Book Review: All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses recounts the story of young John Grady Cole, the last in a long line of Texas ranchers. Dispossessed and in search of work, he crosses the Rio Grande into Mexico in 1949, accompanied by his pal Lacey Rawlins. The two wanderers pick up 14-year-old Jimmy Blevins, a comical but deadly sharpshooter, and encounter various adventures on their way south… where dreams are paid for in blood.

Winner of the 1992 National Book Award, All the Pretty Horses is the first installment of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. A richly-imagined modern-day western full of adventure, romance, and vibrant characters, it served to reinforce my conviction that McCarthy is one of the greatest writers I have ever encountered in my wanderings through the pantheon of American literature.

The story is simple, yet executed with energy and thoughtful finesse – it is (as another critic noted) part bildungsroman, part horse opera, and part meditation on courage and loyalty. The characters, though few, are all drawn with care and skill; and the rambunctious, heartfelt comraderie between Cole and Rawlins is both funny and deeply touching.

As usual, McCarthy’s elegiac prose is nothing short of mesmerizing; through it, he not only allows the reader to stand in the characters’ shoes, he also paints a ruggedly beautiful picture of the badlands of Texas and northern Mexico.

On the mesa they watched a storm that had made up to the north. At sundown a troubled light. The dark jade shapes  of the lagunillas below them lay in the floor of the desert savannah like piercings through to another sky. The laminar bands of color to the west bleeding out under the hammered clouds. A sudden violetcolored hooding of the earth.

I appreciated the high-spirited determination and courage of John Grady; even more laudable is his manly work ethic. In a day when young men are being raised under the false impression that society “owes” them something, I found Grady’s go-getter attitude refreshing and inspiring.

Unfortunately, he’s still not an entirely good role model, primarily due to the way he pursues a forbidden relationship with his boss’s daughter, Alejandra – a relationship that involves more than one instance of pre-marital physical intimacy. Grady’s unswerving love and devotion to the girl is praise-worthy; the way in which he goes about expressing it, not so much.

The violence in All the Pretty Horses is remarkably tame in comparison to some of McCarthy’s other works. There’s some gunplay (most non-fatal) and a knife fight and that’s pretty much it. More objectionable is the language (which is coarse and fairly frequent) and one or two scenes of sensuality (which are not particularly graphic, but still deserving of caution). Overall, I’d say the book is appropriate for most readers ages 16 and up.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: All the Pretty Horses”

  1. What a wonderful review! As usual, your writing is so engaging! You have written another review for a book that I would otherwise would take little (if any) interest in but after reading your thoughts, I find myself intrigued! Well done! Keep up the good work!

  2. I love McCarthy’s writing but found this book to be really slow and just not engaging enough for me. Though I agree with everything you said in your review, which made me wish I had enjoyed this book more than I did.

    1. It is a bit slower-paced than most of the other McCarthy books I’ve read (such as No Country for Old Men), but I didn’t mind that aspect, since I loved the characters and the prose so much. Thank you for stopping by, I appreciate your sharing your thoughts! :)

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