I finished All the Pretty Horses last night and really loved revisiting this book after several years, as part of what we’re calling the American Authors Challenge over at LibraryThing, where we each pick a book by a chosen American author every month, though I adapted it a bit to fit in books I already own. We had Willa Cather in January, for which I read O Pioneers! Then in February we had William Faulkner, and I chose As I Lay Dying, which I have in a lovely Folio Society Edition, but as it turned out, I wasn’t at all in the mood for difficult reading last month, and I gave up on it early on. This month we’re featuring Cormac McCarthy, and I’ve been wanting to complete his Border Trilogy for a long while, but let too much time pass since I read the first book and felt I needed to refresh my memory before moving on. The audio version worked very well, with Frank Muller giving lots of colour to these characters. Not only that, but he gave such a sensitive reading that he made the gorgeous passages describing the cinematography, scenery, lighting and supporting characters and ‘extras’ very vivid. I use movie jargon quite on purpose because there’s something about McCarthy’s prose that brings up clear images in my mind of what he’s describing, very much like a cinematic experience, and I say this as someone who has not seen the movie version, and also as someone who rarely can imagine the scenes described in books, which might be surprising given I’m a visual artist, but so it is. I also couldn’t help but feel this story was closely connected with another beloved Western story, Brokeback Mountain, because of how attune we are to these young boys even though we are never told how they are feeling or processing events, and rather shown with, in the case of John Grady Cole, rather less than more dialogue. Though of course being shown rather than told is the mark of a good writer. The other connection to that other book was that I have seen the movie version of Brokeback Mountain and kept imagining our young hero John Grady as Heath Ledger and the way he portrayed Ennis del Mar, with a similar kind of reserve and perhaps similar looks as well, very attractive, but not in the last self-consciously so and a bit of a scamp.
For those who are not familiar with the story, it is about two boys, ostensibly cousins, both sixteen, sometime in the late 40s leaving home on horseback from their impoverished Texas lives, and in John Grady Cole’s case, a broken home, to make their way to Mexico to seek work. On their way there, he and Rawlins are joined by a young boy who claims his name is Jimmy Blevins (the name of a radio personality). He also claims to be sixteen but is probably no more than thirteen and riding atop a huge bay horse which seems much too fine a specimen to belong to him, and they suspect the boy has stolen him and will probably only bring trouble, so want nothing to do with him. But Blevins follows them doggedly until they are forced to accept him as a travel companion. Eventually the boys lose Blevins along the way (to reveal more would be a big spoiler) and find employment on a large ranch owned by a wealthy, old money, and therefore powerful family. He falls in love at first sight with the owner’s daughter, and his love is very much requited, so that the two quickly become lovers. The girl’s great-aunt holds the reins in the family and soon warns off John Grady, though in a most civilized way, by first inviting him to play a game of chess during which she tells him part of her life story, of having been educated in France and being a thinking woman, difficult to accept in society in her days. Of course, he doesn’t heed her warning and soon enough the boys are arrested under a charge of horse theft and sent to the worst kind of Mexican penitentiary, where they are forced to rely on their survival skills.
I hadn’t been as conscious of how much of the story rides on the aunt in the first reading, when I was concentrating on the story from the boy’s point of view and mostly saw Jimmy Blevins as the pivot to the all the major events, but now I see clearly he and the aunt are the two poles in this world, both pulling and pushing our two young friends along difficult paths. Another thing I noticed this time is how almost unbelievably clever and accomplished John Grady is, which is something I took completed for granted on first reading. He’s skilled with horses, which he has a great affinity for, and knows how to break and earn the trust of even the wildest creatures in record time, to the admiration of all the ranch workers and locals who congregate to watch him at work, which in itself is believable enough. But when comes time for him to defend himself and survive against the worst kinds of odds, he almost turns into a Western version of James Bond, which is of course a slight exaggeration since there are no gadgets or tricks or explosions or superhuman villains, but at the same time the feats he manages to accomplish against the direst of circumstances seem almost miraculous. Though of course in the deft hands of McCarthy, it is all very much in the realm of possibility, if one assumes that the boy is probably blessed with an good dose of intelligence and above average common sense when faced with immediate danger, along with the love of a young and beautiful woman. I would also throw in he’s probably got a good star watching over him, to make up for his raging hormones. Such things do happen and usually make for great stories, as evidenced by some the best mythological tales, which must have their roots in actual occurrences and almost, but not quite superhuman heroes, whose fates rest on the wills of the gods.
I remember reading from a softcover edition the first time and at first being a little bit daunted by McCarthy’s stream of consciousness style*, featuring very little punctuation as that style tends to do, but after the first couple of initial pages, which I read over more than once to get used to the tone and rhythm, it flowed very naturally and it was easy enough to let oneself float along in his stream and let the story take hold of the imagination. Does it sound like I loved this novel? That’s because I did, and I’m very happy I revisited it before moving on to the next book in the Border Trilogy, which I hope to do in near future while this one stays relatively fresh in my unreliable-at-best memory.
* And speaking of my unreliable-at-best memory, as an afterthought and just before hitting ‘publish’ for this post, I thought I might search my now 7-year old blog to see if I’d written anything about this novel before, and sure enough, found this, which I’d obviously completely forgotten about. Seems it took me more than ‘a couple’ of pages to get into the flow of things and I was in fact practically about to give up about 40 pages in. One thing’s for sure, my complaints about the writing style don’t hold at all for the audiobook version, where the narrator makes everything perfectly clear by giving each character his own speech mannerisms.