Melancolía. Anhelo. Melancholy and yearning. If Cormac McCarthy’s poignant words in his 1993 novel, All the Pretty Horses, were directly constituted of the tree bark from which they came, then my hands would be covered in sap. But, because we’re talking about Cormac McCarthy, it is not sap of an overwrought kind, but rather, it teems behind the story, an omnipresent force. Even when the book has genuine laugh-out-laugh moments, which there are plenty, or beautifully romantic moments, which there are, or stunningly poetic descriptions of nature, which there are also plenty, permeating everything is a sense of melancolía and anhelo. The reason I put those words in Spanish is because the story follows 16-year-old John Grady Cole, the last of his generation of Texas ranchers, and his good buddy, 17-year-old Lacey Rawlins, as they journey from Texas to Mexico in McCarthy’s mid-20th century coming-of-age novel.
John Grady, who worked alongside Mexican laborers on the ranch, can speak Spanish, and often does throughout the novel, which led to a fun time with Google translate (side note: it is surely no coincidence that “esposas” can mean both “wives” and “handcuffs” in Spanish). Grady yearns for a past that has, well, passed on, died like everything else has and will, and yet, he rides on the “pretty horse,” itself a moving monument to a different time.
Grady is the quintessential vaquero, or cowboy: He’s gracious, good-hearted, and brave, if a bit foolish, as one could say about all courageous men and women. Rawlins, for his part, is just a good friend along for the ride, and for the most part, spends their journey asking Grady metaphysical questions about God and heaven. For a 17-year-old, he’s already quite preoccupied with death.
Along their journey, they meet Blevins, a shady, skinny kid who can’t be more than 13-years-old and can’t weigh much more than a stallion’s saddle, and he only brings chaos to John Grady and Rawlins. But, he’s also the personified “mettle” to test John Grady and his vaqueroness, if you will. Blevins gets drunk one night, loses his horse and most of his clothes. Later, he “steals” his horse back from someone else, along with his gun. That decision catches up with John Grady and Rawlins further on in their journey, even though they had since parted with Blevins.
John Grady and Rawlins find work on a ranch, where like any good coming-of-age novel, John Grady experiences his first love (and making love) through the ranch owner’s daughter, Alejandra. However, that proved to be a social and culture faux pas in Mexico. She was more or less disowned by her father and her great aunt, not necessarily because John Grady was pobre, or poor, or Americano, but I think, at least, because he was a vaquero, and both the father and aunt wanted better for Alejandra.
While at the ranch, Blevins’ misdeed catches up with John Grady and Rawlins, and the Mexican authorities arrest and imprison them. They are initially imprisoned with Blevins, but en route to another prison, Blevins is taken out of the transport and shot dead, much to John Grady and Rawlins’ shame because they did nothing to stop it, even if it would have been futile to try. The two boys then spend a considerable time in prison fighting quite literally for their lives, where at one point, John Grady kills another man in self-defense. Eventually, at the behest of Alejandra, her great aunt helps monetarily secure their release from prison. Guided (or misguided, as one might say) by love, he returns to the ranch only to find that Alejandra is gone; he convinces her to meet him for one last torrid tryst, but she rejects his marriage proposal and returns to whatever her life becomes instead.
At that point, our vaquero has nothing to lose, and takes it upon himself to avenge the killing of Blevins like the cowboy he is, and also return “all the pretty horses” back to their rightful owners (although he can never find Blevins’), including Rawlins, who didn’t accompany him in the return journey.
Can melancholy be beautiful? Can yearning be beautiful? In McCarthy’s hands, despite the bloodletting, the unrequited love, and the inability for any stallion and vaquero to journey to the past and out-journey their deaths, I think so. But like I said, the book is also funny, and as you might expect with McCarthy, the humor is dry. For example, early on in the book, John Grady is having coffee with his dad, and we get this, “His father stirred his coffee a long time. There was nothing to stir because he drank it black.” Not only is that a funny line that made me laugh-out-loud, but in two tight sentences, McCarthy said almost everything you need to know about John Grady’s father and their relationship. That is a rather remarkable feat.
I could also spend this entire review just quoting the great aunt, who gives one of the most powerful soliloquies I can recall reading in a book. She gives it to John Grady when he returns for Alejandra about her life, stymied by a sexist culture, where her dreams were deferred, and now she’s hoping to stave off such deferment for Alejandra. At one point, she states, “Because the question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whatever these random events are only called a pattern after the fact.” Fate, of course. And what was the fate of our vaquero? Well, it wasn’t to die in the middle of nowhere Mexico, but as we see at the end of the book, it wasn’t to return to Texas either. He’s a nomad, a man without a country, and I think by the end of the book, we can call him a man now. I suppose the absence of a foreseen fate is a kind of fate.
One thing we can say for certain is that John Grady didn’t have to journey to find his courage. It was always within him. As the great aunt also reminds John Grady about courage, “That all courage was a form of constancy. That it was always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals came easily.”
If you’re new to McCarthy’s style of writing, my fair warning to you is that it does take some getting used to, and as I said with this one in particular, you’re going to encounter a fair amount of Spanish. Context clues help for some of it, but not all. But I enjoyed the journey all the same.
Because of the melancholy and yearning that shape the book (or am I only seeing that shape in hindsight, huh, tía abuela?), McCarthy’s, All the Pretty Horses, which the title alone carries with it that sense of melancholy and yearning, will stick with me for a long time to come (I couldn’t help closing with a sap pun).