I’m not sure what got me in the mood for a good cowboy story. Maybe it was listening to this New Yorker podcast of “Cowboy,” by Thomas McGuane, that opened me up to the possibility of reading a full-length novel about wranglin’ horses, sleeping outside, eating chow, and falling in love with sultry Mexican damsels. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy, is as unapologetically a cowboy novel as they come; and yet this book is so much more, and nothing within its pages is quite what it seems. While this is the first novel I’ve read by McCarthy, I’ve heard his regular readers have come to expect nothing less from the man.
In a nutshell, All the Pretty Horses tells the story of teenaged cowboy John Grady Cole, who learns that his family’s Texas ranch is to be sold following the death of his grandfather. Unwilling to give up the ranching life that he considers his birthright, Cole flees down across the Mexico border with his best friend Lacey Rawlins to find work as a cowboy. While there, the two boys become embroiled in a complex situation involving another young guy named Jimmy Blevins, a stolen horse, a murdered man, and a beautiful girl named Alejandra who is the daughter of the ranch owner who hires Cole.
The story is quintessentially Western but the genius of the book is McCarthy’s way of telling the story. He relentlessly attacks the clichés of the genre and infuses nearly every paragraph with strong, lyrical descriptions and insights into human complexity. In this sense, the book reads like a writerly challenge – to write a genre novel but in the vein of literary fiction. It’s a challenge that McCarthy is wholly equal to.
What sets this book apart from the usual batch of mass-produced Westerns is that Cole and Rawlins really do wrestle with core existential questions and a belief in a bigger purpose in the universe. Both men find their hearts leading them into dangerous waters, but their belief in the power of integrity helps to face the absurdity of their situation. Cole’s love for Alejandra is real and palpable, and it makes the tough decisions he faces all the more gripping. All the Pretty Horses is a truly satisfying read from a master storyteller.