All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Disappointing. So, for years, I’ve been trying to fit a Cormac McCarthy novel into my reading list, but I never quite found time for it between school readings and personal readings I had already decided on. Finally, I bought his National Book Award winning novel, All the Pretty Horses, and resolved to read it.

I have to say … this book was, at best, disappointing. At worst, it is horrible.

[NOTE: To those of you who have not read this book yet, but mean to, don't read below, because I am going to talk about the story.]

[NOTE II: To those of you who have not read this book yet ... do yourself a favor and read below.]

The basic premise. So, the story centers around this sixteen-year-old kid named John Grady and his seventeen-year-old friend Rawlins. John Grady’s family ranch is being sold, and his parents are divorced and dysfunctional, so this is the perfect reason for him and Rawlins to head down into Mexico. “Wait … but why are they heading down to Mexico?” I told you! Because his family’s ranch is being sold! “But … I mean, is there something down there? Like, do they have a plan?” Ranch! His ranch was sold! What other option did he have but to head down to Mexico?!

Anyway, John Grady goes down into Mexico, and he is the best at everything. Apparently, he’s the best ranch hand in all of Mexico, and if you put him in the toughest Mexican prison, he’ll be able to best their toughest guy. This is the central issue with the story … John Grady is perfect, and he is sixteen. I don’t know if McCarthy has ever met a sixteen-year-old before in his life, but they are pretty much useless. Still, John Grady is a model employee, breaking horses and teaching his rich ranch-owning boss all about horses. He’s wooing women, performing frontier medicine, fighting off large groups of men who want to do him harm, etc. He’s pretty much the best at everything … or at least, he’s better than anyone in Mexico, which makes me wonder if this is sort of a racist book. I mean, think about it. A sixteen-year-old Texan from a broken home is more skilled, smart, and impressive than every man in Mexico? Kinda weak.

So, John Grady is terrible, and soon, I began wishing for some angry hombre to plug him in the back of the head. Another terrible character is the woman of John Grady’s lusts, Alejandra. She’s the rich, ranch owner’s daughter. She’s well-bred and cultured, but high-spirited and wild … in need of taming (KIND OF LIKE THE HORSES JOHN GRADY IS BREAKING?! WHAT?!). She’s beautiful and rich, and of course, they fall in love for no more apparent reason than they are both the worst characters in the book.

The cliches continue. Alejandra has a rich aunt (her mother is nowhere to be found) that wants to protect her honor. She does not like this John Grady character and forbids them from seeing each other, essentially pushing the two into each other’s beds (which by the way, John Grady seems expert in as well).

Why people like it, I assume. The book isn’t all bad. McCarthy has a sharp and colorful writing voice, and his ability to make the scene feel real is quite impressive. The reader gets a good sense of the badlands of Mexico, and McCarthy gives the impression that he knows a great deal about horses … even if he doesn’t know anything about characters.

I will say that I found some of his attempts to create a realistic picture irritating. For example, the Mexicans almost always speak Spanish to him, and we, as readers, must draw from context clues what is being said (if we are not fluent in Spanish). Most times this works out well, but there are a few scenes where I had no idea what happened. Frustrating.

Conclusion? Well, I have to say, this was disappointing. I’m hoping to get over it and give him another chance with his book Blood Meridian … but I will need some time. It’s a bad thing when the reader hates the main character, and McCarthy did himself no favors by leaning on tired old cliches all the time. I mean, the guy rides off into the sunset at the end. Seriously.

Judging by what I found on the web, the response to this book seems quite positive. Most people seem to love it, and many people I know recommended it. What did I miss?

About Adam Nannini

The greatest writer of his generation ... which isn't saying much.
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2 Responses to All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

  1. Mark says:

    I respond as one who has not read the book, but I think I can still make some valid points using only the details you mention in this post and Cormac McCarthy’s general standing in American Letters.

    So my response to your interpretation is twofold. First, I would suggest you begin by giving good-ol’ Cormac the benefit of the doubt. Start with the question, “Why would he do things this way?” There must be a reason for everything he does in the book, right? Every single word of it represents a choice. The other reason to give him the benefit of the doubt is that he won the National Book Award for this novel. That means a bunch of smart people think the choices he made were, at the very least, quite interesting, possibly brilliant.

    So, the choices he made that you mention: it’s a Western (this is implied, actually, in your post), every part of the book is a tired cliche drawn from Westerns, the white guy always wins and he gets the girl, the white guy rides off into the sunset, McCarthy’s writing and evocation of place are pretty impressive.

    if we take the writing for example, it suggests McCarthy’s a smart guy, that maybe he’s got something to say about whatever he’s writing about. At the very least, the book feels like a Western and makes a great many moves similar to those of a Western, so it seems like it could be about something having to do with the West. Maybe it’s actually about the West or, more interestingly, about Western cliches and the myths of white dudes about the West. McCarthy refuses to provide any good reason for his characters’ actions, which, you could argue, very few traditional Westerns do. We often encounter loners without backstory or meaningful motivation. The “Mysterious Man” trope.

    Okay, so I hope we’ve established that this book could be about something to do with the West or Westerns. When you step back and look at the whole book, it looks like a super hackneyed version of a Western. But wait, this McCarthy guy seems pretty smart, based on his sentences and evocation of place. Why would he want to do something hackneyed and uninteresting? Chances are a really smart guy is not going to want to write a whole bunch of tripe, and if he does, a bunch of other smart people aren’t going to give him a major award for producing said tripe. So there’s got to be something else going on.

    If you see All the Pretty Horses as pushing the tropes of Westerns and white dudes’ ideas about the West to their logical conclusion–it pushes them as far out as they can possibly be pushed–then it begs the question, “Why do such a thing?” I think the answer is that McCarthy is making an argument. He’s employing the logical rule “reductio ad absurdum”. He’s showing the absurdity of these ideas by pushing them to the extreme, the same way Dostoevsky points out the flaws in Psychological Egoism in Crime and Punishment.

    My second response is, “Didn’t we talk about giving writers the benefit of the doubt last week?”

    • Adam Nannini says:

      I came into this book giving the guy the benefit of the doubt, but that does not mean that I will make excuses for him. I don’t much care how smart somebody is supposed to be, nor does it matter to me that an award was given to him. I can’t go around assuming that every book or story I read is amazing, and if I don’t see it that way, as a reader, I must be wrong. At some level, it’s his job to connect with me.

      I don’t necessarily get your argument. Are you saying that this story is one big parody of Westerns? I mean, if I wrote a terrible fantasy story to prove how terrible fantasy tropes are, it’d be a lame exercise. In essence, you’re still arguing that he wrote a bad story … just that he did so, as the hipsters say, ironically.

      I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt. I mean, it’s the entire reason I finished the novel instead of tossing it away, but what I am not willing to do is say to myself, “Well, a bunch of ‘experts’ said this was quality lit, therefore, it must be. I must simply be an ignorant reader.” There have been many “smart guys” that have written terrible books, and there have also been many pieces of lit that were terrible (in my mind) that were respected by the, so-called, experts. I cite Theodore Drieser’s An American Tragedy, or To Kill a Mockingbord, etc.

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