Thursday, February 28, 2013

All the Pretty Horses by McCarthy

About All the Pretty Horses, Panda sez:

With movies like Django Unchained critiquing the Spaghetti Western and winning Best Original Screenplay, it's fitting we should read All the Pretty Horses this Oscar month - especially since ATPH has something to say about the American Foundation Myth as well. 

Hel and I are likely the only two females IN THIS UNIVERSE  who have read this book. And so our perspective on this novel is probably rare in and of itself.

I loved this novel – but for strange reasons I can’t put into words. Maybe it’s ‘cause I’m from Texas and understand that there dialect McCarthy captured (God I hope not)…

But I *can* put into words things you’ll need to know for class because we KNOW you only watched the movie and didn’t read the novel, you lazy butt. You’ll still pass Old West 101. (Though I don’t promise an A).

No quotation marks are used in the dialogue. But I liked it. It was (in some way) experimental and modern. Or maybe McCarthy’s more postmodern. I don’t know. But the lack of said marks (and sometimes other grammatical marks like apostrophes) force you, the reader, to pay attention to what is going on. It also leaves a bit of room for interpretation because the dialogue is part of the narrative – part of the story itself. Not separate from the narrator’s words.

There are a lot of (what I would call) run-on sentences. But it sets a tone – a monotone tone. It’s like the steady thud of hooves. Horse hooves. Because this book’s about horses. Pretty ones.

But I’ll stop BSing.

Now, John Grady Cole loves horses. He also (essentially) loves the Cowboy myth – the Old West myth. So much so that he’s willing to run away (though not from anything that will miss him) and pursue it when he can no longer pursue his version of it at ‘home.’ When the ranch he grew up on is sold, he and his best bud Rawlins go to Mexico to be Cowboys. Along the way they run into a younger boy who calls himself Blevins. Blevins tags along despite their best efforts to shoo him away. At one point Blevins loses his horse (just watch the movie to learn how that hilarious bit of hell happened) and he attempts to steal it back from the locals. At long last, they are free from Blevins because he has to run to save his “skinny ass” (as they call it) from being caught. Rawlins and John Grady (minus the Blevins) start working at another ranch in Mexico. John Grady falls in love with the Boss’s fancy daughter.

Much like in the movie, the fancy daughter (Alejandra) is kind of a dead fish that only serves as the love interest. However, I liked her a lot more in the book than in the movie.

John Grady himself is a mythic figure. He’s so “good” and “rare.” So much so he fits the cowboy stereotype perfectly. He is also “lawless” in all the right ways – he runs away from home (though he has no real home – his mother’s more interested in her guyfriend and his father seems like a flake), he often takes the law into his own hands, and he has honorable morals.

John Grady exists when the cowboy is dying out. He becomes a new, modern embodiment of the Final Frontier. He refuses to be conquered even when his dream life is ruined. At the end he is a lone wanderer. [Spoiler]

Now, I’m not going to compare the book to the movie (much) but I did see it first. And the book is better. In fact, I thought the movie kinda sucked. I’m sure there’s a summary somewhere that will tell what the movie left out. But if you REALLY want to know how to make your BS in class stand out, just note the following:

They (Rawlins and Grady) know something bad is going to happen to them when they meet Blevins. It’s obvious the little turd is bad news and isn’t going to bring rainbows and sunshine (They cain’t quit him – har har). McCarthy uses foreshadowing in a brilliant way – just as John Grady knows the ‘place’ for the Cowboy his growing smaller/shifting, John Grady (and Rawlins) know(s) Blevins will shift everything for them personally. It’s almost as if McCarthy is saying we all know how our fates will end – we just don’t know how it’s going to play out to that end.

Another metaphor/analogy/theme I saw in the book was horses = women. A quote to back me up? Sure:

“A goodlookin horse is like a goodlookin woman, he said. They’re always more trouble than what they’re worth. What a man needs is just one that will get the job done.”

And that’s exactly what John Grady’s love interest is. A horse. She gets him into trouble – trouble that is tied into Blevins's horse trouble.

McCarthy’s (possible) message hits close to home. Horses (sadly) REALLY HAVE become more trouble than they’re worth. Now we’re using them for meat because farmers can’t afford to feed them. Not only has the West died out but also our symbols for it. This is what we’ve become.

I also think this book speaks ‘against’ the U.S. – not only about our foundation myth (the cowboy). If we no longer have this grand idea of ourselves then what do we have? At one point, when John Grady is in prison and talking to Pérez (someone who can give him information about Rawlins who was injured and taken away), Pérez schools John Grady on why Americans (U.S. Citizens) are godless – why our values are illogical (even now). This conversation he has with John Grady (on pages 199-200 of my Picador edition) really hit me. John Grady left Texas because there was no place for the Cowboy. And now Mexico has rejected him as well. John Grady himself will have to become the Wild Frontier, though I don’t think he realizes this until later. He might not really realize it at all – but he lives it out. When, at the very end, John Grady says his goodbyes to Rawlins, this is proven when Rawlins says:

“This is still good country.

Yeah. I know it is. But it aint my country.”

The West isn’t West enough. He’s all that’s left of it.

An example of the fact he’s an embodiment? Here it is. After John Grady takes back the horses from the captain, the captain tells John Grady “You are not the officer of the law you dont have no authority.” Yet, somehow John Grady does have authority. He becomes the law (as many a wondering cowboy has before). He gets away with it. And is justified in doing so.

Where John Grady is the cowboy stoic and Alejandra the anthropomorphic horse, her great aunt is the main female lead (in my opinion). She’s a well-rounded character I loved to read (where in the movie I can barely remember her). She is self-sufficient and actually controls Alejandra as if the girl’s an extension of her – as if Alejandra is her horse she rides/lives through (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?).  I liked her a lot, even if she was a little mean.

The price for Rawlins and John Grady living out their myth/dream is (in some ways) giving it up as a dream. It becomes too real. They are arrested and treated as criminals. Blevins is executed even though he didn’t really deserve it (though he probably deserved some sort of punishment). But perhaps I’m still too hard on him. Even at the end we don’t know his real name or why he was running away with a horse. We don’t know his whole story – so how can we judge him?

This book hit me like no other book has in this reading list (except Deerskin in parts). I got lost in the ‘world’ and found myself invested.

In my opinion, there were three endings to this novel. 1) When John Grady goes to see the Blevinses, 2) when he says his goodbye to Rawlins, 3) and when he’s (essentially) ‘riding into the sunset.’

I recommend this book. I really want to read No Country for Old Men now.

“Smoke em if you got em, said John Grady.”

Hel here! I agree with Panda that we are probably the only two females in the world that have read this book. Except for another friend of mine, who was reading it at the same time as us (not sure if she finished). 

I have to say, before I delve into my review, that this is my favorite book we have read so far, and easily among my favorite top 15. It's not that the story is so remarkable. There's nothing special really to it. We've seen it all in any Western. But, my God, McCarthy can write. Lying in bed at night, my husband reading his Tom Clancy novels and I All The Pretty Horses, I kept reciting parts of the text to him that I thought were particularly beautiful. This one was from the last day I read the book, the last night we spent together, har har:

"He thought the world's heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world's pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of divergent equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower" (282). 

My husband's reply was something a long the lines of, "How do you write such bulls**t?" (Excuse him, he's a sailor.) 

I, on the other hand, was blown away by its grace. You don't expect lines like this from a Western. But I digress. Let me be back up, to the beginning.

The beginning of this novel had me squirming in misery. How could I have picked this book?? How would I ever get through it?? As Panda mentioned, McCarthy doesn't use quotation marks. He also doesn't often indicate who is doing what (everyone is simply "he" or "she" most of the time, which can get really confusing). Not to mention - this is the kicker - half the book is in Spanish. And it doesn't get translated. Luckily I read Spanish better than I speak it, so I had very little problem with it, but do yourself a favor and take a couple college level Spanish courses before you try to read this book.

ATPH instantly reminded me of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. It made me just as furious (pun intended). The Sound and the Fury took me five years to read, and I never would have finished it if it hadn't been required reading for an English class my junior year of college (the very same English class that, ironically, made me change my major from English to Zoology). As you can see, I had a lot of anxiety about reading ATPH.

I couldn't tell what the heck was going on. Everything would probably be clearer - now that I am used to McCarthy's style - if I went back and re-read the beginning, but for the longest time I felt like I was drowning. I couldn't tell who Rawlins was in relation to John; sometimes he referred to himself as John's father, but John was clearly the leader of the two. I wanted to cry with confusion.  

However, once I finally got the hang of McCarthy's language, I ate it up. McCarthy's writing style changes frequently within the book. Its main ingredient is definitely the run-on. The book often times reads like a script. But McCarthy also writes prose, as evident from my quote above. He infuses humor. And very minute details that really paint a complete picture. One page 277, he writes, "The first bars of sunlight broke past the rock buttes of the mountains to the east and fell fifty miles across the plain. Nothing moved. On the facing slope of the valley a mile away seven deer stood watching him". He makes you feel as though you were there with John Grady, living it as it occurs. I loved (most) everything about it.  

First thing I loved was John Grady Cole. He is a cowboy. I have a thing for cowboys. Need I elaborate? I don't think so. John Grady is a true man's man. He reminds me of the Robert Redford's character in The Horse Whisperer: the quintessential cowboy, he is calm, brave, strong, smart, clever, empathetic, a born leader - the kind that other men love to follow, - trustworthy, and possesses sound judgement. True, some of the decisions he makes get him into a lot of trouble - like deciding to pursue Alejandra - but the decision was made with the knowledge that, to him, anything would be worth enduring to be with her. 

As Panda pointed out, Alejandra herself is a bit of a...non person. Her character feels like a ghost. She is vague. In a way this is good, because you can really project anything you want onto her. But in the end I think Alejandra only exists to soften John Grady up a bit, give him a purpose and drive other than horses.

Like Alejandra, all the characters in this book serve a purpose. Aside from maids and bartenders, every person in ATPH was useful and very well defined. Rawlins plays the perfect side kick. A little rougher around the edges, a little more reckless and not as good at pulling it off as John Grady, rash in his decision making, quick to anger, but also very emotional (like when his nemesis, Blevins, gets into trouble, he always panics and wants to help him - and the desire to help him makes him feel even angrier, because he knows Blevins is no good for them). Alejandra's great aunt, the matriarch, is regal, calculating, well postured (I imagine) and the necessary link between john Grady and Alejandra. Her voice is entirely different from that of the men in the novel. McCarthy gives life to a woman as easily and effortlessly as he does men.

John Grady and Rawlins, by the way, are very young men, only sixteen and seventeen years old, respectively - and note that even though  John Grady is the younger of the two, he is still the leader! How is it that two such young boy-men can set out on horseback and go to another country and fight for their survival as they did? Can you picture Gus and Hazel, the main characters from last months read, doing the same? NO (and that's not just because they were dying). Times is changed. 

Times were also changing for John Grady and Rawlins. At the beginning of the novel, as they set out across Texas on horseback, they have to stop to clip fence wire. Rawlins seems offended by the notion of a fence and asks, "How the hell do they expect a man to ride a horse in this country?" "They don't", answers John Grady.

That quote excellently backs up what Panda so cleverly noticed in the book: the frontier is ending, the cowboy is a dying breed. Personally, I didn't pick up on this at all. I am a face value type of gal. But now that Panda pointed it out, I can definitely see her point. How many men do you know who, after being shot, can still ride a horse bare back, and use the barrel of a hot pistol to sterilize the wound? Matter of fact, how many men do you know who can ride bare back, period? 

That's what I thought.

Men, you should read this book, and strive to be a cowboy. Please. 

Next month's book is Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I got my copy today, and it seems promising. Read a long with us!


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