Bram's Reviews > All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
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's review
Oct 29, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: 2009
Read in December, 2009

Despite my great love for The Road, I’d argue that my enjoyment of All the Pretty Horses was far from predetermined. To begin with, I’ve recently been made aware (in discussions with fellow Goodreaders) that I’ve never seen a single Clint Eastwood movie or even a non-Clint Eastwood Western. And although I grew up in the South (sort of), I’m now an East Coast city guy who’s never even gone camping if you don’t count that college freshman orientation trip. Not only do I know jack-shit about horses and their care, but my allergies (basically the entire animal kingdom is off limits) will see to it that I never will. And as this book's title suggests, there’s quite a lot of horse information here (as well as impassioned equine eulogizing), complete with the usual Cormac McCarthy super-detailed passages. It’s this healthy inclusion of mundane detail that readers sometimes complain about, but for us greenhorns who can barely recognize a fully-dressed cowboy, it allows for a full immersion into mid-century Texas and Mexico that’s not only believable, but undeniably real. Don’t let the character accents (sorry Texans!) and punctuation paucity fool you; this guy knows his shit and you will believe him. Except maybe when it comes to romance.

Oh, Cormac. The Alejandra and John Grady Cole relationship reads like a Hollywood movie where the producer came in demanding massive cuts in the middle, leaving us without all the get-to-know-you stuff between the character introduction and the sex--i.e. the stuff that makes you ultimately care about and believe in the couple. And their first contact is pure Hollywood love-at-first-sight cheese. It goes something like this: “he saw her and he knew his life would never be the same” or “he saw her and he knew that he’d found the woman of his dreams” (I’ll look up the exact quote later). How forgiving you are of this type of thing probably depends on how much you enjoy the story arc as a whole and how well you suspend disbelief generally. It’s not that the relationship itself is unbelievable; it’s just that McCarthy doesn’t really take the time to develop it. But by being responsible for JGC’s motivations, Alejandra functions as the ultimate plot-driver, the one whose existence gets JGC into Big Trouble and is therefore responsible for many of his gripping Mexican adventures. And as I’ve suggested somewhat obviously before, forbidden love is a good topic for compelling (or at least high-selling) fiction, even if it's not done particularly well.

Despite some romantic shortcomings, McCarthy has once again won me over with his treatment of morality. Like in The Road, he examines situations where it’d be easy to do something short of the (most) right thing. (Minor, vague spoilers to follow). Along with Alejandra, a side character named Jimmy Blevins exists mainly to get our hero in trouble. He’s also there to show us that our hero is the fucking man. Blevins is a 13 year-old kid that tags along with JGC and his buddy Rawlins on their trip down to Mexico. He wasn’t invited, he’s a pain in the ass, and he screws them over in big and little ways. And JGC and Rawlins are provided plenty of opportunities to move on without him, to leave him with what he deserves, to quit him after giving him every opportunity to be something less than a pain in the ass. But JGC sticks his neck out for Blevins especially when he deserves the opposite. When it’s portrayed well, this kind of grace-full sacrifice gets me good. And McCarthy knows how to do it well.

While I was initially skeptical of McCarthy’s prose style and punctuation liberties, I’ve come to greatly enjoy both since becoming convinced that they (mostly) serve to enhance the storytelling impact. At one point I came across a passage that I was sure I’d read before, but whence I couldn’t remember. And then it hit me—it was from B.R. Myers’s (in)famous essay, A Reader’s Manifesto, which basically laments the state of modern, critically-praised literary fiction. And at the time, since I hadn’t read any of the authors he was quoting and denigrating, I thought that Myers really had a point. Because taken as a standalone quotation, this sentence really does look ridiculous:

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.

However, when read in context (and I’m not talking about the context of the entire book, but rather just considering the few preceding sentences), the description is not only lucid, but the breathlessly odd rendering of the in-action horse mirrors the emotional, animal upheaval within JGC's own innards, infusing the passage with implicit and potent meaning. But Myers, preying on those who are either unfamiliar with the work or who’ve understandably forgotten this short atypical part, goes for the jugular with what amounts to an ad hominem attack re McCarthy’s intent:

The obscurity of who's will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author's mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn't ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse's bowels.

Whether Myers was genuinely confused about the “who” in question is unknowable, but his suggestion regarding McCarthy’s intent is malicious (and laughable). Furthermore, I suspect that many powerful passages—ones designed to reach an emotional peak (without the constraints of Standard Written English) rather than to achieve a straightforward communication of information—would look rather silly out of context, even (or perhaps especially) those written by the High Modernists who remain unsullied by Myers. Unorthodox sentences can be highly effective in context, and McCarthy shows great sensitivity in deciding when to unleash the fireworks and when to leave things plain and simple.

Myers also complains about the level of detail, particularly when it comes to the mundane:

But novels tolerate epic language only in moderation. To record with the same somber majesty every aspect of a cowboy's life, from a knife fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch.

It is precisely this style, however, that sets McCarthy apart as a conjurer of another place and another time that feel lived in by human beings who don’t just shoot guns, chase women, and ride horses, but who also wash clothes, get hungover, cook food, and complete other boring, everyday tasks. In spite of all the mundane events that McCarthy chronicles, I can’t put his books down because of the unique way he describes these things; because of the way he records events with that “somber majesty” scorned by Myers.

And while, like Myers, I can also find a few things to criticize in All the Pretty Horses (in addition to the romance), this nitpicking would seriously misconstrue my enjoyment of the book. I inhaled it. As with The Road, McCarthy creates a world that’s not only compelling, but inescapable. You’re in there and the only way out is to get to the next page and then the next, the next, the next. Whatever he’s doing, it works, and Myers’s deconstruction only makes sense if you’re not having a great time. And that’s what All the Pretty Horses is foremost; a great time.
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Reading Progress

03/21/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 64) (64 new)

message 1: by Abby (new)

Abby not a fan.

message 2: by KFed (new)

KFed i think you'll like this.

Bram Yeah, can't wait to get into some more McCarthy. Have you read Blood Meridian, Kameron?

Why the hate, Abby?

message 4: by KFed (new)

KFed Love Blood Meridian. Are you waiting to read it? It's a remarkably different novel from The Road -- much more nihilistic and, in my opinion, a lot better. (Saying a lot -- The Road already sets a pretty high standard!)

Bram Good to hear. I wasn't sure what to jump into next, but I already have a copy of the Border Trilogy, so I was thinking of going with that.

message 6: by KFed (new)

KFed Nice.

Speaking of Westerns, have you seen Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven?

Bram No, I've never seen a single movie with Clint Eastwood in it. Crazy, right?

message 8: by Kimley (new)

Kimley This cover with the pretty pony picture combined with the title of the book had me thinking for the longest time that this was some kind of western romance that would appeal more to teenage girls.

Bad marketing!

message 9: by Chris (new)

Chris Same here, Kimley. For years and years I thought Cormac McCarthy was the Western equivalent of Nicholas Sparks.

message 10: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow Bram...would love to see your review on this one.

message 11: by RandomAnthony (last edited Dec 08, 2009 01:47PM) (new)

RandomAnthony Yes, same here...about wanting to see a review, I mean.

message 12: by Bram (last edited Feb 23, 2010 07:40AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram This book is awesome. I was thinking I might wait on a review until I finish the whole trilogy, but we'll see.

Good point, Kimley--I wonder how many people bought/read this expecting something else?

message 13: by D. (last edited Dec 08, 2009 01:53PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow I don't think you could read too much of it without realizing it isn't Nicholas Sparks. But I can ssee the cover thing. Hard to put a horse on a cover without it appealing to teenage girls.

message 14: by Bram (last edited Dec 08, 2009 02:05PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Yeah by halfway through I think any romance-seekers would feel cheated. (spoiler removed).

message 15: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow the third book is the least Sparksy, involving, as it does, an obsessive relationship with a teenage epileptic whore.

was that a spoiler? Sorry, Bram.

message 16: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony All three books kind of run together for me but ATPH is the best one, hands down. But all three are worthwhile. Sometimes I think the The Crossing and Cities on the Plain are almost forgotten behind ATPH, Blood Meridian (which you MUST read, Bram, seriously) and the post-trilogy No Country For Old Men and The Road. But the three books in the trilogy work well together.

Bram and Donald, I was just telling David and Tadpole this on facebook, but the Matt Damon/Penelope Cruz version of All the Pretty Horses...let's just pretend that doesn't exist, shall we?

message 17: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow RA, I agree about that movie though I hear it was cut to hell by the studio. It's not like Thornton's a bad filmmaker. or maybe he is.

Blood Meridian is his best book, hands down.

message 18: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony Yeah, Donald, wasn't that movie supposed to be way longer? I think I heard that somewhere too...

Blood Meridian is brilliant, no doubt, I agree...

message 19: by Bram (last edited Dec 08, 2009 02:37PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram I actually just threw the movie on my Netflix queue. Maybe I'll drop that off the to-see list. I'm still curious though.

Having read The Road first, it'll be interesting to see how my Mccarthy journey differs from yours' (RA and D.). Did you guys read his books more or less in the order he wrote them?

message 20: by D. (last edited Dec 08, 2009 02:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow No, I read the trilogy first then Blood Meridian then some of his earlier southern stuff and read ‘No Country’ and ‘The Road’ upon their release.

message 21: by Bram (last edited Dec 08, 2009 02:47PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Nice. I think I'll also do Blood Meridian next, after the trilogy.

message 22: by RandomAnthony (last edited Dec 08, 2009 02:58PM) (new)

RandomAnthony I started with All The Pretty Horses then skipped back through all of his older material. I read The Crossing, Cities of the Plain, and No Country For Old Men as they were released, too, like Donald. They're some of the few hardcover books I own, actually. I still can't read The Road though because the first forty pages freak the shit out of me. I know, I'm a wuss.

message 23: by Bram (last edited Dec 08, 2009 03:18PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Cold sweat is unavoidable with the The Road but I think I would've been more haunted if I'd put it down without seeing how it all turned out.

brian   really great review, bram.
the next two, for me, are more interesting than this one... look forward to reading your reviews on 'em.

message 25: by Bram (last edited Dec 09, 2009 11:41AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Thanks brian. I love the way McCarthy reaches for new ways of dealing with animals and animal-human relationships (for this one it's horses, for the next one it's wolves). He seems to stop just short of anthropomorphism to create this scenario where it suddenly makes perfect sense that the protagonist is risking his life and comfort for a wild wolf.

From what I can (barely) remember, this is reminiscent of Jack London. (right?)

Good to hear about the next two--I can barely put this stuff down.

message 26: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow Great review, Bram. Gracefully written and astute in its judgements.

message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

Gracefully written and astute in its judgements.

Oh, holy fuck...

Donald, did you take Advanced Ass-Kissing in college? The way you're putting a shine on ol' Bram's there, you'd think he was a chick. You usually only trot out the adjective 'astute' when there's a vagina in the vicinity.

message 28: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow Who is this cock-knocker? I thought his split anus was on major hiatus?

message 29: by [deleted user] (new)

It's a girl's prerogative to change her mind. Lover.

message 30: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow fair enough...

message 32: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Great I'll never get a man compliment again. Don't listen to them, Donald--I'll massage your flicked testicles and whisper sweet, literary adulation in your ear after brian's had his way.

message 34: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow I still love your writing, Bram. They are just jealous. Lord knows I've licked their mangy testes enough.

brian   [image error]

message 36: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 09, 2009 12:20PM) (new)

Wouldn't it be hilarious if we could somehow dig up a compilation of all the sweet, sweet septuagenarian butt-lickings D-Pow tossed Ginnie's way? He was so far up her sphincter at times, he had to get in a mine cart and don one of those helmets with a light on it.

Oh, Donnie. Don't ever change.

I can't wait to grab your man-buns at Jumbo's.

message 37: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow jesus, it's amazing how a thread will go viral.

every time i kissed Ginnie's ass my tongue kept getting entwined with brian's.

message 38: by brian (last edited Dec 09, 2009 12:21PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

brian   ah! i like the change from smog cutter to jumbo's, polack. no way you could last longer than a few minutes before groping donnie.

december 19th = spit roast.

B > D < D

message 39: by [deleted user] (new)

Yep. I've got a graceful and astute polska kielbasa that needs tendin' to in that spit roast, D-Pow. We'll let Weinman fire off the air horn for when it's time to swap positions.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Everyone had their head up that impostors ass. Except me, because I'm better than everyone.

message 41: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 09, 2009 12:27PM) (new)

MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "Everyone had their head up that impostors ass. Except me, because I'm better than everyone."

I didn't. I thought her reviews were boring. (I guess that means I find Reinhold Niebuhr boring.)

Also I'm not a slutty voter like brian and Mr. Astute over here.

message 42: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Dec 09, 2009 12:28PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I know. I actually just came aboard GoodReads not too long before she was outed as a fraud. I didn't get much of a handle on the true dynamics. I do remember feeling a sort of glee though when her bullshit was exposed. Take that, fraud!

message 44: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Dec 09, 2009 12:31PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio That picture really doesn't get old for me. Consistent laughs.

message 45: by Kimley (new)

Kimley brian wrote: "...december 19th = spit roast.

B > D < D"

Wait a minute here. I was under the impression we were getting together to discuss Proust! I have my copy of Swann's Way all tagged with stickies ready to discuss pertinent points.

Fine, I'll go get my copy of Justine instead.

message 46: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow Kimley, Kimley, Kimley. Hopefully you can save me from the debauched clutches of these Genet reading urbanites.

Bram, aren't you disappointed to find your fine thread devolved into pseudo-queer posturing and Ginnie Jones bung kissing references?

message 47: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram It's ok, I won't take it personally. There's just something about these McCarthy threads.

message 48: by Bram (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram If anyone's still around, I have a serious question: is it just my browser, or did Goodreads change the "reviews" bookshelf view (as opposed to "main" or "list") format so that it gives you excerpts that are way too long when you scroll through the books?

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Bram wrote: "It's ok, I won't take it personally. There's just something about these McCarthy threads."

Wasn't that thread that turned into brian and David taking pictures of themselves without shirts on one of your McCarthy review threads?

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Bram wrote: "If anyone's still around, I have a serious question: is it just my browser, or did Goodreads change the "reviews" bookshelf view (as opposed to "main" or "list") format so that it gives you excerpt..."

YES. Very annoying.

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