Thursday, March 12, 2020

Review of Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses is the first book of McCarthy’s critically acclaimed Border Trilogy (the other two books are The Crossing and Cities of the Plain). It is a book and trilogy I have been looking forward to reading. 

Whether or not you enjoy this book will depend more on whether you enjoy literary fiction than on the author’s skill. Cormac McCarthy is beyond dispute an award-winning and very skillful author, and the book was a national bestseller.

First, the strengths. I like the tale itself: set in the early twentieth century, two young men decide they’re going to cross the river and head south into Mexico on horseback. On the one hand they are runaways, but on the other they are competent young men, skilled in ranch work and back country living, wanting to live the life of the Old West. With no destination in mind (other than south) , they wind their way through Mexico and end up breaking horses on a ranch far south of the border. Their various adventures are interesting and very believable.

The setting seems very authentic, especially regarding the Mexican ambiance (it helps if you speak Spanish—I don’t). In many passages I felt like the author was himself experiencing what he was writing about—it seemed viscerally real. The book is gritty with the dust and dirt of the desert south—there is nothing romantic about the portrayal.

The English dialog is quite strong for the most part. It fits well with the way McCarthy has constructed the characters. I don’t recall reading a single line of dialog and thinking, “John Grady Cole would never say that!” Same for the rest of the characters. I love the laconic drawl of the cowboy character, and McCarthy has captured it exquisitely.

The strongest part of the book is the characters and their development. McCarthy has just the right touch, and the growth of the characters through the tale is very well done and, again, very believable.

Unfortunately the weaknesses of the book are significant, in my opinion. I am not a fan of literary fiction, finding it at times pretentious, and Pretty Horses is no exception. He has many paragraphs of high-flying description, composed of really, really long run-on sentences that are occasionally near to incoherent. Sometimes the similes he employs seem to be constructed of words picked at random—they don’t contribute to the picture being painted in your mind by the rest of the narrative.

For me (and I realize this is just my opinion and other readers may vociferously disagree), Pretty Horses became simply tedious in the middle of the book. I put it down for several weeks because it had become boring. Finally I made myself finish the volume (and I must confess to skimming), though the story does pick up with better pacing toward the end.

I love McCarthy’s minimalist style in The Road, an outstanding story. Some of that fine, tight, minimalism persists in No Country for Old Men. These are his later works. Pretty Horses is a different story and for me, a little disappointing. Three stars.