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Defector Reads A Book

Grab A Tortilla And Come Talk About All Of Cormac McCarthy’s Pretty Horses

2:47 PM EDT on July 26, 2023

Cover of All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Yellow background. Defector reads a book badge.

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our July pick was the Cormac McCarthy novel All The Pretty Horses, which four of us read and riffed on below. Meet us in the comments whenever you're done reading.

Giri Nathan: So did we all enjoy our trip across the border?

Maitreyi Anantharaman: An unexpected addition to the “don’t read while hungry” canon. How many tortillas were consumed in this book?

GN: Hundreds of tortillas, cold beans, lots of goat stews, prison pozole, cider, freshly smoked game, so many cups of coffee at all hours of the day. I’m really worried about the hydration levels of cowboys. Those guys are peeing brown. They’re running on, like, a couple sips of ditch water every day and I know it’s dry as hell out there.

Patrick Redford: I think we can analogize the coffee of 1949 as akin to the 1.5 percent ABV beer that was the only liquid that peasants drank in central Europe for like 1400 years. The only people drinking water in this book were the Horses, and that’s how come they got so Pretty.

GN: What was everyone’s favorite meal?

Barry Petchesky: Beans wrapped in tortilla and frontier justice on the captain served ice cold. I did feel like all the staple-eating and ditch water served to emphasize just how much this land is trying to kill you at all times, and how humans are really just animals fueling themselves to survive. Thinking animals, sure, but nothing with near the nobility of horses.

PR: Definitely the struggle beans John Grady Cole ingests after Alejandra gets back on the train and he’s ungodly hungover from drinking away his sorrows. Nothing washes away acidic heartbreak like thos beans.

GN: Formative books like Hatchet left me with a taste for survival-type stories and I was surprised to find that here. There’s a whole lot of careful inventory management, and John Grady loses everything more than once. When they don’t have any more clothes, they go buy new clothes. It really is exhilarating to follow heroes who have no idea where their next meal was coming from, but who are resourceful or friendly enough to squeeze calories out of the barren land or some kind-hearted villagers.

BP: Hatchet is a good pull. I think I was caught off guard by how … formulaic(?) a coming-of-age story this was. The other McCarthy I’ve read are all about Big Things and the plot is mostly in service to the Big Things, and that was the case to an extent here but the structure of the thing was a straightforward YA-ish bildungsroman.

PR: I read it as a kinder-hearted, terrestrial Moby Dick, but about horses instead of a big whale. McCarthy is definitely using the horse as a device to get into concepts of wildness, lineage, and wandering and all that adventure stuff and I think I enjoyed heartbreaking and symbolically hefty sentences about, say, a horse reacting all primordially to “something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool,” as much as the passages where he’d be like The horse ate the oats. They rode out on the hard gravel. The horse drank the water. What were your favorite bars about horses?

MA: “What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them.” And still, to Grady, there is something in them that he can’t find in men—some level of trust and companionship. They represent a kind of freedom, but he’s locked up for their sake! They literally make him confront humanity’s tendency toward constraint. The very last image of the book though is one of Grady’s and horse’s shadows collapsing “in tandem like the shadow of a single being.”

BP: The big horse soul monologue from the old man that ends, “the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal. He said that if a person understood the soul of the horse then he would understand all horses that ever were.” I feel like this mostly serves in the contrast to underline the fundamental loneliness of man.

GN: I liked the anatomical close-reading of the prize stallion: “darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will,” “bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will,” “hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist,” “the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.” It’s classic Cormac in its fusion of the grimy visceral detail and the vaguely spiritual aside. And I especially liked that, in the idiotic and abortive final shootout, everyone is mindful not to shoot the innocent horse lying in the dust. That laid bare the stakes of their world, the different moral status of horse and man.

BP: Does McCarthy find anything spiritual in the lives of men, do you think?

GN: Mostly McCarthy seems interested in the overall structure of the lives of men: men as pawns in an endless game of violence, maybe deterministic, maybe not, you decide. It’s funny how often he circles around the same themes in work after work. But you never know when he’s going to blindside you with some vulnerability. At the start of the fourth chapter John Grady has a fleeting chat in a truck bed that McCarthy injects with outsize significance. Five farmworkers ask him what he’s up to in Mexico; he tells them he’s following a girl. It’s pretty banal small talk, but at the end: “And after and for a long time to come he’d have reason to evoke the recollection of those smiles and to reflect upon the good will which provoked them for it had power to protect and to confer honor and to strengthen resolve and it had power to heal men and to bring them to safety long after all other resources were exhausted.” They’d exchanged five lines of dialogue. For all his narrative ruthlessness, sometimes McCarthy admits that other humans are all we’ve got.

BP: I felt like he was very clear on the specific circumstances in which a person can touch the divine. Being in love, which was why those truckbed neighbors were so kind to him. Breaking and riding horses, obviously. And killing a man. The captain, we are told, inhabits “a space of his own election and outside the common world of men. A space privileged to men of the irreclaimable act which while it contained all lesser worlds within it contained no access to them.” So does John Grady, presumably, after his prison knife fight. Sorry to keep transcribing so many quotes! But Cormac really does have a heater.

PR: To your point on language, I watched a bunch of the 2000 adaptation, which Billy Bob Thornton scarcely bothers to enliven or bring any tonal variety to, and my main takeaway from how limp and listless the movie was (seriously, how is it even possible for a director to misuse Peneolope Cruz this bad?), was that any McCarthy adaptation is doomed to fail unless it’s primarily interested in how stirring his interstitial syntactical flexing and foreboding prose stylings can be at their best. It was the Environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening version of a Cormac novel; just a story about two guys on a horsey ride.

GN: I haven’t seen the adaptation, but I wonder how much of McCarthy’s original dialogue made it in. I enjoyed all the gruff and darkly funny exchanges between John Grady and Rawlins. Dialogue allows McCarthy to show both ends of his range. He might be writing in 500-word sentences, but his characters typically keep things terse. I really liked the bit where they’re eating steaks after getting out of prison and mourning their dead friend(?). John Grady says “I aint Blevins.” Rawlins makes him think: “I know you aint. But I wonder how much better off you are than him.” Did you guys have any favorite conversations?

PR: A lot of the conversations in the prison stuck with me, like Rawlins musing, “I never knowed there was such a place as this,” to which Cole says, “I guess there’s probably every kind of place you can think of,” earning an, “I wouldn’t of thought of this one.” It was touching to see their shorthand ease with each other survive the ordeal. I also enjoyed the first time we meet Perez, who tells them of those not under his protection, “The others are simply outside. They live in a world of possibility that has no end.”

GN: I’m generally a slow reader, because I can’t move past a sentence without looking up any mysterious component parts, but I have to disable this mechanism when reading McCarthy. I just keep going and enjoy the ride. It’s amazing how much pleasure I can get out of a paragraph where I only dimly understand 50 percent of the nouns. McCarthy is a phenomenal world-builder, and his precise vocabulary might be the primary engine of that. With every crisply designated shrub or strap or architectural feature, he hints at an entire universe of things you’ll never know as intimately as he does. Often I felt he was writing like a set designer, telling you exactly what materials should be used for every single prop, from the hotel keys to the vase in the corner.

It’s cinematic writing, but not just in the traditional sense of that term. There are epic vistas and big feelings but there are also extremely process-oriented paragraphs about putting a bunch of different strips of leather around a horse. I’m reminded of the most exhilarating passage of Blood Meridian, where the judge makes gunpowder from scratch as the enemy advances up a hill; the details of his impromptu chemistry are more captivating than the actual firing of those guns. How did McCarthy go about assembling the knowledge base that allows him to write those passages in such high definition?

MA: Right, the scope of the scope, if you will, makes for fun reading. 

PR: Yeah Giri, I could read this man write about sunsets for the rest of my life and be happy, he has a southwesterner’s eye for, as Wes Anderson lovingly parodied, the “friscalating dusklight.” When the clock strikes five in the McCarthyverse, you know the characters are all about to witness something like a frisson of electric blue obsidian dying out over the saltpan mesa.

To Barry’s earlier question, my sense is that he finds spirituality, or at least spiritual possibility, basically everywhere else? That men, not necessarily men but in this book’s case men, are the subjects of this world and everything else in it is to some degree an extension of an unfeeling force’s will. Maybe that force is just death or entropy or decay, and I think most of the McCarthy I’ve read involves characters shedding their illusions about that hard truth and accepting their mortality. Not to cross-pollinate this DRAB with Blood Meridian takes, though in both works, the veil is thinner in Mexico. That is not the point of Dueña Alfonsa’s monologue, not entirely anyway, which to me was the real centerpiece of the book.

MA: Yeah, I felt the same way, and re-read it a few times. It’s not a particularly coherent worldview she lays out, is it? She’s conscious of the suppression of women in Mexico, of “society” as a cruel machine, but doesn’t really mind continuing it. It’s not even a worldview—it’s just a kind of personal revenge. Because I was acted on in this way, I will act on others in this way.

BP: I appreciated the inconsistency and pettiness in it. At one point Grady is like, After all of that, shouldn’t you be sympathetic to Alejandra being in love with me? And she’s like, You’d think so, but no. That felt very human to me. Humans are as capricious as the cosmos. 

MA: I don’t even know if capricious is the right word—it makes sense. She’s so haunted by her experience of the Mexican Revolution, when this vision she had for her country fell apart, thwarted by the “plotters and schemers” in Francisco Madero’s midst. She offers the woman’s second opinion on the whole cowboy allure, rooted in the mythic American past. In her eyes, history is unforgiving and brutal. 

GN: Her assessment of John Grady as dangerous is also a neat index of how much his life has changed since he crossed the border. When he left he was just a kid mourning his broken family, its ranch, and the way of life that came with it. Now he’s stolen and killed and gotten himself into and out of the most miserable jams. As the dueña put it: “I’ve no sympathy with people to whom things happen. It may be that their luck is bad, but is that to count in their favor?” Did you guys find John Grady’s transformation into outright desperado convincing?

PR: I think I did specifically because of the bifurcating fates that befell Rawlins and that dead-eyed Zoomer Jimmy Blevins. Rawlins was not truly about that yeehaw life, so he went home, while Blevins was too pure of a cowboy, so he got shot in a ditch. JGC, meanwhile, rides up to and crosses that line, though something—his bond with horses, symbolically and literally—keeps him from getting obliterated. Maybe also a simpler answer is that I believe it because he can speak Spanish.

MA: If a cowboy is defined by freedom from tethers, then I buy the transformation. He’s lost his parents, his ranch, his pal, his whatever Jimmy Blevins was, his job, the woman he loves. 

BP: Having previously only read the darkest of dark McCarthy, I said Here we go when he went after the captain, expecting some unspeakable gore that ended with everyone dead and a moral about the mindless injustice of the world. So I was pleasantly surprised when Grady stepped back from the edge and held onto his own principles, and survived because of it. I’ve got a question for the group. McCarthy is often called the Great American Novelist, but what about his work is so specifically American, to you, if anything? It’s more than just setting, right?

MA: I thought a lot about borders and nationhood while reading this, maybe most at the end, when Grady and Rawlins are catching up and Rawlins asks him where his country is and Grady doesn’t know. There are these little moments where you get the sense of a nation in flux or having an identity crisis—a sort of macro version of the cowboy’s—like when Grady’s father can’t believe Shirley Temple’s getting a divorce. And so many other shifts: His father comparing them to the Comanches two hundred years ago; the Mexican man who says “I never been to Mexico in my life”; Radio Jimmy Blevins’s wife talking about how the show reaches people in China and France and Spain. There are no fixed boundaries.

PR: McCarthy’s portrayal of America and Americanness at the start and end of the book was strikingly bleak. Its arc was reminded me of Red Dead Redemption’s (which had to have been at the very least heavily inspired by All The Pretty Horses): this story is all taking place at the end of something; the last vestiges of the cowboy life are fenced up and actively being sped past by the train (made literal in the opening passage) of progress. So, maybe the symbolic “America” in McCarthy’s works is the great nullifier (see: Road, The). That All The Pretty Horses’ story is taking place in the direct wake of World War II isn’t made explicit that many times, but its long shadow definitely looms. 

GN: The book begins with the sale of a ranch and ends in a meditation on proto-televangelism. In between, some guns are fired. What’s more American than that?

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this book, don’t worry! We’ll announce our next pick soon.

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