All the Pretty Horses

I came into this book with pre-conceived mixed feelings, having never read another Cormac McCarthy book before, having made up my mind early on that I had conquered a good amount of Hemingway and Steinbeck and Salinger to think that I pretty much “got” the terse guys. I was actually a little defensive. I almost didn’t want to like this book because, within the first few pages, it was almost too on the nose. Too up my alley. But I gave in, and of course I liked it, because it’s an amazing book. You already knew that.

McCarthy’s pacing and style took a little getting-used-to. None of the dialogue is written with quotation marks, which is a punctuation mark I had really taken for granted. The quotation marks we see in everyday text actually do something to our brains when we read. They make us pause for a split second, to picture the character or real person saying the thing inside those quotation marks, and then pause again to remind ourselves that the speaking part is over and the omniscient narrator has taken over again. McCarthy doesn’t give us that luxury. I read this book as one long, slightly exhausting stream-of-consciousness, but thankfully the language was so simple and thoughtful that it got easier and easier to read. His stream-of-consciousness, or rather the SOC of John Grady and Rawlins, is more like a trickle. These two old boys certainly aren’t thinking fast. They’ve got plenty of time to kill.

When I say “simple,” I don’t mean stupid, of course. There are plenty of words in this book that confused the hell out of me; page 153 alone contains “blowsy,” “manacled,” and “scabbarded,” and I didn’t bother looking any of these terms up because somehow I felt it would take me out of the simplicity. With that bit of archaic vocabulary, McCarthy took me back to the late ’40s, but to a place that felt much further in the past than that. He writes (and paints a picture) like a peer of Hemingway, rather than a successor. It’s truly hard to believe this book was published in 1992.

Where these boys come from, there is no culture or diversity, even thought they’re on the border, constantly in contact with Mexico. That is the status quo. Two societies, one misunderstanding. That is the simplicity. These two outlaw main characters, running from a crime they committed and then caught up in an extended, dangerous lie about who they really are and who they’re travelling with, they lived more in 300 pages and 17 or so years than I have, and maybe ever will. They survive in the outdoors, they risk their lives for love, they suffer through prison and hsopital stays, they have heavy conversations with people they barely know. I’d liken their conversations to Butch and Sundance or even Ennis and Jack, but the difference with Grady and Rawlins is that they don’t have a chemistry. They’re not guys with twinkles in their eyes, destined for greatness, for their legend to outlive them. Maybe Grady is, or at least he’d like to have a legacy, but he’s not as charismatic as either of those famous pairs. They’re both mostly just dudes who have crazy things happen to them, and knowing about their story is fascinating, and then it’s over. And that’s fine. Part of the enjoyment of McCarthy is picturing the landscape he describes. He pinpoints it with equal parts feelings and textures, and it’s a truly wonderful reading experience.

Speaking of a truly wonderful reading experience, here are some beautiful passages. Take them in, and then take in the whole book:

p. 26 // “Rawlins propped the heel of one boot atop the toe of the other. As if to pace off the heavens.”

p. 215 // “The cigarette glowed a deep red where John Grady drew on it and his face with the sutures in his cheek emerged from the darkness like some dull red theatric mask indifferently repaired and faded back again.”

p. 256 // “He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations.”