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Critical Review by Madison Smartt Bell
SOURCE: "The Man Who Understood Horses," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. XCVII, No. 20, May 17, 1992, pp. 9, 11.
In the following review, Bell discusses the differences between All The Pretty Horses and McCarthy's previous novels, and calls the book the "most accessible" of his works.
Cormac McCarthy has practiced the Joycean virtues of silence, exile and cunning more faithfully than any other contemporary author, until very recently, he shunned publicity so effectively that he wasn't even famous for it. By his single-minded commitment to his work and his apparent indifference to the rewards and aggrandizements quite openly pursued by the rest of us, he puts most other American writers to shame. The work itself repays the tight focus of his attention with its finely wrought craftsmanship and its ferocious energy.
The magnetic attraction of Mr. McCarthy's fiction comes first from the extraordinary quality of his prose; difficult as it may sometimes be, it is also overwhelmingly seductive. Powered by long, tumbling many-stranded sentences, his descriptive style is elaborate and elevated, but also used effectively to frame realistic dialogue, for which his ear is deadly accurate. This mixture builds on Faulkner's work, yet, more than Faulkner ever did, Mr. McCarthy seems to be pulling the language apart at its roots. He's noted for archaisms so unfamiliar they appear to be neologisms. His diction and phrasing come from all over the evolutionary history of English and combine into a prose that seems to invent itself as it unfolds, resembling Elizabethan language in its flux of remarkable possibilities.
All these qualities make Suttree and Blood Meridian, the two long novels that precede his latest book, more than a little challenging to the uninitiated, and the world of violence that these and his earlier, shorter novels so brilliantly depict can seem, on casual inspection, to be senseless. All the Pretty Horses, the comparatively brief first volume of a planned trilogy, is probably the most accessible of Mr. McCarthy's six novels, though it certainly preserves all his stylistic strength. Although its subject and approach are superficially more palatable, the essence of his unusual vision also persists.
Where Suttree and Blood Meridian are deliberately discontinuous, apparently random in the arrangement of their episodes, All the Pretty Horses is quite conventionally plotted. Another distinction from Mr. McCarthy's earlier work is the presence of a plainly sympathetic protagonist, John Grady Cole, a youth of 16 who, in the spring of 1950, is evicted from the Texas ranch where he grew up. He and another boy, Lacey Rawlins, head for Mexico on horseback, riding south until they finally turn up at a vast ranch in mountainous Coahuila, the Hacienda de la Purisima, where they sign on as vaqueros. There, in magnificent scenes that make Faulkner's story "Spotted Horses" seem almost forgettable, John Grady's unusual talent for breaking, training and understanding horses becomes crucial to the hacendado Don Hector's ambitious breeding program.
For John Grady, La Purisima is a paradise, complete with its Eve, Don Hector's daughter, Alejandra. Their relationship is Mr. McCarthy's first excursion into romance since his 1973 novel, Child of God, in which all the female lovers are dead. Infinitely more sympathetically rendered, John Grady's affair with Alejandra ends badly nonetheless. When Don Hector and his aunt, the formidable Duena Alfonsa, discover it, they arrange for John Grady and Rawlins to be arrested for acts of murder and horse theft actually committed by another American runaway they met on the trail. The rest of their journey brings them closer and closer, though not fatally near, to the vortex of violent anarchy that swirls up toward the surface of all of Mr. McCarthy's writing.
In the hands of some other writer, this material might make for a combination of Lonesome Dove and Huckleberry Finn, but Mr. McCarthy's vision is deeper than Larry McMurtry's and, in its own way, darker than Mark Twain's. Along with the manifold felicities of his writing goes a serious concern with the nature of God (if God exists) and, almost obsessively, the nature of something most readers have assumed to be evil. The decay of Western civilization throws a long shadow over all his work. "We're like the Comanches was two hundred years ago," John Grady's father remarks. "We dont know what's goin to show up here come daylight. We dont even know what color they'll be."
The novel opens and closes with eerie images of American Indians that suggest our civilization may be swallowed up as completely as theirs. For John Grady, meanwhile, the issue is the using up of the country; he heads for Mexico because too much of Texas has been fenced in or foreclosed on. Mr. McCarthy's descriptions of the landscape are breath-takingly beautiful, but anyone who thinks he is sentimental about nature need only read Blood Meridian for a permanent cure.
Cormac McCarthy must be acknowledged as a talent equal to William Faulkner, but whatever he may owe to Faulkner's style, his substance could not be more different. Faulkner's work is all about human history and all takes place in mental spaces, while in Mr. McCarthy's work human thought and activity seem almost completely inconsequential when projected upon the vast alien landscapes where they occur. Human behavior may achieve its own integrity—it's John Grady's conscientious striving for this quality that makes him Mr. McCarthy's most appealing character—but it generally seems to have little effect. It's unusual for a writer to adopt such a disinterested posture toward human beings, but Mr. McCarthy, like John Grady, seems to hold a higher opinion of horses:
In his sleep he could hear the horses stepping among the rocks and he could hear them drink from the shallow pools in the dark where the rocks lay smooth and rectilinear as the stones of ancient ruins and the water from their muzzles dripped and rang like water dripping in a well and in his sleep he dreamt of horses and the horses in his dream moved gravely among the tilted stones like horses come upon an antique site where some ordering of the world had failed and if anything had been written on the stones the weathers had taken it away again and the horses were wary and moved with great circumspection carrying in their blood as they did the recollection of this and other places where horses once had been and would be again. Finally what he saw in his dream was that the order in the horse's heart was more durable for it was written in a place where no rain could erase it.
What order there may be in the world is not, Mr. McCarthy suggests, of our devising and is very likely beyond our comprehension. His project is unlike that of any other writer: to make artifacts composed of human language but detached from a human reference point. That sense of evil that seems to suffuse his novels is illusory; it comes from our discomfort in the presence of a system that is not scaled to ourselves, within which our civilizations may be as ephemeral as flowers. The deity that presides over Mr. McCarthy's world has not modeled itself on humanity; its voice most resembles the one that addressed Job out of the whirlwind.
As for himself, Mr. McCarthy has told a French journalist that the fact that he writes is incidental to his life, that he spends his time with equal profit gazing at the toes of his shoes. What for another writer would be a silly pose is for Mr. McCarthy the natural consequence of his view of the world and the people in it. It is an uncomfortable vision, but one that has a strange power to displace all others.
This section contains 1,281 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)