I have been looking forward to this review for a while now. My first taste of McCarthy was when I saw the deeply disturbing but fantastic 2009 movie The Road staring Viggo Mortensen previously known for playing Aragorn in Lord of the Rings and the star role in A History of Violence. It would be years before I actually picked up my first two McCarthy books, two for one deal at a second hand book shop got The Road and All the Pretty Horses, and what excellent purchases they were. Sadly I may have to re-buy my book collection since I’m in the process of beginning the naturalisation process so I can be a full UK citizen and I did not realise how steep the shipping and handling over seas is! However I did bring some of my books, All the Pretty Horses being one of them.
Setting: 1949, San Angelo, Texas => Mexico
Three Sentence Summary:
- John Grady, our main character, has lost his grandfather and the novel opens with a viewing of the body and the news that the ranch he lives on will be sold.
- John and his friend Lacey decide to ride their horses south into Mexico in search of fun and work and pick up another companion, reluctantly, a young outlaw calling him self Jimmy Belivins.
- John and Lacey loose Belivins at some point and ride further south in to the Mexican landscape eventually finding work but the trouble Belivins got into catches up to John and Lacey who are put into prison and narrowly survive long enough to be bailed out when Lacey decides to ride back to Texas and John tries to find the girl he fell in love with on the ranch but ultimately gets revenge on the corrupt officials who imprisoned him and his friends, reunites with Lacey, and then rides off into the sunset.
This story is a seriously sad one. Some main themes include isolation, loneliness, being “the stranger in a strange land”, and loss. John Cole Grady, over the course of the book looses his grandfather in the beginning which also means that his family is selling off the ranch something he was deeply attached to, later John Grady falls in love with a young woman living on the ranch, Alejandra, whom he will later be forced to never see again, after him and Lacey are arrested they reunite with Belivins only to witness him being walked off and executed off the record, by the end of the novel John Grady’s father dies along with the longtime family caregiver (his mother has been out of the picture for a long time), and it’s somewhat implied by the ending that the strain of the journey on the friendship between John Grady and Lacey ultimately breaks them up leaving John Grady with no more ties and no home to ride off alone into the sunset with his horse and Belivins bay horse.
One of the reasons I like reading so much is because often times the good books deal with big complex issues and emotions such as where one fits into society, John Grady being an American in Mexico is divorced from his heritage and in a land where he knows almost nothing of the history or culture. This being removed from one’s history is a form of self isolation where one has nothing which to stand on but the skills and personality he has but in a foreign country he is almost treated like an invader of their space, especially considering that most of the areas of Mexico he goes to are deeply poor and he too is deeply poor but the perception of leaving one’s country for another to seek a new life is almost universally rejected like a foreign cell in a healthy body.
John Grady’s continual loss through the book is emphasised through his divorce from his history becoming someone so different from his official documentation of his citizenship he is perceived as fringe individual who has in fact stolen the identity of the real John Grady, someone who can fall through the justice system cracks and be denied basic rights enjoyed by Americans and Mexicans which is one of the reasons he and Lacey end up in prison and Belivins executed. This trial by fire, a voluntary process of rebirth and renewal continually burns away his credibility and belongings until in a way he defines him self as an existential hero by defining him self by his principals of trying to do what he feels is right but in fighting for his survival he carries the guilt of Belivin’s death and the man he ends up killing in prison who was paid to assassinate him.
All of the bigger forces in society such as the officials, the ranch owner, the privileged prisoner all reinforce an idea that “the system does not care about you, good or ill, unless you have power, usually money, to shape the world around you. This idea is highlighted by the death of the prison assassin
The chuchillero’s knife clattered on the floor. From the red boutonniere blossoming on the left pocket of his blue work shirt there spurted a thin fan of bright aterial blood. He dropped to his knees and pitched forward dead into the arms of his enemy. Some of the men in the hall had already stood to leave. Like theatre patrons anxious to avoid the crush. (201)
How chilling is that? The prisoners, of whom the assassin was one of them, just leave the end of the fatal fight like patrons from the end of a baseball game where their team is either loosing or winning so bad that the game is no longer interesting to watch. However this is exactly the systematic degradation that John Grady faces with frequency, a system that doesn’t care about you personally, it doesn’t care about it’s own cogs, it just acts.
On a personal level, I feel like this is what the process of leaving behind one’s home country and history behind in order to re establish one self as a new being: just like being born again, there are a lot of exits off the highway of new found life and most of them do not seek you out personally but are just cogs in a bigger system and when you’re young it’s easy to interpret these forces as a great personal evil when really it’s just the crushing weight of reality who answers to its higher power of bureaucracy and that answers to the higher power of money which answers to a higher power of belief in power and on it goes.
“What [John Grady] loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.” (6)
“The water was black and warm and he turned in the lake and spread his arms in the water and the water was so dark and so silky and he watched across the still black surface to where she stood on the shore with the horse and he watched where she stepped from her pooled clothing so pale, so pale, like chrysalis emerging, and walked into the water.” (141)
“John Grady had begun to shout even before the gunmetal hissed in the meat. His shout clapped shut the calls of lesser creatures everywhere about them in the night and the horses all stood swimming up into the darkness beyond the fire and squatting in terror on their great thighs screaming and pawing the stars and he drew breath and howled again and jammed the gunbarrel into the second wound and held it the longer in deference to the cooling of metal and then he fell over on his side and dropped the revolver on the rocks where it clattered and turned and slid down the basin and vanished hissing into the pool.” (274)