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All the Pretty Horses (1992): Blacks and Bays, Dapples and Greys

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (Vintage, 1992)

[originally posted 19Sep2000]

photo credit: Wikipedia

Prick up your ears.

Funny, here’s the same sentence as above. While I consider Blood Meridian a (vastly) superior novel to All the Pretty Horses

What set Blood Meridian off from most American novels is its poetic quality. Not just in the language, rhythm, and diction of McCarthy’s voice—all of which are here, just as they are int he other novel—but Blood Meridian was also not afraid to divert for a while and allow the symbolism inherent in the characters, the settings, and the actions to flourish in their own right. All the Pretty Horses is a far more plot-driven novel than Blood Meridian is. It’s shorter, more to the point, and more absorbing. But because of those things, there’s not that sense of immersion, the feeling of total connectedness with the landscape, the pervades every page of Blood Meridian.

Thus, McCarthy is left with the other two strong points available to him: his writing style and his ability to make human emotion real in the most minimal way possible. McCarthy does with relationships what Stephen King does with minor characters—he brings them alive with the odd sentence here and there, never delving into the core, but giving enough details for them to become distinct. Oftentimes it’s King’s minor characters, and McCarthy’s relationships, that bring their respective books alive for us, make them far more real than they otherwise would be. (And, to keep the parallel going, King creates minor characters and McCarthy creates relationships, for the most part, with the same gloriously gory ending in mind.) The end effect for the reader is a sense of profound change in the main characters, but without any real understanding of what it was that caused such change. That, of course, is exactly the way human relationships work—either you don’t understand them, or you hire a shrink who analyzes everything into the ground. Personally, I prefer (if you’ll forgive the pun) McCarthyism.

John Grady Cole has lost all ties to his homeland, which would seem to be northwest Texas. His grandfather is dead, his mother has up and left, and his father is in that “I’m not your dad, I’m your pal” stage. Cole believes it’s time to make his way in the world, and he and his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, head south of the border to find work. They are followed by an annoying little tagalong named Jimmy Blevins, whose seeming most mortal fear is that God will strike him dead in a lightning storm. The three of them, separately and together, wander through the book, but we always come back to Cole and McCarthy’s favorite theme: coming of age through a combination o disillusionment and violence.

I’d like to believe All the Pretty Horses was given the National Book Award because the boneheads who give said medal suddenly realized, seven years after the fact, they’d missed the boat on Blood Meridian. Not because ATPH can’t stand on its own as a National Book Award winner—it can—but because Blood Meridian is one of the best there is. *** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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