In praise of older books: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (1992)

Week 45: Julie Parsons on her favourite books

Cormac McCarthy: simplicity and beauty is repeated again and again in this magnificent book.

Cormac McCarthy: simplicity and beauty is repeated again and again in this magnificent book.

 

It begins with the candleflame: “the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” The simple, beautiful image. The simplicity and beauty repeated again and again in this magnificent book.

The candle lit for the funeral of young John Grady Cole’s grandfather. With his death comes change. The ranch, which both grandfather and grandson loved, will be sold. John Grady’s life in borderland Texas in the 1940s; horses, cattle, the sun “coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west”, will end. So he will ride, with his friend Lacey Rawlins, south to Mexico.

It’s the language as much as the story that makes this book so special. Birds impaled on cactus after a thunder storm: “Gray nameless birds espaliered in attitudes of stillborn flight or hanging loosely in their feathers. Some . . . still alive and they twisted on their spines. . . and cried out but the horsemen rode on.”

‘Ebony trees’

Rode on, John Grady, towards his fate. Falling in love with Alejandra, the daughter of Don Héctor Rocha y Villareal. The world he enters is merciless to those who transgress the laws of class and family. The boy, Blevins, whom he and Rawlins befriend, is accused of stealing a horse. Rough justice: “the pistol shot came from beyond the ebony trees. Not loud. Just a flat sort of pop. Then another.”

Don Héctor’s punishment, prison, awaits them. “They spent the whole of the first day fighting. . . every man was judged by a single standard and that was his readiness to kill.” The buying of a knife “a switchblade with the handles missing” will save him when his assailant, “not much older than he” attempts the coup de grace.

Shining through the savage cruelty, like the candleflame, is John Grady’s honour, integrity, and kindness. All the Pretty Horses, first of a trilogy. John Grady rides on. And I will go with him.

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