All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

As I mentioned last week, I had tried to read this book several times without being able to get past the first few pages. Buoyed by my success with the other McCarthy book, I listened to this one on my most recent road trip. This version didn’t have the wonderful Tom Stechschulte as narrator, which made the story less interesting for me. The narrator was fine; he just didn’t have that so-familiar accent and phrasing.

I’ve heard that people either love or hate this book, but I have to say I found it a rather ho-hum coming-of-age story. In 1949, sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole leaves home after the farm he had hoped to inherit is sold out from under him. He doesn’t have any particular skills other than being good with horses. With his friend Lacey Rawlins, Cole sets off into Mexico looking for work, adventure and a chance to earn a stake. They meet up with a younger boy, thirteen, whose reckless ways quickly land the three young men in trouble.

As in No Country for Old Men there is a moment of irrevocable decision. As Cole prepares to help the boy recover his horse, Rawlins says to him, “. . .this is it. This is our last chance. Right now. This is the time and there wont be another time and I guarantee it.” Of course Rawlins is right: their later ordeals follow from this choice. The suffering and loss that Cole endures turn him into a man, the kind of hard-bitten, reticent man who appears in classic westerns. In a sense, this book is the back-story for Shane and all those other western heroes.

However, this excerpt also illustrates what I didn’t like about the book. Why do away with punctuation around dialogue? Cute. Precious. Unnecessarily confusing. Also, McCarthy dresses up this fairly ordinary story with sonorous language, strings of sentences held together by a series of “ands”, making it sound like something important is happening. I can see how a young man, especially one raised on the Bible, might think in such language, but—for me, anyway—the portentous tone backfired because it raised expectations that the story didn’t meet.

While the book didn’t live up to its reputation—the plot a string of brutal incidents, little character development outside of Cole, occasional bursts of poetry at odds with the rest of the story—I did want to know what happened to Cole. What I liked about him was the way he forged ahead, clinging to his own sense of what was right, even with Lacey pushing him to do what was expedient. For all that, Cole’s choices do take him across a moral line.

In a recent (8 August 2007) post to DOROTHYL, a listserv for mystery readers, author Laura Lippman wrote: “Here's my shorthand for noir — Dreamers become schemers. Classic noir stories are about little guys (and gals) whose relatively conventional dreams — for love, money or success — send them across moral boundaries that most of us never cross. And in a classic noir story, they lose, or most of them do.” Lippman’s description certainly fits Cole’s story.

Western noir seems almost an oxymoron, but there’s another sense in which this book reminded me of noir. In a review of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen's Union (“Sashimi with a Side of Fries”, _London Review of Books_16 August 2007) Adam Thirlwell says: “[This book] is also a contraption for trying to understand the meaning of the noir genre. According to this machine, a theory of Judaism might coincide with a theory of noir. Noir fiction describes a society in which happiness and goodness are always nostalgic. They are what might have been.”

In McCarthy’s book, there is a nostalgia, not just for childhood innocence, but for an earlier era. Myths of the American west shimmer behind the story, and shadows of mountain men and cowboys loom behind Cole as he struggles to make his way in a world that has changed and—we know—is about to change even more dramatically as America lurches into the 1950s. The very first image in the book is of “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame” moving together. For all the book’s failures, this is a wonderful symbol for the mysterious double-vision imparted by memory and a sense of the past.

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