Cormac McCarthy’s novels are about wanderers, boys and men cut adrift from moorings, whether geographical, emotional, or moral. Black destiny hovers. And McCarthy serves it up in a prose style unashamed of being, now and again, purple. A persuasion of the depths around and in the characters requires a proper rhetorical ballast. Sometimes it sounds Faulknerian, sentences with no ending, swirling contextually and rhythmically. Sometimes it is Hemingway, pronouns repeated, conjunctions holding off periods. The matter borne by this artfulness is darkness, curse, and the simultaneous panorama of fallen nature and fallen humanity. Suttree (1979) opens with the main character, son of wealth, living as a bum on the river in Knoxville trotlining for catfish in water three parts sewer. Conventional civilization is unsupportable by the like of Suttree, and vice versa. In Blood Meridian (1985), the bloodiness involved in civilizing the wastes of northern Mexico, land of the Apache, removes the humanity of a boy who, typical of McCarthy’s stories, wanders onto the scene.
All the Pretty Horses, which received the 1992 National Book Award for fiction, takes up the homeless dirge again, but with a tenderness and wistfulness and comedy not so typical of McCarthy. Horses, at least, are tameable and beautiful, capable of driving the pastoral dream of sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole, who heads south to Mexico on horseback with his friend, Lacey Rawlins, in 1949. Life in Texas has ignored Cole. His mother and father are divorced. The mother owns the ranch and will sell. Cole’s grandfather, the last real rancher, has just been buried. Cole’s girlfriend has found another. Cole, meanwhile, is temperamentally suited for nineteenth century ranch life. His teenage diversion is not tooling around the small Texas town but riding out on the family range and listening to the ghosts of Indian war parties.
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 aloll 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.…
The ghost Indians Cole hears “bear lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.” This is surely a novelist “hearing with” the teenage boy, but it establishes Cole’s passionate openness to the nonmodern verities which the ensuing forty-five years of history, McCarthy implies, have eliminated from the suburban teenage perspective. McCarthy is making no naïve youth in fashioning John Grady Cole, whose bloodline includes forebears intent on inhabiting wilderness. He loves animals like a young Neanderthal and is not much separated from those Indian boys “jaunty as circus riders.”
As Cole and Rawlins light out for the Mexican territory they are pursued and joined by another runaway, Jimmy Blevins. Jimmy rides a beautiful horse and carries a gun, but is a nervous wreck, fearful of thunder, and Cole and Rawlins want no part of him.
You want to flip to see who gets to shoot him?
Yeah. Go ahead.
Call it, said Rawlins.
The coin spun in the air. Rawlins caught it and slapped it down on top of his wrist and held his wrist where they could see it and lifted his hand away.
Heads, he said.
Let me have your rifle.
It aint fair, said Rawlins. You shot the last three.
Well go on then. You can owe me.
Well hold his horse. He might not be gunbroke.
You all are just funnin, said the boy.
Funnin, as is McCarthy. It is artistic fun to eschew the grammatical manners of printed English to shape a stripped dialogue to enhance the laconic voice of all McCarthy dialogue. It is also fun to escape America, to be sixteen again, to ride horses, to see country, and to meet poor Mexicans, some of whom treat the characters to that embracing hospitality so missing in their own families. And the cause of trouble to come is not malevolent destiny so much as hapless Jimmy Blevins, who loses his mount in that feared thunder, steals his horse back from the small towner who assumed possession, and ignorantly shoots a man. McCarthy says, look at the probable genesis of our mythical Billy the Kid and Jesse James. A boy just into puberty with a horse and gun riding round will sooner or later get in trouble which no juvenile services can prevent. This is where McCarthy wants his characters, as far as possible from...
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