Two or three years ago, I walked into Dutton's, a bookstore on Magnolia in Burbank, CA, and was informed that all the books in the store, including used copies, were 50% off the marked price. They were closing and consolidating to a main shop a few miles away. Though I was sad to see such a great bookstore close, I went hog wild. I left with more books than I needed, and I found myself making lists of books I wanted and returning repeatedly over the next few weeks to check their library and satisfy my literary hunger for a lot cheaper than I was accustomed to.
Chief on my list were the novels of Ernest Hemingway, any classics, and books I'd always wanted to read but never had a chance. I picked up All The Pretty Horses on a whim. Maybe I liked the cover... I can't remember. But reading it these past couple of weeks has completely validated my $3.50 purchase. In hindsight, I'd pay full price.
Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant writer. He nails his characters down to a T, and creates such stunning and rich portraits that you can feel the dust clog your nostrils as the riders in his stories cross the plains of Texas into the dry country of Mexico and beyond. You taste the dried blood. You feel their pain, their hunger, their longing, their out of placeness. With a Cormac McCarthy novel, you feel everything.
This novel follows a young Texas rancher named John Grady Cole. Cole's grandfather passed away and his ranch the only thing left of his possesions. His mother, heir to the ranch, is set on selling it. So he runs away to Mexico with his friend Rawlins. They happen upon an oasis, a sprawling ranch amid the arid landscape, and become ranch hands. Cole meets and falls in love with the ranch owner's daughter, Alejandra, and he and Rawlins begin to "break" wild horses. The scenes Cole speaks to horses are some of the most tender and amazing in the novel.
Cole and Rawlins end up in a dangerous Mexican jail for helping a kid named Jimmy Blevins get his horse back after a lightning storm, and both nearly die in knife fights. They are released from prison, and Cole tries to win back Alejandra but finds out that she made a promise to her grandmother that she would never see him again if she paid the jail to release Cole and his friend.
Heartbroken, alone, and desperate, Cole goes back to Texas, where nothing is left for him. He rounds up the horses he lost and takes them with him, leaving everywhere for nowhere, not sure where to call home, not sure if his heart is in anything at all.
Amid so many striking, poignant scenes in the novel is the setting. It's not the old west, it's the 1950's. Cole is the last in a long line of Texas ranchers, he's a dying breed, and when he and Rawlins run away, they do so on their horses, riding along roads and cars going much faster than them. These two worlds coexist subtextually, but the subtleness comes through, and adds a haunting dimension to the novel.
One last note, John Grady Cole is only 16, yet he's a strong character. He's a man. He knows right from wrong and he won't budge from his morals for anything or anyone, not even if he's facing death. I'd be friends with him. I admire him. I guess that's part of the power of this story. It's a time gone past and yet here still today. Today it's tough to meet a twenty-something that's an adult, much less a man. So I like John Grady Cole.
I highly recommend this novel, but beware, the prose is hypnotic and engrossing. The tale is as captivating as anything you'll read, but it might haunt you, just a little bit. The subtext of this novel lasts far longer, far more subconsciously, than should be rightly admitted.