whole era of the Wild West. As McCarthy poetically depicts, “rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being. Passed and paled into the darkening land, the world to come” (302).
McCarthy imaginatively brings to life the end of the Western era, as perhaps only he could do so eloquently with his poetic rendering. I find his freedom from convention refreshing and his passionate telling entrancing and evoking. His is a tragic Western and yet one might gain a greater appreciation for the West from reading the novel. Though the novel is saddening, it is worth the reading, and I find I cannot criticize it for its sad but realistic plot turns. All the Pretty Horses is a novel which stays with the reader through McCarthy’s original touch in his imaginative landscapes, his rendering of the relationship between father and son, and his portrayal of a cowboy’s unique identity. It will open a reader’s eyes to the end of the American Western era through the eyes of its most devoted lover, the cowboy.