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Sunday, July 12, 2009

All the Pretty Horses

I find that it is difficult to state for certain my opinion on Cormac McCarthy and his novels, of which All the Pretty Horses is the third that I have read. McCarthy's novels are strongly influenced by some of the true greats of 20th century literature: Joyce, Faulkner, and Hemingway. The problem is that this results in an occasionally chaotic and frightening jumble of styles, such as when he uses the arcana of Joyce, the obfuscation and esoterica of Faulkner and the choppy uber-manly dialogue of Papa Ernest.

There is also, and this is a more personal objection, a disconnect in terms of subject. As you might be able to guess this novel features horses in a central role, in a manner which is often exclusionary to those of us who aren't cowboys or ranchers, often to the point of being tedious and sleep-inducing. (There is a span of about 30 pages in the first-half of this novel which deal in the majority with the simple training and riding of horses and which nearly caused me to quit this novel due to worries that my snoring would disturb others.)

McCarthy's style can also be so rugged at times to be comical. Sometimes, as in No Country for Old Men, this is intentional, as Llewellyn Moss's defiance of peril is meant to be darkly absurd. Here however it often seems like McCarthy is shoe-horning in philosophical opinions into the novel through the poorly-chose mouthpieces of his characters. Young ranchers John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins seemingly can not sit by a fire without having a terse but loaded discussion about God and the nature of man. Hearing complicated questions put aside in five words or less with salt-of-the-earth diction gets a little overwrought after a while.

All those objections aside, when McCarthy is good, he's one of the best around. All the Pretty Horses features a spare but well-constructed plot. After his grandfather dies and his mother, fed-up with the lifestyle, sells the family ranch, John Grady Cole splits for Mexico, convincing his friend Lacey to go with him. On their way they encounter a young boy riding a horse much too fine to be his, and packing a six-shooter he is uncomfortably good with. The exploits and troubles the boy leads Cole and Rawlins into are deadly and have long-lasting consequences.

All the Pretty Horses also features a surprisingly well-written forbidden romance between Cole and the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher and a memorable and chilling set-piece of life in a Mexican jail. In these scenes McCarthy's prose reads like Faulkner's prose filtered through the sieve of Hemingway, and draws the reader onward, compelling attention and dazzling with his command over the situation.

I'm still not sure if McCarthy will ever be one of my favorite authors, but I have great respect for his talent, if not always for the way he uses it. All the Pretty Horses is a good read with some notable exceptions, and it gets 7.2 out of 10.

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