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All the Pretty Horses

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Cormac McCarthy has always been the kind of novelist other writers appreciate, a prodigiously gifted author whose sheer virtuosity prompts wonder and admiration. But as with many another dazzling stylist, popular recognition has long eluded him. A native of East Tennessee, in which all save one of his five previous novels have been located, McCarthy has often received the sort of praise that can do a writer more harm than good. Labels like ”Southern gothic” and ”Faulknerian” may mean a lot to the reviewers who use them, but to ordinary readers they usually imply books both overwrought and overwritten.

And the truth is that for all their intensity, earlier McCarthy novels like The Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), and Suttree (1979) are not free of those sins. Having moved west to El Paso some years ago, however, McCarthy has changed course. His 1985 novel, Blood Meridian, was a brutal frontier tale that made Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch look like an episode of The Cisco Kid.

Now comes All The Pretty Horses, the first in a series McCarthy calls the Border Trilogy — and just about as tone-perfect and emotionally resonant a novel as has ever been written about the American West. Beginning in 1949 on the rolling plains of West Texas, All the Pretty Horses tells the tale of two teenage boys who saddle up one night and set out for Mexico in search of adventure.

In one sense, John Grady Cole and his friend Lacey Rawlins are playing cowboys. Their heads stuffed as full of romantic illusions as any pair of knights errant in an Arthurian romance, they ride south in search of a magical kingdom located somewhere in the mythic past — a pastoral wonderland, a world without fences. But what gives All the Pretty Horses its haunting emotional power is that in another sense, McCarthy’s characters aren’t make-believe cowboys at all. Ranch-bred, they know ropes and cattle and guns and how to read the landscape and the weather, and they feel more natural on horseback than on foot. Purged of his earlier stylistic excesses, moreover, McCarthy describes their world with a poetic intensity that puts the reader into the saddle beside them: ”From the crest of the cordilleras they saw below them the country of which they’d been told. The grasslands lay in a deep violet haze and to the west thin flights of waterfowl were moving north before the sunset in the deep red galleries under the cloudbanks like schoolfish in a burning sea and on the foreland plain they saw vaqueros driving cattle before them through a gauze of golden dust.”

Dreamers or not, McCarthy’s protagonists are nobody’s fools. ”Ever dumb thing I ever done in my life,” Rawlins warns, ”there was a decision I made before that got me into it. It was never the dumb thing. It was always some choice I’d made before it.” Meaning that they ought to just ride off and leave Jimmy Blevins, the reckless, pistol-packing younger boy who follows them across the Rio Grande on a stolen horse. Meaning also that nothing but sorrow can follow John Grady’s falling in love with Alejandra, the beautiful aristocratic, blue-eyed daughter on the hacienda where they eventually find work. A ”mojado-reverso” (reverse wetback) she calls him with gentle mockery. But when she asks him, ”Me quieres?” in a scene so charged with innocent eroticism that readers will wonder if they haven’t dreamed it, John Grady’s fate is sealed.

And so is Alejandra’s. ”There is no forgiveness,” the girl’s duenna explains bitterly. ”For women. A man may lose his honor and regain it again. But a woman cannot. She cannot.”

A novel of stunning beauty and integrity. A