All the Pretty Horses Summary
by Cormac McCarthy

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All the Pretty Horses Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

This novel, the first of Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy, is likely also his most famous novel, in large measure as a result of the 2000 film version directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz. There is no way, however, that the medium of film can capture the rich linguistic texture of the novel that is a hallmark of McCarthy’s writing.

The opening scenes of the novel, set in the late 1940’s, show the sixteen-year-old protagonist, John Grady Cole, at his grandfather’s funeral. The grandfather’s death precipitates the sale of the San Angelo Ranch that had been in the family for generations. In the wake of this news, John Grady heads out West, and then south into Mexico, on horseback, with his friend Lacey Rawlins. As the young Americans cross the border, they experience a kind of exhilaration and freedom not unlike that felt by Ernest Hemingway’s American characters in The Sun Also Rises (1926). Much of the narrative’s interest and drama stem from the characters’ negotiation of differences in language, customs, food, and national character, as innocence gives way to experience. Mexico, an unknown region, represents adventure: “There were roads and rivers and towns on the American side of the map as far south as the Rio Grande and beyond that all was white.” Once across the border, they find that Mexicans, likewise, often have a vague impression of the country to their north. A group of vaqueros asks them about the United States: “Some had friends or relatives who had been there but to most the country to the north was little more than a rumor. A thing for which there seemed no accounting.”

Along the way, a third character calling himself Jimmy Blevins attaches himself to Cole and Rawlins. Stubborn, with a “loose wing nut,” as Rawlins describes him, Blevins is one of McCarthy’s most memorable comic characters. The boy, who claims he is thirteen, lies habitually. As is the case with Eugene Harrogate in Suttree, the reader quickly learns to anticipate trouble anytime Blevins comes on stage. At one point, the kid gets so drunk that he falls off his horse. Another time, he loses his horse during a flood. The young American’s foolishness and bravado finally get him killed, and cause a good deal of trouble for his two compatriots.

Cole and Rawlins, leaving Blevins to his own devices, get jobs on a Mexican ranch, proving their abilities through a marathon breaking in of a corral full of horses, then hunting down groups of wild horses in the surrounding mountains. So descriptive are the pages on horse-breaking that they could serve as an instruction manual. John Grady wins over those around him (and the reader) with his skill as a horseman and chessplayer, his proficiency in Spanish, his genuine decency, and his impressive knowledge,...

(The entire section is 730 words.)