Sunday, February 17, 2013

All the Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy

“The fire had burned to coals and he lay looking up at the stars in their places and the hot belt of matter that ran the chord of the dark vault overhead and he put his hands on the ground at either side of him and pressed them against the earth and in that coldly burning canopy of black he slowly turned dead center to the world, all of it taut and trembling and moving enormous and alive under his hands.”

John Grady Cole is a teenage cowboy, forced to grow up fast after escaping to Mexico when his mother decides to sell the family ranch. Riding off into the unknown with his friend Rawlins, Cole is faced with sex, prison, murder, corrupt officials, familial obligations and an indifferent wilderness. If he survives his adventure across the border it’s unlikely he will ever be the same.

Let me be the first to admit that I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy. In fact, I’ve actively avoided him as I heard he was a gruesome writer and I don’t do well with gore. The rumour about “Blood Meridian” is that most people don’t get past page 30. As for ”All the Pretty Horses”, I found it a slog to read. The time in which the story was set and the age of the protagonist should have been obvious but they weren’t. At first it seemed to be set in the old west but modern diction like “satellite” and “comic book” proved me wrong. Also, Cole is supposed to be 16, I never thought of him as that young. Teenagers are usually awkward, insecure and frustrated but Cole didn’t appear to suffer from any of these things. In fact, he seemed sure of himself and of his position in the world. His attitude, dialogue and actions felt more in line with that of a man in his 20s.

There was also a complete lack of quotations for any dialogue and out of everything else this was the most frustrating aspect of the book. It made for difficult reading as it was difficult at times to distinguish dialogue from description until the end of a sentence or paragraph and was the cause of much re-reading. It also complicated who was speaking when. I’m unclear as to why McCarthy did this but he seemed to think quotations cluttered up the page and that they were unnecessary, reasoning that “if a book is written well enough, you’ll know when you’re reading dialogue without the extra quotation marks to tell you.” In this instance McCarthy is wrong.

This leaves the strongest writing in the story McCarthy’s description of the landscape. It’s feels like an individual character as the author spends so much time and ink illustrating the surroundings.

“When they wound back up out of the glade it was already evening and the sun lay long in the grass and across the shallow swales where the land dipped in pockets of darkness. Small birds come to feed in the evening cool of the open country flushed and flared away over the grasstops and the hawks in silhouette against the sunset waited in the upper limb s of a dead tree for them to pass.”

“Days to come they rode through the mountains and they crossed at a barren windgap and sat the horses among the rocks and looked out over the country to the south where the last shadows were running over the land before the wind and the sun to the west lay blood red among the shelving clouds and the distant cordilleras ranged down the terminals of the sky to fade from pale to pale of blue and then to nothing at all.”

These spectacularly gorgeous paragraphs are space throughout but are countered with clipped, blunt dialogue. I almost wish that McCarthy had stuck with this blunted style for every aspect of the book, to fully communicate the harsh landscape through which they traveled and Cole’s hand to mouth lifestyle. I don’t think it would have detracted from the book as stark can be beautiful too. I ended up appreciating the scenery more than the characters which didn’t bode well for the story. In fact, it was only near the end of the book that I began to care about what happened to Cole. Before then, the book had felt stale and Cole was boring.

After this I don’t know that I would pick up another McCarthy book as this one felt like a waste of time. There are more enjoyable books out there so unless you’re interested in this period of history or McCarthy, I would give this one a pass.

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