Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Adventure classics--McCarthy’s long, deadly road trip

All the Pretty Horses

by Cormac McCarthy


There’s this strange thing about Texas: the people the state reveres most--Sam Houston, say, or David Crockett, or since this is a literary blog, maybe William Sydney Porter (better known by his pen name, O. Henry)--are from someplace else. All too often, those actually from the state get little recognition. Luckily for Cormac McCarthy’s reputation as a Texas writer, he’s not from Texas.

Born in Rhode Island, in his forties, after decades of travel he left his then wife and ended up in El Paso, Texas, the westernmost point of the state. Maybe the mountainous desert landscape of West Texas inspired him. Maybe it’s just where his car just broke down.

But whether it was the beneficent effect of Texas on outsiders, or just that he quit drinking about that time (at least so he said in a later interview), but things started to click for him. He got a grant of money from a foundation, one of the so-called “genius” awards. And he started writing novels people would actually read. Novels like All the Pretty Horses, a deceptively innocuous title for a book about a young man’s horseback journey through the borderlands of Texas and Mexico as he learns about life, death and love.

Published in 1992, All the Pretty Horses is the story of sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole. When the ranch his grandfather settled is sold following the grandfather’s death, and with John Grady’s parents estranged, he starts on a horseback road trip south. Soon after leaving the ranch, his friend Lacey Rawlins joins him. Along the way, they meet a runaway who calls himself Jimmy Blevins, riding a big bay horse too fine for somebody like Jimmy to have acquired by legal means, and eager to get to Mexico where “there wont be nobody huntin me.”

(McCarthy is notoriously chary of punctuation, especially of quotation marks--the ones in the example above are mine. And although he’s famously given to weird pronouncements, I wonder whether his aversion is due solely to philosophic considerations or simply to nonfunctional keys on his also famously ancient Olivetti

His three partners in misfortune cross the Rio Grande together, and their troubles begin--the theft of the fine bay horse, John Grady’s doomed love affair with the daughter of a Mexican rancher, imprisonment supposedly for their illegal entry into the country but actually an attempt by the girl’s father to separate her from John Grady.

And one by one, everyone John Grady cares for is lost, leaving him at the end of the story to return to Texas with only the lost and found bay horse. Everyone and everything else is gone--sold, estranged, disowned or dead, lost to the train of fatality that dogs McCarthy's tales.

If you’re a friend of John Grady Cole’s, you’d better get away fast, before the terrible fate that follows him traps you also. All the Pretty Horses is my favorite among the several McCarthy novels I’ve read, but his lugubriousness is so extreme it sometimes makes me wonder if he’s completely serious.

Especially when he does things such as telling media star Oprah Winfrey that he prefers “simple declarative sentences,” knowing he’s written sentences such as this one from the opening pages of Pretty Horses: “At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost (Comanche) nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only.”

And that’s far from the only example. No wonder a writer in a workshop at last month’s DFW Writers Conference cited McCarthy as an example of a poetic writer. But “simple and declarative sentences”? I suspect that old rogue McCarthy was trying to pull Winfrey’s stylishly-clad leg.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics looks at another novel by a Texas writer, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools.)

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