I stumbled across All the Pretty Horses (1992) somewhere in a second hand bookshop, some 25 years ago, read it in a weekend and as soon as I was able, I bought The Crossing (1994). I had to wait for Cities of the Plain (1998) as it hadn’t been written yet, so in the meantime I bought all of his other novels published up to that point. It is fair to say that there are few writers that have left their mark on me or how I think about writing to the degree that Cormac McCarthy has.
All the Pretty Horses: “all I know to do is stick…” (Cole to Rawlins on their friendship)
This is the story of John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, a couple of young cowboys crossing the border from the southern US into Mexico, sometime between the two world wars. Shortly after crossing they are joined by a third, even younger rider, Jimmy Blevins mounted on a horse that seems far too good for him. Rawlins and Blevins don’t get on, Rawlins plainly not trusting that the younger boy is not a thief and a hot-head with a loud mouth that will land them all in trouble. And to a large degree Rawlins is right.
They lose contact with Blevins, after a terrific thunderstorm hits the plain they were crossing, when Blevins talking of a lifetime’s fear of being struck by lightning, runs off to hide, naked in a dry gulch. Cole and Rawlins get work on a Mexican cattle ranch where their knowledge of horses, especially Cole’s, earns them the respect of the boss and his workers. Cole also catches the eye of Alejandra, the boss’s teenage daughter. The family intercede, telling Cole that he doesn’t understand the value of a woman’s virtue in Mexico, once it is lost, everything is lost.
While all this sounds pretty dry in the retelling, it is the language McCarthy uses that elevates these tales. For example, when Cole has been shot and is forced into some self-doctoring out on the plain with only a corrupt captain taken hostage, for company. He has heated his gun barrel in the fire that he may cauterise the wound as best he can:
“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 at the stars and he drew breath and howled again and jammed the gun barrel into the second wound and held it longer in deference to the cooling of the metal…“
On returning, much beleaguered by Mexico, Cole finds that his father has died as has the Mexican housekeeper / nanny, who he called his abuela (grandmother), the woman who was mainly responsible for his upbringing. At the graveside, at the small funeral, he “… put on his hat and turned his wet face to the wind and for a moment he held out his hands as if to steady himself or as if to bless the ground there or perhaps as if to slow the world that was rushing away and seemed to care nothing for the old or the young or rich or poor or dark or pale or he or she. Nothing for the living or the dead.”
The Crossing: “…most men were in their lives like the carpenter whose work went so slowly for the dullness of his tools that he had not time to sharpen them…“
This is one of the most devastating reads: whether it is the wolf story, the girlfriend story or the younger brother story (or maybe even the horse story). Billy Parham would appear to be a man born under a bad sign. It follows a similar basic trajectory to All the Pretty Horses, in that Billy first alone, and later with his brother, cross into Mexico as young cowboys and basically try all they can to come out again, alive.
The first 130 pages involve Billy learning how to trap a wolf, eventually succeeding, but rather than killing it he takes it upon himself to nurse it, force it into a long march, his intention being to release her into some mountains in Mexico. There is a great deal of peril in the journey: men do not take kindly to a young American slowly leading a pregnant she-wolf across the land. This strand of the novel ends bitterly. It is hard to think of a more viciously heartbreaking closure.
On returning to the US, existentially battered, Billy finds that his family’s farm has been decimated, horses stolen and all but his younger brother Boyd, dead. Returning to Mexico, Billy with Boyd, pass through villages and small encampments seeking the horses. The following quote is from those early days of riding, it shows the mastery of language, without being biblical or explosive or brutal, just the simple economy of brilliant story-telling.
“One of the boys brought him coffee in a bowl on a tray. He walked out onto the patio drinking it. He could hear women talking somewhere in another part of the house and he stood in the sun drinking the coffee and watching the hummingbirds that tilted and darted and stood among the flowers hanging down over the wall. After a while a woman came to the door and called him to his breakfast. He turned holding the cup and turning saw his father’s horse pass in the street.“
Boyd is more taciturn than Billy, more likely to shoot first and ask questions later. Travelling through Mexico they encounter an almost silent young woman, and eventually Boyd and the girl, disappear into the night.
Fearing that his brother is dead, Billy once again returns to Mexico eventually tracking down his grave in the corner of some godforsaken churchyard. He dissenters Boyd’s remains with the intention of returning them to the States.
The final pages have Billy back to the States, utterly broken, sitting in the road crying in the rain, visited by a limping dog that he chases off.
Cities of the Plain: “He had been born in east Texas in eighteen sixty-seven…In his time the country had gone from the oil lamp and the horse and buggy to jet planes and the atomic bomb but that wasnt what confused him. It was the fact that his daughter was dead that he couldnt get the hang of.“
Billy Parham and John Grady Cole from the previous two novels find themselves working on the same ranch in Mexico, as horsemen / cowboys. On a depressing visit to a brothel Cole falls in love with a young prostitute Magdelena, who suffers from epilepsy – she is labelled an “enferma” and is treated with suspicion by the people around her – there is talk of witchcraft.
The meat of the book is Cole’s attempt to secure this young woman away from the pimp Eduardo who ‘owns’ her, marry her and take her back to Texas where he has renovated a run down shack on his family’s land. Eduardo will not do a deal – it seems to be more a matter of pride or stubbornness rather than any lack in the business side of the deal. Cole, tries to buy Magdelena out of whatever contract or promise the pimp has over her but is unsuccessful. In the end they devise an escape plan. This ends with Eduardo and Cole having the most vicious, balletic knife-fight possibly in all literature. Lasting over 10 or so pages, it is filled with such breathless beauty that at times it is easy to forget what is being described.
The book, and therefore the trilogy, ends with a short, strange epilogue following Billy Parham through his later days, wandering at turn of the 21st century America, seeming dazed by all he has seen.
There is no getting away from the fact that all three are distinctly masculine novels: aside from the odd waitress at a cafeteria, the only substantial female characters are girlfriends, prostitues (sometimes one character is both of these) or the elderly abuela / housekeeper. The young men ride off, leaving the family home, cross the border (repeatedly), live rough, difficult lives, come into violent conflict, come up against nature in all its brutality and eventually try to make it back home. It is a ‘lonesome’ life in which they can only rely on their horses, their wits, their guns and occasionally a friend. It is easy to see these three novels as a piece of ‘existential’ writing: what are the lives of these young men about, what is the purpose, and indeed the question of the existence of god (in whatever form) is approached fairly regularly, if obliquely. If I were to guess, I would say that this question comes under the ‘unproven’ heading.
As with On the Road, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, O Pioneers!, Beloved, As I Lay Dying or even the Tales of Edgar Allen Poe there is no equivalent to these novels in the British literary canon: (almost) the same language but hugely divergent histories and such different individual experiences within those histories. As a trilogy, these books stand as one of the monumental works of 20th century American literature, as individual novels they can also stand alongside any other in the canon. If you factor in other works like The Road, Blood Meridian and No Country For Old Men it really isn’t hard to make a case for McCarthy as the greatest living US novelist.