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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730

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.

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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, especially given his youth. He and the hacendado, or ranch owner, agree upon two things “wholly and that were never spoken and that was that God had put horses on earth to work cattle and that other than cattle there was no wealth proper to a man.”

A romance develops in the middle of the novel between the young protagonist and Alejandra, the slightly older, attractive daughter of the Mexican hacendado. Readers sense that the romance is doomed from the start, however, because of the great obstacles imposed by differences in cultural conventions, nationality, and economic class. The Americans’ stay on the ranch ends abruptly when they are apprehended by Mexican authorities, put in jail, and interrogated regarding their association with Blevins, who had killed three men.

The novel comes full circle in the end, with John Grady’s return to Texas. In his dogged quest to find the rightful owner of Blevins’s horse, John Grady comes across a radio evangelist bearing the name Jimmy Blevins, leaving readers with the distinct impression that among the things Blevins lied about was his own name. Rawlins gets his horse back, John Grady’s father is dead, and the ranch is gone. Funerals frame the novel’s action. In the final scenes, John Grady looks on as the Mexican woman “who had worked for his family fifty years” is buried in the Mexican cemetery. The protagonist then turns his back on a disintegrated legacy and heads off toward parts farther west.

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