After I read The Road, I was so traumatised that I couldn’t bring myself to read any more Cormac McCarthy. But a suitable amount of time has gone by so that the trauma has faded and as part of my bid to become more familiar with American writers I embarked on The Border Trilogy which begins with All The Pretty Horses.
First of all, I regret waiting so long to come back to McCarthy as this has become one of my all-time favourite books and he has become my favourite American novelist.
Much like David Mamet in his best plays, such as Glengarry Glen Ross, McCarthy has a distinctly American vernacular. Not only does he sound particularly American, but his words perfectly capture the qualities of the landscapes of the South-West. While reading this novel, the language constantly reminded of paintings in a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition I saw at the Whitney last year – monumental and expansive, tough but beautiful, splashes of vivid colour and familiar objects portrayed in unexpected ways making you encounter the world in a new way.
His themes are also distinctively American as McCarthy pays tribute to the myth of the cowboy. I was hooked from the first page with the appearance of the young Texan rancher John Grady Cole. It is immediately clear that his life is fighting the modern world as he hears a train:
“It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing groundshudder watching it till he was gone.”
The passage of the train is echoed just a few pages later when Cole goes riding, but this time you hear echoes of the past rather than the encroachments of the present:
“When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues allol and footslaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum, of their secular and transitory and violent lives.”
Transitory and violent lives are what I have come to expect of the characters in McCarthy’s novels but he also writes about the power of love, which seems more poignant set against the violence. The novel covers the relationship between Cole and Alejandra, whom he falls in love with when he first sees her riding, but equally moving is the story of Alejandra’s great-aunt and her failed love. She says :
“I wanted very much to be a person of value and I had to ask myself how this could be possible if there were not something like a soul or like a spirit that is in the life of a person and which could endure any misfortune or disfigurement and yet be no less for it.”
This brings me back to The Road. In both novels the characters do suffer much misfortune and yet this serves to highlight their capacity to love and they, and we, are all the better for it.