Book Review – “All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses (1992), is the first in his Border Trilogy, including The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998). All the Pretty Horses is a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, of John Grady Cole, the sixteen year-old protagonist.  After Cole’s stage actress mother decides to sell her father’s ranch in Texas (Cole’s known and beloved world), Cole, and his friend, Lacey Rawlins, leave on their horses for Mexico. The year is 1948, they are unsure of what lies south of the border, but they expect to find adventure, and perhaps a life similar to the one Cole knew on his grandfather’s ranch. The adventures experienced by Cole and Rawlins, rival those in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, set roughly 100 years before.

As they cross the Rio Grande, Cole and Rawlins are joined by Jimmy Blevins, a younger teenager who rides a presumably stolen, yet beautiful, horse, is a dead-aim with a uniquely constructed pistol, and is constantly in trouble. Blevins’s horse is stolen from him after a frightening thunderstorm, Cole and Rawlins aid Blevins in retrieving it, with Blevins killing a man in the process.

Separating from Blevins along the way, Cole and Rawlins come upon the vast ranch of the wealthy Don Hector Rocha y Villareal. They are hired to herd and break wild horses. One of the most beautiful passages in the book, if not in much of contemporary American literature, are the scenes of the two boys breaking a group of wild horses, with several ranch hands looking on, earning their respect.

Cole predictably falls in love with Don Hector’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra, who divides her time between her father’s ranch and her mother’s home in Mexico City. Cole and Rawlins soon are arrested and banished from the ranch on grounds of aiding Blevins for stealing a horse, a severe crime. Cole and Rawlins are sent to a Mexican prison. Some of the novel’s most violent passages, a theme familiar to McCarthy readers, take place here. Miraculously, they survive and are released from prison. Rawlins returns to Texas, Cole goes back to the ranch to reclaim his love with Alejandra. Cole is, at best, coldly received at Don Hector’s ranch. He is verbally resisted by the Duena Alfonsa, Alejandra’s great-aunt, from reestablishing relations with Alejandra. The Duena Alfonsa lectures Cole on the historical impossibilities of why his relationship with Alejandra can never manifest. Her long and philosophical litany teaches Cole that one may not get what one desires, even if he is determined to attain it, and in spite of an honorable and virtuous life. Sometimes, one gets what he gets because Fate doles out what she does. With no choice in the matter, and no reasons to stay in Mexico, Cole begins his long journey back to Texas, beginning a life of introspection and ambiguity.

Cole’s life back in Texas partially sets the stage for the final novel in the Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain.  All the Pretty Horses won The National Book Award for Fiction, and in 2007, Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, The Road.

Join the Modern Classics Book Club this month at the Denton Public Library-North Branch, Wednesday September 10 from 7:00 – 8:00 p.m., to discuss All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

(Reviewed by Doug Campbell, North Branch Senior Librarian)

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