All the Pretty Horses (Border Trilogy, #1)All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I gave some thought to doing a “two-sentences-and-one-word” review of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses – winner of the National Book Award – but I decided not to. Don’t get me wrong, it could be done that way. It’s just that I didn’t think I could do it justice that way.

The reason for that isn’t the characters. They are few, and they are finely drawn.

It’s also not the story. That’s stripped down to some classic essentials.

In 1949, following the death of his cattle rancher grandfather, and in face of the pending sale of the ranch, sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole decides to leave for Mexico with his friend Lacey Rawlins. They’re giving up on the post-war, modernizing America, in favor of the cowboy life south of the Rio Grande.

Along the way, they meet Jimmy Blevins, a boy of perhaps thirteen, who’s riding one of the finest horses John Grady’s ever seen. The boys travel together, surrounded by the stark beauty of Mexico. Until, that is, the thunderstorm.

Maintaining that getting struck by lightning “runs in the family,” Blevins tries to outrun the storm but loses the horse and his pistol in the process. The rest of the book is filled with attempts to regain Blevins’s items, bandits and prisons, work on a cattle ranch where John Grady and Rawlins break horses, and key involvements with a beautiful girl and her protective and traditional family. Along the way, McCarthy blends in his characteristically beautiful tragedy and despair and violence.

Again, the story’s fine, right?

So the reason I couldn’t limit any review to two sentences and a word is, simply put, McCarthy’s writing in telling his fine tale.

All the Pretty Horses can be labeled with many literary terms. Its coming-of-age elements make it a Bildungsroman. Its deeply-realized natural wonders, interwoven elements of mystical and godlike grandeur, and rejection of modernism and industrialized life in favor of a more basic and emotional existence all point to the Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th century.

But the term that most defines this Romantic coming-of-age story is “polysyndetic.” More than he writes it, McCarthy paints All the Pretty Horses through polysyndeton – a stylistic emphasis on the rhythm and timing of words that's achieved through extensive use of conjunctions and, in McCarthy’s case, a comparative refusal to stick to traditional punctuation.

It can be hard on the eyes because of the plainness of it, with all those words strung together. But it can flow unbelievably in the ear, with the quasi-religious tone it brings (no surprise, the King James Bible is a prime example of polysyndeton).

In the wrong hands, it’s a recipe for disaster. In All the Pretty Horses, it’s one of those rare instances where a book does have a rhythm, and in this case that rhythm is beautiful.

It is deep and flawless here, worked so thoroughly into the text that the story’s existence without that rhythm seems impossible. As written, it’s a compelling read – one that strangely begs to be read out loud. But unpainted with its unique selection and ordering of words, the book would be no more than Three Boys Travel South.

Two examples, both from the first page of the Vintage paperback….

In the opening paragraph, John Grady enters a hall to see his grandfather’s body, laid out for the viewing. He takes off his hat. The floorboards creak. He sees a melted candle and idly presses a thumb into the liquid wax. Then he turns to the body of a man he loved:
Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.

It was dark outside and cold and no wind. In the distance a calf bawled. He stood with his hat in his hand. You never combed your hair that way in your life, he said.

Short sentences for an emotionally bleak scene. Commas in the three-item description in the first sentence above, then nothing but conjunctions in the three-item description in the first sentence in the next paragraph. The collective emotion of the words is an emphasis of what they report – barren feelings in a barren land.

At the bottom of the same page, there’s a dramatic change as a train passes nearby:
It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone.

Yeah, it’s just one sentence – one sentence with some made-up words, marking a grim intrusion by the world that John Grady will soon leave, on his way to the simpler one he understands better and therefore wants.

As I said, its presentation can be hard on the eyes. And it’s assuredly not for everyone by any means.

But gather your breath and read it out loud, in a moderate voice and with an easy pace and the breaks falling where they naturally would. Then – then – it rolls.

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